Decolonizing health and sport

Research and innovation
Faculty of Education

By Laura Eggertson

Writer, Freelance

Tricia McGuire-Adams
Photo: Valérie Charbonneau
Tricia McGuire-Adams is working to promote better access to physical activity and wellness for Indigenous peoples.

Tricia McGuire-Adams wants to change the narrative about Indigenous health and well-being. The professor at the Faculty of Education is well aware that Indigenous peoples have disproportionately high rates of chronic health conditions, including diabetes, tuberculosis, arthritis and asthma. 

“But we can’t focus on the deficit part of that narrative,” says McGuire-Adams, an Anishinaabe researcher who grew up in Thunder Bay, Ont. “We have to have a counter narrative that centres around our Indigenous understandings of health and well-being.”

That is why McGuire-Adams — who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Ganandawisiwin (Good Health) Sovereignties — is working with First Nations communities to ask what health and wellness from a disability perspective mean to them. By conferring with Elders and knowledge keepers and gathering individual stories, McGuire-Adams wants to better understand Indigenous concepts of disability, including historical accounts prior to colonization.

“There was never historically a deficit-based narrative about persons who lived with disability,” she says. “Some scholarship suggests that when a child was born with a disability, that was seen as a gift from the Creator, and the community treated the child as a gift.”

Ultimately, she hopes her research — a collaborative partnership with Indigenous leaders, critical disability scholars and practitioners — will help decolonize health and sport training and policy, promoting better access to physical activity and wellness for people who are among the most marginalized in Canada.

Improving policies starts with including Indigenous peoples with disabilities in the conversation, she points out. Recent legislative and data-gathering initiatives have ignored the perspectives of First Nations people living with disabilities on reserves, particularly women, she says. During consultations for the Accessible Canada Act, which became law in 2019, the federal government talked to the Assembly of First Nations and the Native Women’s Association, but not to individuals on reserves. Residents of reserves were also excluded from the 2017 Statistics Canada Canadian Survey on Disability, she says.

McGuire-Adams hopes the “robust, important conversations about disability” she initiates, partly through her funded project, “Understanding Health and Wellbeing from an Indigenous Disability Perspective,” will begin to address that exclusion.

Health and well-being are also the focus of another research project, called Wiisokotaatiwin (gathering together for a purpose). It started in 2016, when McGuire-Adams led kettlebell workouts with Indigenous women at the Odawa Native Friendship Centre in Ottawa. After exercising, the women engaged in critical discussions about what their physical well-being meant to them. That is one thrust of her upcoming book, Indigenous Feminist Gikendaasowin: Decolonization through Physical Activity.  

“Indigenous women do not think of themselves as being in a health deficit,” she explains. “When we came together as Indigenous women, there was a regeneration of well-being that came through.”

The researcher is continuing the development of Wiisokotaatiwin through her partnership with Naicatchewenin First Nation in northwestern Ontario, where they focus on land-based knowledge regarding health and well-being. Her next goal for the project is to partner with a national sport or physical activity organization to extend its reach.

In the meantime, McGuire-Adams strives to shed light on the experiences of Indigenous peoples with disabilities and to reduce the barriers they encounter to participating in physical activity — through the power of their personal stories.