PhD candidate Cassandra Opikokew is hoping to find the indigenous solution to what some call the Indian problem.
Opikokew, who grew up in Meadow Lake and is a member of the Canoe Lake First Nation, recently received a $108,000 research award to help her complete her dissertation, which is called ‘The Indian solution to the policy problem’.
She currently attends the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.
Opikokew’s research focuses on the government’s policy-making process and how it affects First Nations people, particularly in the area of health and education.
“For First Nations health and education specifically, we always seem to fall short,” she said. “There’s a repeat pattern (of failure) despite more programs and more funding coming out all the time, and in some cases, the gap is actually getting wider … so obviously we’re not doing something right.”
As part of her dissertation, Opikokew will be a doing an international comparison of policy-making models in countries with similar colonial pasts, specifically Canada, the USA, New Zealand and Australia.
Part of her research award money will serve as a travel budget, allowing her to interview indigenous elders in all four countries.
Ultimately, she hopes to create a new policy-making models that is based on Indigenous beliefs and values rather than a four-year election cycle.
“Let’s turn this whole thing on its head,” Opikokew said. “And lets re-examine that policy-making process and look at it through an indigenous lens.”
One example of a policy which Opikokew believes has negatively affected First Nations peoples is the growth cap on the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, a federal funding initiative which issues money to bands who then administer it to individual students.
“I know so many First Nations students who are wait-listed by their bands or aren’t able to access funding,” she said. “And when I looked at the reason, I found the reason was policy.”
She learned that in 1996, a growth cap of two percent per year was placed on the program, which Opikokew contends hasn’t been able to keep pace with rising First Nations populations, increasing tuition and other factors such as inflation.
“So what it means is you’ve got more First Nations students wanting to go to post-secondary, but the pot of money is actually getting smaller,” she said.
That’s one example of how policy-makers in Canada and other Commonwealth countries have not taken into consideration how things could affect First Nations people in the long term, Opikokew said.
She pointed out that similar gaps in health and education achievement exist among indigenous populations in all the countries she’s studying.
“This is not just a Canada issue, it’s much larger than that,” she said. “And there’s also a gap in the knowledge, as we don’t do much comparison between different countries.”
That’s something Opikokew hopes to change, as she believes the old model of trying to solve the
‘Indian problem’ is ineffective.
“The policy view of decision makers in Canada in the past has been how do we solve the ‘Indian problem’,” she said. “That needs to be flipped on its head and we need to look at the policy problem. Is there an indigenous solution? My gut instinct is there is.”