Reflecting on working with peer researchers

Research that explicitly involves community members and community-based organisations is essential to fostering mutually beneficial academic-community partnerships that help to support food security and advance health equity (Wallerstein and Duran 2016). This project benefited from peer researcher involvement in several ways: the development of locally informed approaches to study design; the periodic collection of robust independent data in five remote communities over a significant time period; and mutual learning and capacity development opportunities among academic researchers, the regional Inuit governance organisation and the peer researchers. As study results were predicated upon research processes that affirmed community and regional leadership and built on existing local strengths, knowledge and contexts, they are more likely to be deemed credible and used to inform regional policy. Ultimately, these factors, supported by the structure of our ongoing food security research projects, enhanced the potential for study findings to contribute to local and regional action on food security.

While we affirm the importance of understanding peer researcher experiences and perspectives (Guta et al. 2011), we were unable to involve the peer researchers as co-authors in this chapter due to a complex and lengthy approval process. We also did not appraise peer researcher outcomes and experiences in the project. As with many community-based participatory research studies reported in the literature (Roche et al. 2011), this project did not fonnalise an explicit peer research model from the onset of the project. Many projects have designed their peer research approach using instinct and experience, but without the benefit of guidance from academic and grey literature on the strengths, challenges and standards of good practice when involving community members in research (Roche et al. 2011). Much collaborative research with Indigenous communities in Canada is founded in the concepts of ‘community-based/directed/engaged’ and ‘participatory’ research; rigorous, critical engagement with peer research paradigms is rare. Reflecting on and establishing a peer research approach from the start can strengthen the potential benefits of using these approaches to recalibrate power dynamics in research projects towards more equitable structures of power and status (Roche et al. 2011).

In other settings, involvement in participatory food costing studies has yielded significant personal and professional development benefits for community researchers (e.g. self-esteem, personal growth, leadership and other skills) to help them engage more equitably and effectively in research and action to support local food security (Monteith et al. 2020). In the future, we will aim to embed process evaluation of peer research within our research projects to ensure that peer researchers develop the knowledge, tools and resources needed to successfully undertake, and ultimately lead, future food security research in their communities.

Building community relationships and capacity in remote settings

Peer research models require significant time and sustained investment to develop and maintain. This is particularly challenging in remote Indigenous

Indigenous food security in Canada 153 communities, removed from academic centres, and where elevated research costs can be limiting (e.g. in the Canadian Arctic). Such challenges echo the importance of building human resource capacity in Inuit regions and communities to facilitate Inuit-led research and establish an Inuit Nunangat university, as highlighted in national policy (ITK 2018b).

In this project, Jullian and peer researchers in the remote communities were engaged in research design and data collection, consistent with both advisory (i.e. peers play an advisory role) and employment (i.e. peers act as research employees) models of peer research (Roche et al. 2011). We also strived to support peers as partners and leaders in other aspects of the research over time (i.e. the partner model) (Roche et al. 2011). As the project evolved, peer researcher roles in this study extended beyond data collection to include advocacy in the community (Roche et al. 2011). For example, we have used newly acquired funding for community-driven action on food security to hire one of the peer researchers as a part-time food security coordinator for the region, while she and another peer researcher will develop and implement on-the-ground food security activities.

Constructs of peer researcher and community capacity development are contingent on the social and cultural context of those involved (Labonte and Laverack 2010). Opportunities to support capacity development within research projects - which often emphasise academic journal publications, conference presentations and other academic ‘currencies’ - may be less meaningful than other forms of training and skill development to peer researchers in remote Indigenous communities. We explored options for involving the peer researchers in such activities (e.g. conferences, workshops) outside of their home community, but most were limited in their ability to travel and participate by family and community responsibilities. It is thus important that training and capacity building opportunities for peer researchers in Indigenous communities be enhanced to recognise the cultural context and emotional impacts of capacity development among peer researchers (Kanuha 2000).

Labour relationships (e.g. recruitment, hiring processes, contracts, wages, training, support and supervision) are important for fostering equitable research relationships in peer research projects (Guta et al. 2011). Critical to this research project was the direct partnership with the IRC, and more specifically Jullian, who also benefited reciprocally from the relationship structure (e.g. through enhanced research capacity and experience). Working closely with the IRC ensured effective and ongoing communication, support and supervision of the peer researchers, building on existing, periodic face-to-face network meetings. It also facilitated communication among academics, peer researchers and other supporting local organisations, such as the Community Corporations, which played an important role in facilitating research logistics (e.g. payment for services, Internet and office access) and the retail store managers. Jullian played a key role in negotiating community labour relationships. In turn, the project may have enhanced organisational ownership over food security research. Partnership with the IRC also ensured the prioritisation of community and regional priorities in the research process, and provided a direct conduit to policy influence.

Our project experiences highlighted the importance of partnership with local health professionals, such as Jullian, who was the regional dietitian at IRC. Public health professionals including nutritionists and dietitians were called upon to extend their focus beyond individual behavioural change to include structural socio-environmental factors, and thus more effectively mitigate the burden of chronic disease and promote health equity (Schubert et al. 2012). Nutrition pro-fessionals working to improve the food supply in remote Indigenous communities face unique challenges (Colles et al. 2016). They are often recently qualified, called to engage with a range of community stakeholder groups (e.g. community workers, as well as retail and transportation sector representatives) and expected to perform numerous functions ranging from clinical practice to research and advocacy (Colles et al. 2016; Wilson et al. 2017; Palermo et al. 2019). They may feel that they lack the training and tools to adequately address nutrition-related issues - that stem from multiple interrelated socio-ecological determinants and involve diverse sectors - while ensuring the use of culturally competent, culturally safe approaches (Colles et al. 2016; Palermo et al. 2019). Enhancing their capacity to be more effective in their roles (e.g. through communication and relationship-building skills, cultural adeptness, advocacy) is an important priority for health promotion and health equity in these contexts (Wilson et al. 2017). Working alongside local peer researchers as partners and reciprocal mentors can build the collective capacity of nutrition professionals and peer researchers (Colles et al. 2016).

 
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