Canada: The Aboriginal Community Youth Resilience Network (ACYRN) – Atlantic Canada

The ACYRN experience in Atlantic Canada

As seen by Dawn Caldwell and April Maloney

“The history of ACYRN began in 2003, out of common concerns that we had with April Maloney,” recalls Dawn Caldwell, a CIET researcher in Halifax. “We discussed how to best contribute to research on Aboriginal health in the region, and April suggested taking on suicide prevention, a pressing issue for Aboriginal communities.”

From left to right, Dawn Caldwell, April Maloney and Nancy Gibson, from CIET, meet for an ACYRN training session.
April, the daughter of a Mi’kmaw chief who now coordinates the ACYRN project in the Atlantic Provinces for CIET, did not come with her idea from out of the blue. She knew from her own life story that there was an open wound in the heart of many Aboriginal communities. “As a teen growing up, many funerals were for people of my own age” she says. “Today we have another generation growing up with a similar experience. So, I keep asking myself, how can we, as a community, begin to shift the cycle for the next generation?”
Based on CIET’s experience, Dawn suggested they look way upstream, into people’s beliefs and life experiences, long before they hit the point of self-destruction. And so they started looking for the sources of “resilience”, which is usually understood as the inner strength that helps us bounce back and carry on in the face of adversity. April and Dawn think there is something else there. “We see resilience as something more profound than just building character to withstand painful experiences,” says Dawn. “We see resilience as a source of individual and collective strengths that combines spirituality, family strengths, the teachings of Elders, ceremonial rituals, oral traditions, identity, and support networks, and helps build our future as individuals and communities.” April and Dawn wanted to know what was there in the Aboriginal communities that would make their youth, and the communities themselves, more resilient -or put them more at risk.
April consulted with the communities, where she talked with band chiefs and health directors to seek approval and support for their work. Communities had a say from the start. In their first step to design the research, April and Dawn met with a band councillor, a youth councillor, and people who knew or had talked to someone who had attempted suicide. Their input was crucial to nail down key issues and questions. April and Dawn then developed a community survey to see what factors were related to youth wellness and risk.
A community-based researcher hands out questionnaires in a school in Atlantic Canada.

April did most of the fieldwork, going to schools and recreation centres, where she handed out anonymous surveys to students in classrooms. The confidential character of our surveys is crucial in this regard. “It is certainly what worries kids the most,” says April. “Teens would ask me: ‘Do I have to put my name here?’ I would say: ‘Not at all.’ They would insist: ‘Are my parents going to see this?’ And then I would say again: ‘This is strictly confidential; it’s your answers, not your names that we are looking for.” The anonymous responses gave youth ample space to speak their minds. And they did.

The survey provided a snapshot of community life from the adolescents’ perspective, their day-to-day encounters with violence and peer pressure, their family and peer support systems, their cultural and spiritual exposures and how this affects their self esteem and sense of control over their environment and future.

In a second stage, the bands designated community-based researchers (CBRs), who were trained to replicate the study in their communities. CBRs are social workers, health staff, or interested community members. Most of them are first-time researchers who find themselves puzzled by the process, until they have their “Aha!” moment and see how research can make sense to them and add value to their communities. They also bring knowledge from their culture and communities, which makes for a true coupling of worldviews and a new, integrated perspective to go about those things that matter on the road to better health and greater development.


In 2004, there were already eight participating communities. In 2005, they formed the Aboriginal Community Youth Resilience Network (ACYRN), with funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Another four communities from Atlantic Canada and seven Métis settlements from Alberta joined the ACYRN network in 2005 and 2006. (Click here for more information on ACYRN action planning sessions in Alberta).


“To date (April 2007), we have data from surveys in all the participating communities,” says Dawn. “Our next step is to share the findings with them, so they can discuss what to do, based on the evidence. And, judging from our findings, there is much that can be done with what they already have, like enhancing existing programs. Of course, they can also use the evidence to request funding for small interventions that promise the most benefits. Whatever the communities decide to do –and this is certainly their call-, we will evaluate the outcome, see what works, and fine-tune to get better results.” 

A diagogue between April Maloney and Dawn Caldwell about the ACYRN project in Atlantic Canada has been published in the Summer 2008 issue of Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Indigenous and Aboriginal Community Health.