Aboriginal grandmothers inspire student researcher

Posted: November 9, 2015 6:00 a.m.

(l-r) Lillian Piapot, Doreen Topp, Roselena Laferte, Jennifer Billan and Harriet Alexson.
(l-r) Lillian Piapot, Doreen Topp, Roselena Laferte, Jennifer Billan and Harriet Alexson. Photo: U of R Photography.

Grandmothers are so much more than the fairytale images of shawls, cookies and bedtime stories they tend to evoke.

In some families they are the lynchpin that holds everything together.

At the University of Regina, as part of her graduate studies, Jen Billan engaged in research that drew on the experiences of grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren in Regina.

Her community-based research focuses on interviews with Aboriginal grandmothers and looks specifically at their understanding of identity and health. For Billan, this is an important area of study because Aboriginal women tend to play a critical role in the health of their families and communities as both mothers and community Elders.

Grandparent-headed families also provide valuable emotional and financial resources for their grandchildren and may be caring for direct descendants as well as other family members.

During the study the grandmothers shared how, outside of the Aboriginal Grandmothers Caring for Grandchildren Support Network, a community outreach program delivered by the Centre for Continuing Education's Lifelong Learning Centre, they often faced challenges with accessing holistic support that was culturally appropriate or designed for grandparent-headed families.

The Aboriginal Grandmothers Caring for Grandchildren Support Network provides services such as transportation and childcare once a month, so that they are able to meet and share their experiences with other grandmothers. Billan’s volunteer experience with this network is in part why she is interested in this research.  

“Having grown up with two very influential grandmothers inspired me to connect with and learn from grandmothers within my community,” says Billan.  “Over the years, I have formed a meaningful relationship with the grandmothers while learning about their experiences raising grandchildren.  This inspired me to pursue a Master’s degree furthering health research with the grandmothers and to inform policy and programs that recognize and support the grandmothers and their grandchildren.”

According to Billan, despite being faced with ongoing challenges, the grandmothers demonstrate an uncompromising capacity to provide love, advocacy, and stability for their grandchildren. These women are breaking cycles of intergenerational trauma through healing, remaking identity and health, engaging in culture and spirituality, language preservation, education, as well as finding ways to keep children within families.

“It is through the grandmothers’ love and dedication they are able to transfer knowledge and life experience to their grandchildren,” says Billan. “Our grandmothers’ narratives are incredibly significant to who we are and where we come from, and I am forever grateful for their stories and for building a powerful foundation of knowledge and teachings for generations to come.”

Billan’s research was funded by the Indigenous Peoples' Health Research Centre.