From Stilettos to Moccasins: Aboriginal Women Drug Users in Conflict with the Law

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FUNDING: 
Canadian Institutes of Health Research; Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse; First Nations and Inuit Health Branch; Indigenous Peoples’ Health Research Centre; University of Saskatchewan; National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation; National Network for Aboriginal Mental Health Research; and Saskatchewan Ministry of Health

PARTNERS:
National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

AIM:
Illicit drug use amongst criminalized Aboriginal women is a serious health concern in Canada. Little is understood about how women’s healing is impacted by their views of themselves as, and the stigma associated with being, a drug user, involved in crime and an Aboriginal woman in Canadian society. Grounded in a community-based participatory approach to research and Aboriginal methodology, interviews were conducted with First Nations, Inuit and Métis women in treatment for illicit drug use. The research began with an understanding of women’s drug use as a form of self-harm, that is, coping and surviving from emotional pain and distress rooted in abuse and violence in their lives (Fillmore and Dell, 2004). The study also examined how treatment workers view their roles in the women’s construction and re-construction of their identities and its impact on their healing. The goal of the study is to contribute original knowledge in the treatment field that can assist in improving the burden of ill health experienced by Aboriginal women in Canada.

PROJECT SUMMARY:
The objective of this study is to examine the experiential paths of how Aboriginal women in conflict with the law constitute and reconstitute their self-identity, prior to, during and following treatment for illicit drug use (defined as the healing journey). The starting point of inquiry is an interpretation of women’s drug use as a coping and survival technique from emotional pain and distress rooted in abuse and violence. A constellation of multiple “identities” is theorized to contribute to a cohesive sense of “self-identity”, and this self-identity will be analyzed, in conjunction with associated role expectations and stigma, for its influence on women’s healing journey. These identities may include “Aboriginal”, “woman”, “criminal”, “illicit drug abuser”, “mother”, “traditional caregiver” and “victim/survivor”. This study also examines the influence of treatment program workers on women’s constitution and reconstitution of their self-identity and its relation to healing.

This research combines three topic areas that extend directly from previous research and community outreach work of the team members. They are broadly defined as: 1) illicit drug use and self-harm, 2) Aboriginal women in conflict with the law, and 3) role of the treatment program worker in women’s healing. The concept of self-identity connects the areas and is the focus of the study.

The methodology of this qualitative, exploratory research is not constructed on hypotheses, but rather on the following guiding statements that serve to initiate the research direction.

  • The lived experiences of adult Aboriginal female illicit drug users in conflict with the law are intimately tied to the constitution of their self-identity. Self-identity influences the women’s healing prior to, during and following drug treatment. Explored is the effects of the women’s multiple identities and associated roles expectations and stigma on their healing.
  • Drug use is a form of coping and survival rooted in experiences of abuse and violence. Explored is the relation between women’s drug use and the constitution and reconstitution of their self-identity.
  • The influence of treatment workers on the lives of women illicit drug users as they undergo treatment affects women’s healing outcomes. Explored is the role of the treatment worker in assisting women in the constitution of their self-identity and its relation to healing.

The theoretical framework of the study is drawn from sociological and population health perspectives.

The research plan is based on the work of a number of community collaborators which allows the research to be done “by, for and in balance with” the research population and not “on” them. These include the National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation, the Elizabeth Fry Society of Manitoba, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, the University of Winnipeg, and the University of Ottawa. All collaborators have been involved in the study focus and design. There are four key stages to the research plan. The first was to design and pre-test an in-depth, semi-structured interview instrument with the involvement of all collaborators, including Aboriginal women drug users in conflict with the law and treatment providers. Second, interviews with women and treatment workers were carried out through a randomized sampling of select NNAPF-associated treatment centres and communities across Canada. Third, the data was analyzed using NVivo software. And last, strategies of knowledge dissemination and transference are being employed to inform intellectual understanding and practice, and improve the health of Aboriginal women illicit drug users in conflict with the law in Canada. These are expected outcomes of the study given the collaborative and inclusive foundation of the research plan. The Aboriginal principles of OCAP (ownership, control, access and possession) and the “CIHR Guidelines for Health Research with Aboriginal Peoples” inform the research plan.

The Research Question is: What are the experiential paths of Aboriginal women in conflict with the law in the constitution and reconstitution of their self-identity, accounting for associated role expectations and stigma, prior to, during and following treatment for illicit drug use (defined as the healing journey)? And how do treatment program workers influence women’s constitution and reconstitution of their self-identity and what is the relation to their healing?

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Initial Team Meeting in Ottawa in December 2005

Left back row – Cathy Fillmore, University of Winnipeg; Valerie Desjarlais, Quinton, SK; Colleen Anne Dell, University of Saskatchewan; Whisper Chase, Carleton University; Amy Romeo, Eel Ground, NB. Middle Row – Sheila Grantham, Carleton University; Ellen Smith, National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation; Freda Ahenakew, Cree Nations Treatment Haven; Sharon Acoose, First Nations University of Canada; Jennifer Kilty, University of Ottawa; Joyce Paul, Rising Sun Rehabilitatio Centre. Front Row – Kathleen Cayer, National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation; Richard Garlick, Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.


OUTCOMES:
The project findings have been translated into:

IN THE NEWS:
Project article selected for the CIHR, Institute of Gender and Health, top ten health research success stories, featured in Intersections (Vol 2, No 1), 2011.

 

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