People Behind The Research – Donna Lester-Smith

Donna Lester-Smith

“I’m learning that I’m not alone and…We all learn differently. We all have different research elements, but Māori and Canadian researchers, we’re very connected spirit-wise”
Donna Lester-Smith from the University of British Columbia speaks to us at Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga’s International Indigenous Development Research Conference 2012, about her research with Aboriginal communities in Canada, ‘Hope for Change—Change Can Happen: Healing the Wounds of Family Violence with Indigenous Traditional Holistic Practices’
Tell us about your Tribal affiliations.
My heritage. I am an only child, but the only one in the larger, extended family who has returned to knowing who I am. My ancestry is Algonquin Nation from Eastern Canadaand Métis Nation – meaning my ancestral Aboriginal grandmothers married French Western settlers that came to Canada.
So sometimes, I like to romanticise the image of my grandmothers helping my grandfathers to survive, but bottom line, yes, I am Métis. I don’t often suffer racism, based on my having lighter skin. But I’m blessed with that connection regardless, whether it be with my disability, whether it be with my sensitivity, whether it be with my crazy sense of humour, that we’re all in this mess together.
Tell us about your research journey and the community you’ve been working with recently.
My research journey has brought me from Vancouver,British Columbia to here. I brought with me the past and present and future spirits of my research.  Those peoples who’ve so graciously shared their work with me.
My study is, or I should say our study is, within the agency inVancouvercalled Warriors Against Violence Society (WAVS). They’re taking the teachings of holism and wellness and they’re teaching families with anger and violence from the negative impacts of colonisation.
The agency is teaching them how they can cope. “This is why you’re angry.  This is who you’re angry at. But you do still need to take responsibility and with our cultural tools to help you diminish violence in your family we can move forward.”
My two research questions were, how does WAVS articulate their intervention model, their family violence intervention model.  How do they articulate it in helpful ways? What ways do members of WAVS articulate their learning of the model. How do they apply it in their lives at home with their children? How do they use self-reminders?  How do they utilise what they’ve learned?
It sounds as though building that relationship is important?

In my dissertation writing I found upon reflection that I had written most of my dissertation in the first-person present-tense, so that means I have made an intimate, immediate connection between myself, the participants, and our readers.  We’re all in this together.

When you’re in the first person, even talking about past trauma and issues, there’s nowhere to hide.  We’re in this together, we’re all travelling the journey.  In first-person, present-tense.
And I don’t know how I did it, but reading through my drafts, I starting to understand that I did do it.  I might need another dissertation to find out what I did in that journey…
It seems a very reciprocal relationship you have with participants.
I have enough of a quirky personality that I can have fun with the WAVS facilitators and also the participants who helped me, in the fact that they work with me.  I don’t use certain academic words, I don’t say my ‘findings’, I don’t say my ‘analysis’. I talk about ‘participant teachings’ (my findings) and then ‘researcher learnings’ (my interpretations of the work).
There is that uniqueness and quirkiness again.  I’ve had some great moments where other researchers might bite their lip and go, “Did she really say that?” For example, one participant was saying he’s really excited he’s off toTorontoat Christmas to see his partner’s children, and I spontaneously asked him “Is this the first time you’ve flown without handcuffs and a trench coat draped over your wrists?” And he turns right to me and said, “Oh yeah, I’ve flown ‘Con-air’ lots, but this time I won’t be under restraints.”
I know the street words, about needles and turkey tracks up some people’s arms, or being ‘clean’. Or noting aloud, “Patrick, you’re reading the wall behind me” (in the coffee shop we visited).  He’s like, “Yeah, I learned that in prison. I’m reading the shadows so I know who’s coming, who’s headed for the washroom. I’ve got your back.”
I wonder what you’re learning from us and those around you at the conference.
I’m learning that I’m not alone and I’m learning that at home, we all learn differently. We all have different research elements, but Māori and Canadian researchers, we’re very connected spirit-wise and I think that 14 hours of flying for me to get here is a drop in the puddle, that we need to be even more connected.
We need to see each other more often, we need to find funding for your students to come visit us and vice versa. I know we have internet and social media etc. But that doesn’t replace the real person and I think we need to work on that more. And that is one of my values.
Wasn’t it Leonie and her colleagues that said in a paper, I quoted them, that part of research is ‘face to face’. And I agree with that, including education, we need to take a step back and be face to face as well.
What do you want to do now with the work and what are the challenges you foresee there?
I can later delve into my dissertation and throw out the citations and parenthesis, toss away the unnecessary and bring it even further down to user friendly language.  I mean, 250 pages – who in their right mind is going to sit down and read that?
For those participants and others living on the margins of this street,

I think now my role is to whittle it down…as a toolkit for violence intervention, a toolkit that goes through the medicine wheel as I’ve done throughout the study, to make it user-friendly.

One of my values in writing, if I cannot pronounce a word, it does not go in my writing, you’ll never find epistemology or axiology. I mean, it took me three years to pronounce the word ‘pedagogy’! So the longest term in my dissertation might be “methodologically speaking”, and even that is iffy.
Click here to download the whole document from Community Research. ‘Hope for Change -Change Can Happen: Healing the Wounds of Family Violence with Indigenous Traditional Holistic Practices’.

Community Research


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