Inviting Openness: Thoughtful Questions, Aboriginal Interviewers, Face to Face Conversations

In addition to locating and engaging a representative sample of urban Aboriginal people, there was the question of whether people would be willing to participate and speak candidly. Ginger Gosnell-Myers says that inviting honesty from study participants was a major preoccupation for her team at the beginning of the project. “Some of this is sensitive material. We made sure that participants knew they were in control and could stop the interview at any time.” As the interviews progressed, however, her concerns were alleviated. “Every person answered every question. Our interviewers would get to the end of an hour-long survey, and the person they were interviewing would say, ‘Can we keep talking?’ That just doesn’t happen in survey research.” Gosnell-Myers says that in her mind, this was a sign that the UAPS was asking the right questions at the right time. “These were questions people really wanted to answer—questions people were glad to be asked.”

Representatives of both the Advisory Circle and Environics Institute agree that, in addition to respectful questions, two other factors were crucial to making study participants feel at ease. The first was that nearly all the interviewers were themselves Aboriginal. Over a hundred Aboriginal people, some of them students in the social sciences, were hired and trained to carry out the hundreds of interviews that constitute the UAPS. In each city, a project coordinator (in most cases an Aboriginal person) was hired to manage the interviewers, connect with local Aboriginal organizations, and communicate with Gosnell-Myers and her fellow coordinator Vina Wolf.

By training and supporting mainly Aboriginal interviewers and city coordinators, the Environics Institute added a significant element of local capacity-building to the study. It also made participants feel more comfortable sharing their perspectives. “I actually wasn’t worried about getting the data,” says Noella Steinhauer. “I knew that if Aboriginal people were doing the interviews and leading the research in the cities, our people would talk to them.” Evelyn Peters agrees: “The coordinators approached people in a way that was respectful. I’m not surprised that people took the opportunity. They probably saw that this was a chance to say something not only to the rest of Canada, but also to other Aboriginal peoples.”

Many UAPS advisors believe that a second reason for respondents’ candour was that the interviews were conducted in person—not over the telephone, as is standard practice for most national research initiatives. The decision to conduct the interviews face to face was a crucial one for the UAPS. Looking back, some Advisory Circle members see this as a make-or-break moment for the study. When the Environics Institute team arrived at The Forks for the first full Advisory Circle meeting, they presented their plan to survey urban Aboriginal peoples, NAAF scholars, and the Canadian public—all via telephone. Several members of the Advisory Circle objected. Not only did they worry that covering sensitive issues over the telephone would be disrespectful, they raised the concern that limiting the survey to people who had phones would in itself introduce a bias: “Some of our people don’t have phones. That’s the reality,” said Jennifer Rattray, the University of Winnipeg’s first Executive Director of Government, Indigenous and Community Affairs and a member of the Peepeekisis First Nation.

Over the course of the meeting, agreement emerged that in-person interviews would be ideal. This approach, however, would bring an already ambitious project to a whole new level of difficulty, complexity, and cost. Fortunately, the Environics Institute was able to attract further support for the study—some from new sources, and some from the project’s original funders. “We were lucky to have supporters who understood that we would be learning as we went, and that our approach would have to evolve,” says Michael Adams. “The switch to in-person interviews was the most significant case of us saying, Our original plan is not the best path. We have to listen to our Advisory Circle and change our approach in substantive ways. And by the way: this is going to be more expensive.'”

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