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Chantelle Richmond, right, is the program leader of a new network dedicated to tackling health problems in First Nations communities while simultaneously growing the next generation of Indigenous health scholars. (Colin Butler/CBC News) Western University has announced the creation of Ontario’s first network of Indigenous health training, aimed at allowing Indigenous people a stronger hand in not only participating in health research but directing it in ways that will benefit their local communities.

The network officially launched Thursday at Western University and will link the efforts of 13 universities and 70 researchers across Ontario with much of the work centered at Western’s London campus over the next five years.

The project is ambitious, as it simultaneously looks to grow the next generation of indigenous health scholars by tackling health problems within First Nations communities, according to Western geography professor and program leader, Chantelle Richmond.

"In most of our institutions right now we have an incredibly small number of Indigenous scholars," she said. "If we’re going to make real change in Indigenous health, we need to continue to work to address the structural inequality." Hope, bravery, courage

Richmond said it’s extremely important that research into Indigenous health is done by Indigenous people for the benefit of their own communities.

Part of what makes the program unique is the fact Indigenous scholars will be able concentrate on specific health and social problem that affect their communities.

While one community might focus on how environmental contamination of traditional hunting lands affects human health, another might focus on mental health and addiction. ‘We’re trying to raise scholars’

The idea is that First Nation communities can use the knowledge and expertise gained through the program to harness information about their own collective health, according to Jennifer Walker, a professor of epidemiology at Laurentian University.

This year the program will provide up to 18 scholarships for Indigenous students and will likely foster opportunities for hundreds more through not just scholarships, but mentorships as well, according to Richmond.

"This isn’t just about scholarships. This is about providing a place for connections," she said, noting much of that work will occur virtually, either through virtual meetings or webinars.

The network has secured funding for the next five years, but if it creates enough of a difference, there’s no reason it can’t continue even further, Richmond said.

"We are trying to raise scholars. In most our institutions right now we have an incredibly small number of Indigenous people and Indigenous health leaders," she said, noting that in 2014 Indigenous people accounted for less than one per cent of all Canada research chairs.

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