Indigenous group explores past and present with study of cannabis as First Nations medicine

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For far too long, researchers have used marginalized populations as the subjects of their work. Henrietta Lacks is among the most well-known examples. She was a young African American mother of five, whose cancer cells were immortalized in service to science, without the benefit of her knowledge or consent.

Unfortunately, this abuse of power is far from an isolated incident. In Canada, our own shame includes medical experiments conducted on the vulnerable children who attended residential schools.

It’s little wonder, then, that groups who’ve been structurally marginalized would display an innate mistrust of the scientific community. Redressing this ill is integral to reimagining inclusive, meaningful research in partnership with communities.

Important inroads are happening right here in Calgary.

With the legalization of cannabis, Canada ushered in an era of fresh opportunities to understand its potential harms and benefits. In 2018, the Mental Health Commission of Canada was given $10 million to study its impact on the mental health of Canadians.


There is a vast knowledge gap that separates people who experience oppression — in the form of racism, discrimination and Indigeneity, for example — and the kind of meaningful research that can bring about positive social change. To bridge that chasm, we’re funding 14 community-based research projects across the country which see underserved groups author their own inquires — entirely free from someone else’s agenda.

Of the 14 projects, six are Indigenous-led, including Lifting the Pipes, the Calgary project. It will examine how cannabis may have been understood, by community and within ceremony, as a mental-health support prior to first contact. Researchers will gather pre-colonial stories and guidance from local elders to better understand cannabis as traditional medicine. Led by Mahegun Tails Inc., in partnership with the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary and others, the work will put an emphasis on the wellness of Indigenous elders and the elderly, capturing their stories in a narrative that will help inform policy and practices.

The elders themselves are excited to get going. “This is an important conversation to have, and I’m happy to be included in the circles,” enthused Elder Jackie Bromley.

As the project team points out, Indigenous elders and the elderly are often overlooked, and clinical and supportive programs for this population are underfunded. Yet, they are the group arguably most affected by intergenerational trauma and historical grief. The name of this project, Lifting the Pipes, is a nod to the importance of recognizing the value and foundational knowledge of elders to align the concept of mental health with the social and cultural realities of Indigenous people.

Given the high rates of suicide, depression and anxiety in Indigenous populations, there is an opportunity to rethink the punitive frame of mind that views cannabis solely through the lens of addiction and felony, broadening our understanding of it as a traditional means of medicinal healing.

If we agree that we’re all experts in our own experience, then exploring the relationship between cannabis and mental health should be carried out by the very groups who live these realities. Community members lead the project, frame the challenge they want to solve and participate in every phase of the research. Most importantly, they are beneficiaries of the positive social change that occurs as a result of the findings.

When it comes to cannabis and mental health, many avenues have yet to be pursued, especially among underserved groups.

Following the unbeaten path is the road that will lead to meaningful change.

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