Cassandra Opikokew Wajuntah with her husband, Justin, and their four children.
Cassandra Opikokew Wajuntah with her husband, Justin, and their four children. (Photo submitted)

Cassandra Opikokew Wajuntah is blazing a trail for others to follow

Opikokew Wajuntah is the first First Nations woman to graduate from Johnson Shoyama Graduate School’s (JSGS) doctoral program at its University of Regina campus. But that’s just one of many firsts she has undertaken while pursuing her PhD in public policy.

Her unique and creative thesis, The Indian Solution to the Policy Problem: Articulating Indigenous and Colonial Policymaking Models Using An Indigenous Lens, was three-quarters written in the standard dissertation model and one-quarter told through storytelling and painted moose hide, all with the support of JSGS.

“I think this is the first policy dissertation in Canada where a portion of the dissertation is painted on a moose hide,” she laughed. “From a moose that my family hunted and prepared no less.”

Every time I approached them with these ideas, the school was 100 supportive, 100 per cent on board,” Opikokew Wajuntah said. “So was my supervisor, so was my committee.”

Opikokew Wajuntah is an Assistant Professor in Indigenous Health Studies at First Nations University of Canada (FNUC) and also the director of the Indigenous Peoples Health Research Centre (IPHRC), based at FNUC.

Originally from Canoe Lake Cree Nation, Opikokew Wajuntah was raised in northern Saskatchewan. She and her husband, Justin, have four children and a myriad of pets and animals they foster at their home in Fort Qu’Appelle.

“In most cases, your graduate work takes time away from your family. But my husband and my children were integral to my dissertation. For our youngest children, it was their very first hunting trip. My husband got the moose, he led the scraping and smoking of the hide and my daughters even helped me prepare the smoked moose nose soup we served at the defense.”

She graduated with a BA in Journalism, a Certificate in Indigenous Communications Arts, and along the way spent a semester in law school before first joining JSGS as a Master of Public Administration student in 2012, where she focused on Indigenous post-secondary education. While doing her masters, she started working at the IPHRC as a research assistant. It’s where she became interested in Indigenous health.

“I was kind of living with a foot in two worlds,” she said. “Public administration through my masters and one in Indigenous health through my work.”

Her PhD thesis is really a coming together of those worlds.

“I was able to pull together a bunch of threads as a journalist, researcher and as a policy student,” Opikokew Wajuntah said. “The relationship between Indigenous people and public policy in Canada tends to be one where Indigenous people themselves are problematized, the so-called ‘Indian problem.’

“The more that I explored and researched through my education and work, the more it became crystal clear to me that, of course, Indigenous people are not the problem. It’s actually public policy that’s the problem,” she said. “It is not designed to meet the needs of Indigenous people. It’s quite the opposite. 

Opikokew Wajuntah said in Canada we are still using basically the same policy-making process that created residential schools. 

“How would we expect a policy making process capable on one hand of creating an abhorrent policy like residential schools, which was designed to annihilate Indigenous culture and people, and expect that same system to turn around and in less than 30 years to also be capable of supporting and achieving Indigenous self-determination? 

“So my PhD was really pulling apart what is the policy making system in Canada and what are those colonial roots that are still shaping it.”

Opikokew Wajuntah worked with two community partners that were the foundation of her research. One was All Nations’ Healing Hospital in Fort Qu’Appelle, a First Nations-owned health centre that provides health services from both Indigenous and western medicine perspectives.

The other was with the Papa Ola Lokahi, also known as the Native Hawaiian Health Care Systems.

“I was able to articulate from an Indigenous lens what the western colonial policy making model looks like in Canada and why is it so poorly suited to serving Indigenous people,” she said. 

She also explored how Indigenous policy making models were more effective at meeting not only the needs of Indigenous people, but non-Indigenous people as well. 

All along her PhD journey Opikokew Wajuntah, encouraged by JSGS, used a form of insurgent education, pushing back on colonial constraints and transforming her educational experience. 

“Never once did JSGS shut that down,” she said. “It was, ‘What do you want to do next? It sounds kind of crazy and weird and amazing, but we’ll support you.’

Opikokew Wajuntah said she’ll never forget the day she emailed her supervisor about telling a part of her dissertation through storytelling and art. 

“I’m trying to write this 300-page dissertation, but it feels like I’m taking all this magic that we collected through this incredible methodology and I’m whitewashing it to put it back in this colonial box that it just doesn’t fit in. 

“I said, ‘Do you think it’s crazy if I paint the Indigenous policy model on a moose hide?’

“And my supervisor was like, ‘That sounds great. Let’s go for it.’ 

“I don’t know how many policy schools would be willing to support and take those kinds of risks,” she said.

When it came time for her to defend her dissertation, the JSGS committee was brought to a ceremonial room on Pasqua First Nation. She served them lunch, which included smoked moose nose soup, and gifted them braids of sweetgrass. 

“I wanted the whole defense to be grounded in an Indigenous way. Being on our lands, in our ceremonial spaces and treating our guests with the hospitality and warmth that Indigenous people are traditionally known for.” 

Opikokew Wajuntah had her presentation, including the moose hide, at the front. There was also a chair, with slippers and a smudge pot beside it, to represent her late grandfather.

“It was like a living art installation that I was going to walk them through,” she said.

“My work is a continuation of my grandfather’s work, who was a residential school survivor, and when we defended together that day, that chair was symbolic because we finished our work together.”

Opikokew Wajuntah believes strongly in the fact that JSGS stood by her and supported her 100 per cent, and if there was something the school didn’t know, that they would figure it out together. 

“I don’t know if I could have created this kind of work or pushed those kind of limitations in any other policy school,” she said. “That personal, tailored experience I got from the grad school, and their willingness to be brave with me, I place so much value on that.”