Dr. Heather Castleden

Health, Environment and Communities Research Lab Director Associate Professor, Depts. of Geography and Public Health Sciences Queen’s University, Kingston, ON
Researcher of the month: 
Mar 2015

Two-Eyed Seeing

“The scientific community has delegitimized indigenous knowledge and ways of being for decades, if not centuries,” says Dr. Heather Castleden, Associate Professor, Department of Public Health Sciences and Department of Geography, Queen’s University.

Only now, she maintains, are people – whether academics, policymakers or even the general public – beginning to recognize the value of indigenous philosophies, knowledge, ethics and research methodologies.

“Academics are trying to figure out ways to implement these principles and values into our research to answer questions more holistically,” she states. This is called “Two-Eye Seeing”, an approach developed by Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall and his colleague Dr. Cheryl Bartlett. It combines conventional Western scientific methods with indigenous knowledge and methods to view research questions from both perspectives.

Castleden has received a CIHR New Investigator Award to support her work in Knowledge Translation to address health inequities among Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis. She uses community-based participatory research (CBPR).  

“I moved from doing research based in indigenous communities to research driven by indigenous communities,” she explains. Traditional research models are investigator-driven. Castleden’s work focuses on health-related questions that Indigenous communities have identified and want to explore in partnership.

“A partnership forms between the community and a researcher or research team,” she explains. “We work together to develop a research design that addresses their questions.”

Together, both research partners collect and analyze data and share their results. They disseminate information to the community and at the academic level, co-authoring papers and co-presenting at conferences.

For example, for several years, Castleden has worked with a Mi’kmaq Native Women’s Association (NWA) from Pictou Landing, a First Nation in Nova Scotia, to study the effects of pulp-and-paper effluent in Boat Harbour on the local indigenous population. The NWA decided the direction of research and worked with Castleden to design a structured research protocol. She has recently returned from a Citizen Science conference where she co-presented with women from the community.

On Vancouver Island, she has worked with the Nuu-chah-nulth from Huu-ay-aht First Nations to study the effects of industrial forestry and fishery on local indigenous communities. Their research has been published together, and her work continues there in the context of Huu-ay-aht’s modern treaty relationship with British Columbia and Canada.

Two-eyed seeing has a more comprehensive, far-reaching approach than traditional research, she explains. Health-related CBPR explores the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual impacts of, for example, resource extraction and development projects on a community.

“That’s not the norm by any stretch, and it’s what makes CBPR unique,” she adds. Two-eyed seeing is based on the premise that both Western scientific and holistic indigenous perspectives can help researchers to find actionable answers to relevant questions.

Born in Yellowknife, NWT, and raised in Manitoba, Castleden came to research later in life. In her first career, as an American Sign Language Interpreter working for the Deaf community, she witnessed the cultural discrimination and oppression that Canadian society exhibits towards the Deaf.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Manitoba, she studied northern indigenous health under John O’Neil, former Director of the Manitoba First Nations Centre for Aboriginal Health Research and Professor and Head of the Department of Community Health Sciences in the university’s Faculty of Medicine. He is now Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, BC.

Intrigued by similarities in the sense of oppression, racism, discrimination and health inequities among Deaf and northern indigenous communities, she resolved to find ways to make a difference. Her Master’s thesis focused on the challenges of raising deaf children in a northern Dene community with limited access to resources.

She obtained a PhD in health geography under Dr. Theresa Garvin at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. Castleden has received a number of awards in this discipline, including the Canadian Association of Geographer’s Julian M. Szeicz Award (2010), specifically for her groundbreaking work in CBPR with indigenous peoples.

Other research interests focus on ethical issues in CBPR and indigenous health. One of her projects addresses medical school students’ knowledge of indigenous-settler relations and indigenous health knowledge. Her goal is to reduce racism and discrimination in encounters between indigenous people and Canada’s next generation of doctors.

She also champions social support and educational initiatives between Western scientific and indigenous communities. At a summer camp, a CBPR project united non-indigenous asthma specialists with parents of children with asthma from five Mi’kmaq communities in Cape Breton.

The camp gave specialists an opportunity to “take off their white coats and spend time in Mi’kmaq spaces,” she explains. The experience helped to break down systemic barriers that indigenous people often encounter in healthcare settings and allowed Mi’kmaq parents and children to interact with highly trained professionals on a more personal level.

“The experts came away with a new perspective on what it’s like to live as a Mi’kmaq parent of a child with asthma in a rural community,” she says.

There is no cookie-cutter approach to CBPR, she cautions. “Indigenous research methods take more time than Western methods, but the value is outstanding in terms of uptake within a community, respect for the work, and its translation into other arenas.”