Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Research and the Three Rs

By Gabrielle Héroux, 1st year MDP student

It’s been almost two months since the official start of my field placement.  But the truth is, the lessons started even earlier – patience, open-mindedness, the ability to roll with the punches and adapt.  My first two field placement choices fell through.  So it goes, and so here we are.

And here I am, sitting at a bus stop across from Winnipeg Square waiting to meet up with Stella.  It’s raining.  Again.  We made this plan to touch base briefly here, she en route to Ma Mawi for the afternoon, I en route to campus.  We have materials and information to exchange.

We’ve been working with Dr. Jerry Buckland as research assistants on a project concerning financial exclusion, defined as the failure of the mainstream banking system to provide credit and depository services at competitive prices to all individuals, households, and businesses.  As a subset of broader social exclusion, it usually affects lower income people and communities.  In this project, we want to know how it affects indigenous people, both in Winnipeg and in Fisher River Cree Nation.  Here in the city, we’ve been working in partnership with SEED Winnipeg and Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata (Ma Mawi for short).  Our plan is to develop recruitment strategies with them to find participants for the various methods we intend to use (a quantitative survey, financial life histories, and two focus group-type activities).  We’re still in the initial phases of establishing these relationships.  So far, most of the work we’ve done has been from home, or from the University, drafting our literature review and mapping out protocols.

Stella Rakwach (L) & Gabrielle Héroux (R)
The two of us spent a few hours at Ma Mawi last week.  We had a meeting with Garry Richard, the manager of their McGregor location.  It’s a fantastic site, a bright and airy building that also houses a daycare, a youth YMCA complete with indoor skatepark and climbing wall, and a quick-care clinic on the second floor.  Ma Mawi itself offers different programs and classes – for youth, for seniors, for women, for parents – but most people just drop in.  They come to have coffee or something to eat, to use the computers or laundry facilities, to sit and chat with their friends.  It’s always busy.  They are clearly a crucial part of the community.

Everyone, no matter their reason for being there, has to sign in.  So Garry told us that one thing we could do would be to sit at their greeter desk, signing people in, and also handing out flyers about our project to stir up some interest.  This seemed like a good idea, so we went with it.

After an hour or so, an elderly man, non-Aboriginal, came up and read our flyer.  And he had lots to say on the topic of indigenous financial exclusion.  He called another man over, an older Anishinaabe man we had seen around and briefly spoken to.  “Did you read this?” he asked.  “The university girls want to help you Aboriginals.”

Oh no, I thought.  That won’t go over well.  Sure enough…  “You want to help us?” he asked.  “Then do us a favour and go back to where you came from.  Give us back our land.”  With that, he tore up the flyer and walked away.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that whole exchange.  For one, I felt it was neither the time nor the place to hash it out.  But it made me think about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and how best to do it.

It’s been clear to me, from the start, that I’m not out to “help the Aboriginals”, as though I’m some sort of crucial part of the equation without which they’ll never get anything done, as though I alone have something to offer that they, in their deprivation, need.  That isn’t what this is about.  I’m doing anyone any favours.

So what am I doing, then?  Jerry told Stella and me in one of our meetings that, in order to be a good development practitioner, you have to have a good sense of who you are.  Otherwise, you’ll be running around, haphazardly, trying to convert everyone to your way of thinking.  Being told to go back to where I came from really gave me pause.  Where is that, anyways?  Am I from France, because that’s where my Héroux ancestor came from in the 1670s?  Am I from Pinaymootang, because that’s where my Cree ancestors were from, where my mother is registered?  I’ve never been to either of those places.  What does this all mean?  And how much of your identity has to do with who claims you, as opposed to who you claim to be?

I’ve also been thinking about what Darren Courchene told us during our field placement orientation, about the elder who didn’t answer the researcher’s questions, because that wasn’t the lesson she wanted to teach him that day.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how that story illustrates the three Rs.  Respect.  Relationship.  Reciprocity.  As our research unfolds, as we begin to collect our data and generate results, we’ll all have to think very carefully about the practical application of these principles.  I know I’m bringing some biases into this project, naturally, having always been banked, having worked in a bank for years, having grown up the way I did.  So how can the three Rs temper the assumptions with which I’m starting out, and really make this work meaningful?

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