Gender Matters in Saskatchewan

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Researchers gather in the province to discuss women’s health

by Carla Simon

In January 2011, Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence (PWHCE) hosted two events to celebrate and share women’s health research in Saskatchewan. The proceedings began with an evening Café Scientifique on “Gender and Women’s Health Matters” at Saskatoon’s McNally Robinson bookstore, on Thursday,  Jan. 20. This was followed by a Gender Matters Workshop, on Friday, Jan. 21 at the University of Saskatchewan.

Café Scientifique
Despite cold weather, organizer Yvonne Hanson (Prairie Women’s Researcher and Diversity Education Coordinator), was delighted with a full house at the Café Scientifique, sponsored by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research. As featured in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, this public event provided people with a chance to ask questions and discuss answers. It went beyond participants’ expectations in terms of networking, as well as connecting and learning more about specific research methods.

Guest speaker Diane Martz presented her new pilot study on caregiving and health service needs for elderly rural women and men. For the study’s 80 participants, most frequently there is only one son or daughter who still lives nearby, compared to previous generations where several siblings were able to share the responsibility for caregiving. Lil Sabiston, past Chair of PWHCE’s Board, commented “it’s a whole new reality. Sometimes it’s friends and neighbours caring for older people. But an old widower in a small town might not even know his neighbours. It’s becoming like that because land is being bought up by large businesses. The nearest neighbours could be miles away”.

Margaret Haworth-Brockman, the second speaker and Executive Director of PHWCE, reflected on the long history of community-based research in Saskatchewan and Manitoba communities. This is important for PWHCE to continue to share information from Saskatchewan women to federal and national bodies, acting as a conduit to communicate back and forth as new policies are introduced.
Many changes have been instituted as a result of women’s health research in Saskatchewan. To illustrate, when health services regionalization was beginning, Diane Martz received a PWHCE grant to explore intake for mental health services in newly developed rural health regions. She discovered that many women felt constrained by political boundaries, and were forced to travel long distances to designated centres for mental health services, rather than access care in the nearest town. This research led to policy change and a reorganization of intake for services, which allowed women to get the care they needed much closer to home. 

Gender Matters Workshop
The next day, a mixture of established researchers (from the disciplines of indigenous literature through population health promotion to research ethics), students and service providers met for a one day “Women’s Health and Gender Matters” Workshop. Participants came from Saskatoon and surrounding area, as well as from Spiritwood and Regina to take part in the events at the University of Saskatchewan. The day featured a mixture of sharing of presentations and opportunities to discuss how to strengthen women’s health research in the province. In breakout sessions, small groups of attendees shared their expertise and current research in progress, and then discussed what they see as promising research topics for future works.  Three presentations highlighted interesting research that utilized innovative methods of investigation.
Colleen Anne Dell (Research Chair in Substance Abuse at the University of Saskatchewan) spoke about the healing journey for women who have been incarcerated. Dr. Dell, an early recipient of a PWHCE grant, has spent her career working with women who use substances; she is now a Senior Research Associate of the Canadian Centre of Substance Abuse. She helped to develop appropriate protocols for working with Aboriginal women in the justice system. At the Workshop, she shared a memorable DVD and song about the women’s healing journey.

Jennifer Poudrier (Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Saskatchewan) described her work with the Battleford Tribal Council: “Healthy Body: A Pilot Study of PhotoVoice for First Nations Women”. Her research has delved into the process of engaging women in Aboriginal communities in research to explore “what is healthy” and healthy body image. The project highlights women’s own perceptions of their body weight and how they see themselves. To illustrate, one woman in her 50’s shared that she feels healthy and fit, while other people see her as overweight.

Jenifer Nicol (Assistant Professor in Educational Psychology and Special Education, and music therapist) discussed the value of listening to music for women with chronic pain and how they use music as a coping strategy. This issue resonated with all participants and the audience was excited to learn more. Interestingly, music therapy isn’t only repetitive soothing white noise and clients might work through grief issues using a musical arrangement that they would never want to hear again once they moved on.

Margaret Haworth-Brockman, PWHCE’s Executive Director, spoke about the history of the federal Women’s Health Strategy, released in 1999, and how women’s health research across Canada has been  funded in the years since. This final presentation initiated discussion for the possibilities of a provincial strategy on women’s health and gender in Saskatchewan. The participants were clearly interested in continuing to meet together, and welcomed a women’s health network in Saskatchewan communities. Together the participants considered a number of examples across the country that might be a model for Saskatchewan. It might look similar to the former WHR network in British Columbia (an active exemplar in past years under funding from the Michael Smith Health Research Foundation).

At the conclusion, other suggestions from attendees included:

•“Continue to provide workshops, provide practical training as well”
•“It would be nice if this could be a (minimum) yearly symposium”
•“I hope the ideas shared today are not lost. A research day could build connections and create momentum for other initiatives and/or start a Facebook group”

In response to this successful inaugural event, PWHCE is providing attendees with a contact list, and will create a Facebook page. Other suggestions included calls for a Research Chair, a Women’s Health Research Day, and social networking such as a Facebook page to stimulate further discussion. Overall, the event left people with a positive outlook and focus on immediate, concrete tasks for follow-up. There was a palpable buzz of excitement.
For more information, visit

Carla Simon
Director of Communications
Prairie Women’s Health Center of Excellence

Some past women’s health reseach in Saskatchewan

At inception, Prairie Women’s issued grants to teams from universities and communities. More recently, PWHCE’s Board of Directors chose to focus its research on four pillars: Women and Poverty; Gender and Health Planning; Rural, Remote and Northern Women’s Health and Aboriginal Women’s Health.  Over time, PWHCE has facilitated, administered and conducted community-based research, using innovative research methods.  
For example, some years ago, an Aboriginal women’s health research committee formed in Saskatoon to research what would be needed for an Aboriginal women’s health centre. PWHCE supported with administration assistance, while the committee led the work on prioritized topics, hired a researcher, oversaw the work and carried it forward, talking to policy-makers important to them.  This initiative continued under the auspice of “Continuing Good Health”, which is still owned by Saskatoon women. The Saskatoon women’s committee met with Chiefs and Council and took independent next steps.

In another project, Prairie Women’s Health facilitated community-based research through applying the popular PhotoVoice method. The communities select the issues most important to them, such as PhotoVoice projects:

•Looking Out/Looking In: Women, Poverty and Public Policy, in Saskatoon
•Outside Looking In: Prince Albert Youth PhotoVoice Project, in Prince Albert
•Freedom from Poverty, in Regina

After training from a professional photographer, women use a disposable camera to take pictures that represent their experiences of living in poverty, and the policies and programs they would like to change or keep. The women meet to share their pictures and talk about what the photos mean to them. Their powerful images have been showcased in public showings, to broaden awareness of the realities of women’s issues and stimulate action for just social and economic policies to improve women’s lives. Based on lessons learned over a decade of Canadian community-based research, PWHCE now offers its step by step PhotoVoice Guide to teach others how to bring together small groups of women to capture their stories.

Today, PWHCE continues to conduct and support research in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, including:
Yvonne Hanson’s current research on Recipes for Hunger: SK Women Speak About Food Insecurity and Roberta Stout’s report, policy brief and webinar on Women’s Employment in Non-traditional and Resource Extractive Industries.