On June 9, Courtney Defriend (Ti'yuqtunat), was awarded the Governor General's Gold Medal for her doctoral work, which used entirely Indigenous research methodologies. The Governor General's Gold Medal award is one of the most prestigious academic awards in Canada, recognizing a student's outstanding achievements.
When Courtney began her doctoral research during the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that her project focusing on First Nations communities would not fit into traditional Western academia methodologies.
Courtney's research created a multi-project portfolio to depict Urban First Nations people's access to health care services in her own region on Vancouver Island. Her methods included storytelling, and visual arts. Traditionally, Western academia prefers peer-reviewed literature as a standard for research. This method of research can negate Indigenous approaches to knowledge collection, which immediately posed a challenge to the project being considered credible within Western research systems.
“As First Nations people, we don't look to scholarly literature as our guide, we look to our Elders. I wanted to create literature that would be credible by Western institutes, based on strictly the voices of Elders in the area," she recalls.
Courtney began to develop the framework for her project, by looking at the four stages of the life cycle through her community: child, youth, adult and Elder. In partnership with the Aboriginal Friendship Centre in Nanaimo, her portfolio included storytelling through oral tradition, arts based findings, and cultural and land based analogies as common research practices for Indigenous communities.
While a scholarly journal upholding Elder's teachings was the foundation of the work, Courtney's overall doctoral project also included a children's picture book and an impact assessment on a local child and youth program to ensure that all aspects of the lifecycle were considered as a continuum of care in the perspective on health and wellness.
Courtney's interpersonal relationships were a critical part of adhering to the Indigenous research methodologies, which lead her research grant to be initially rejected. Her grandma was on her research committee, the Elders were part of her community, and she had familial ties to people on the working group.
“I was able to pull out Indigenous literature that showed that this was not nepotism or a conflict of interest. This is relationality and accountability and I cited everything showing that this is imperative in Indigenous research," says Courtney. She issued a challenge to the decision, citing that an Indigenous-specific grant process requires changing the criteria for acceptance.
Indigenous research practices are completely different from Western methodologies within research. “We can't colonize Indigenous streams of grants," says Courtney. Upon receiving the letter, the grant committee amended their decision and she received the funding for the project.
“From a systemic level there was some resistance, but with the use of Indigenous literature I was able to move the mark credibly," Courtney adds.
One of the central goals of Courtney's work was to decolonize First Nations research. “My intention with this project was not about doing things easier, it was about doing things right," she says. “I am a conduit within the privilege I have as a student to uphold voices and put it into scholarly language or a format that could uphold Elders' teachings."
Courtney went on to conduct her research and complete her project using entirely Indigenous methodologies. At her graduation last month, Courtney received her Doctoral Degree in Social Sciences and the Governor General's Gold medal award for her outstanding academic and research contributions.
“My grandma got to come up and be the person to hood me which was so significant because she was part of my project and we actually share the same traditional name," says Courtney.
Going forward, Courtney feels passionately about continuing to work towards decolonizing First Nations research through her work as Director of Research Knowledge and Exchange at the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA).
“Indigenous methodologies is a reflection of who we are and how we are in the world and if we don't embed that into everything, including scholarship, academia and professionalism, we are not conducting ourselves with truth in the work we're doing," says Courtney. “Our Indigenous worldviews naturally represent relationship and reciprocity, so if we don't consider those principles then it becomes about the individualized perspective, which is quite colonial."
You can read more about Courtney's research here.