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Passion for Indigenous health leads Métis student to MPH

Diane Adams has arrived at the School of Public Health (SPH) with a clear goal in her mind: “I would like to work towards solving the problems that Indigenous people face in public health and improve the health, wellbeing and sustainability of the Indigenous communities around us” she said.

Speaking to Adams, her passion for Indigenous health is clear, and she chats enthusiastically about the journey that brought her to the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) to study for a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. A Métis student, she chose the U of S program for its focus on social and behavioural sciences as a core area of public health, and the opportunity to pursue research in Indigenous water security through the newly-developed MPH thesis stream, under the supervision of SPH associate professor and award-winning researcher Dr. Lalita Bharadwaj.

Growing up in a remote community outside Thunder Bay, Ont., Adams was exposed to Indigenous public health from a young age. Several of her family members worked as environmental health officers, and the area where she was raised had a strong history of innovation in Indigenous healthcare. “The cross-cultural health model and thinking was ingrained into me really young” she said.

In her early teens, Adams and her family relocated to Sioux Lookout, a small town in northwestern Ontario which connects 29 remote northern communities to essential healthcare services. After graduating high school, Adams worked at the town’s hospital. She was struck by the devastating negative health effects on patients from Indigenous communities who did not have access to a clean water supply, and the young in particular. “I saw what should have been young strapping men come in weakened and with nasty skin infections," she said.

For Adams, it was a pivotal moment: “I saw such a need” she said. “It just made me realise that there was a lot of work to be done within Indigenous communities in terms of clean water and environmental health, and that I wanted to help solve these problems."

Adams decided to pursue higher education in public health, but finding a degree program that was a good fit was challenging at first. When she moved to Regina, SK to study environmental health at the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv), she quickly thrived as a student, and the program fulfilled her desire to apply the health principles she was learning within local Indigenous communities. In 2015, Adams graduated from FNUniv with a B.ASc in Environmental Health and Science with great distinction and a Dean’s Medal in engineering and applied science.

A year later, excited for the next step in her journey, Adams enters the MPH program as the 2016-17 recipient of the Government of Saskatchewan’s prestigious Queen Elizabeth II Centennial Aboriginal Scholarship, which she was awarded for her proposal to study Indigenous water security from a cultural perspective.

“People in Indigenous communities may not define safe and secure water in the same way governments would,” Adams said, explaining the high impact of culture on the way individuals and groups of people interpret the world around them. “I would like to explore how Indigenous groups define water security, and what it means to them, as water is highly sacred in Indigenous communities”.

Today, Adams believes that community-based participatory research is essential to solving the public health issues still prevalent in Saskatchewan’s Indigenous communities, and that the needs of these communities must drive the research of public health experts. “Making tools that are useful and meaningful to Indigenous groups is the only way to move forward” she said. “The research needs to adapt to the needs of the people, and the solutions need to work for them." 

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