Vanier scholar tackles pollution-related health challenges faced by First Nations

Wednesday, June 5, 2024
A lake, surrounded by trees and bushes, in Whitefish River First Nation.

The contaminants left behind by industrial pollution — heavy metals, pesticides and industrial chemicals — have long been of great concern both to human health and the environment.

Amy Nahwegahbow, who is pursuing an Epidemiology and Biostatistics PhD in the School of Public Health Sciences, says that First Nations Peoples are especially vulnerable to these harmful substances as they depend so heavily on natural resources and traditional foods, among other factors.

Amy Nahwegahbow

“They face economic challenges and often have limited access to health care and government support,” she says. “My research is a deeply personal journey, driven by a commitment to honour and protect the health and well-being of my community.”

As a member of the Anishinaabek community of Whitefish River First Nation, Nahwegahbow is determined to conduct ethical research with First Nations Peoples and communities to address the environmental exposures, socio-cultural vulnerability and health impacts of these contaminants.

She has been awarded the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and is to receive $50,000 per year for three years towards her studies.

Receiving the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship is a significant honour and privilege,” Nahwegahbow says. “The funds from this scholarship will help me accomplish my education and research goals without the competing demands of full-time employment.”

Taking a comprehensive, community-based approach, her research will include environmental sampling, a lifestyle and food frequency questionnaire and interviews and community consultations while following strict ethical considerations, informed consent and cultural protocols.

“When I first found out I was accepted into the Public Health Sciences PhD program in March 2023, I reached out to the Chief and Council of my community in Whitefish River First Nation to ask them about their research priorities and needs,” Nahwegahbow says. “In conducting ethical research with First Nations Peoples and communities, it’s essential to begin with meaningful engagement and relationship building prior to proposal development and the establishment of the goals and objectives, even if you yourself are First Nations.”

Nahwegahbow’s research will encompass two projects. The first is a longitudinal study called the Health Effects Monitoring Program, evaluating contaminant exposure and potential health effects arising from the Giant Mine, a gold mine just five kilometres north of Yellowknife that is no longer in operation, and its remediation among residents of Yellowknife, Ndilǫ and Dettah in the Northwest Territories.

The second project is a new study specific to her community of Whitefish River First Nation, where there is a history of industrial pollution occurring near the area.

“The exposure of harmful substances has led to various health problems in First Nations Peoples, such as increased risks of certain cancers, respiratory illnesses, developmental issues, endocrine disruption, heart disease and premature mortality,” Nahwegahbow says.

“The results of this research will shed a light on the health effects on northern First Nations communities and empower them with the necessary knowledge to take actions to ensure their well-being.”

In addition to the Vanier Scholarship, Nahwegahbow has received the Ogimaa Indigenous Graduate Scholarship from the University of Waterloo, valued at $10,000 and given to an Indigenous graduate student each year to help “pave the way for new leaders of tomorrow.”

She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Native Studies from Trent University and a Master’s of Public Health degree from the University of Waterloo. Outside of her studies, Nahwegahbow works as a Senior Research Advisor with the First Nations Information Governance Centre.

Nahwegahbow pursues her PhD under the supervision of Dr. Brian Laird, whose research works to improve the characterization of human exposures and risks from environmental contamination.

“He’s a wonderful, supportive and knowledgeable supervisor who engages in ethical and respectful research with First Nations,” she says. “This research represents a step towards healing, empowerment and ensuring that our voices and experiences shape a healthier future for generations to come.”