Women of Distinction Award for Indigenous health researcher

By Costa Maragos Posted: May 21, 2017 8:00 a.m.

Cassandra Opikokew Wajuntah has been recognized for her work to improve health outcomes for Indigenous peoples.
Cassandra Opikokew Wajuntah has been recognized for her work to improve health outcomes for Indigenous peoples. Photo courtesy of JSGS

The research of Cassandra Opikokew Wajuntah continues to reach a wider audience.

Wajuntah has received a YWCA Regina Women of Distinction Award, in the Cultural Heritage category.

The award recognizes women who have made outstanding achievements in the community.

In receiving the award, Wajuntah was recognized for her work to improve health outcomes for Indigenous peoples in Saskatchewan and Canada through her personal, professional and academic endeavors.

Wajuntah is a PhD candidate at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (JSGS) at the U of R. She’s also associate director of the Indigenous Peoples’ Health Research Centre (IPHRC), which is a partnership between JSGS and First Nations University of Canada.

Wajuntah was nominated for the award by a group of women she has volunteered within the community and Dr. Kathleen McNutt, Executive Director and Professor in the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. McNutt has known Wajuntah for six years.

“Her application of Indigenous research methods and her development of an Indigenous policy making model to address gaps in health outcomes has attracted national attention from scholars, decision makers, health practitioners and Indigenous communities,” writes McNutt.

Wajuntah is from Canoe Lake Cree First Nation and was raised in Meadow Lake, in Northern Saskatchewan. Her connection to local Indigenous communities has been a big asset for her research.

She was the recipient of $108,000 Doctoral Research Award to support her studies by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, in 2013.

She was also a Visiting Scholar at the John A. Burns School of Medicine in the Department of Native Hawaiian Health at the University of Hawaii in October 2016. She’s developed two community-based partnerships to support her research – one with the All Nations Healing Hospital in Fort Qu’Appelle and another with Papa Ola Lokahi and the Native Hawaiian Health Systems.

The health care providers utilize Indigenous knowledge to deliver healthcare to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people resulting in positive policy and health impacts that she and her partners hope to document.

For the past seven years, Wajuntah has worked at the Indigenous Peoples’ Health Research Centre.

In 2016, she was also appointed the Platform Lead – Indigenous Research & Engagement for the new Saskatchewan Centre for Patient-Oriented Research (SCPOR), which is bringing in over $63 million in federal health research funding to Saskatchewan.

She’s also active in the community.

She’s the Saskatchewan representative on the national YWCA Canada board, serves on Planned Parenthood Regina and the U of R Indigenous Advisory Circle boards.

Previously, she was also the National Aboriginal Caucus Chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students, a founding member of the Indigenous Students Association at the U of R and the first-ever Aboriginal Students’ Director on the U of R Students’ Union.

Wajuntah graduated at the top of her class in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a Certificate in indigenous Communication Arts. In 2012, she earned her Master’s of Public Administration.

Says McNutt: “I have no doubt her work will shape the provincial and national policy landscape in the future.”

Wajuntah received the award at a ceremony held at the Conexus Arts Centre in Regina, May 11.