Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Dr. Cathy MacDonald: Providing pathways for Indigenous student success

September 22nd, 2022
Cathy MacDonald

Contributing to our Health -- A Series About StFX Research Making A Difference In Our Communities

StFX is a leader in health innovation and entrepreneurship in Nova Scotia. In this ongoing series, we proudly shine a spotlight on our health research leaders, research and community health partnerships and their impact. For more on the Contributing to our Health series, click the link below.

Contributing to our Health series


This research is important because we must make change at the post-secondary level. To make change, you need to be informed by the people living the experience,” ~ Dr. Cathy MacDonald

Dr. Cathy MacDonald is working to provide pathways for Indigenous student success. Dr. MacDonald is a full professor in the StFX Rankin School of Nursing and StFX Associate Dean, Academic Affairs Arts & Science. She has taught at StFX since 2001. 


Ever since Dr. Cathy MacDonald, StFX Rankin School of Nursing faculty and StFX Associate Dean, Academic Affairs Arts & Science, was a staff nurse working in oncology and noticed that many Indigenous patients were accessing treatment later in their cancer trajectory, she’s been

interested in Indigenous health and wellbeing—and working to make changes for the better.

“I started wondering why, why this was the case, that Indigenous people were in the later stages of cancer,” recalls Dr. MacDonald, a full professor, who would go on to focus her PhD research on Exploring Mi’kmaw Women’s Experiences with Pap Smear Screening in Nova Scotia.

“It opened my eyes to impart a wider lens of the historical, socioeconomic and political impacts on Indigenous health and health outcomes.”

Dr. MacDonald, who has been on StFX faculty for 21 years, has focused her research primarily around Indigenous health research and Indigenous student success.

Her passion is readily evident as she discusses her latest research, providing pathways for Indigenous student success in post-secondary education.



“This research is important because we must make change at the post-secondary level. To make change, you need to be informed by the people living the experience,” she says.

“What’s really imperative is to look at it through an Indigenous health research lens.”

Dr. MacDonald’s most recent research grants include a University Council for Research Grant for “Walking Together: Supporting Indigenous Student Success in University;” and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Grant for “Walking in Two Worlds: Indigenous Students Path to Success in Undergraduate Education.” This research is in partnership with Paqtnkek First Nation. Dr. Joanne Whitty-Rogers, Director, StFX Rankin School of Nursing, Dr. Debbie Sheppard-Lemoine, Dean Nursing, University of Windsor, and StFX students Lance Bright and Kylie Curnew, research assistants are also on the grant.

For both projects she has involved Indigenous students from StFX as research assistants.



“The research helps to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Calls to Action related to improving education levels and success rates for Indigenous students. “It brings it to life,” she says, noting the TRC’s call to address identified educational achievement gaps and improving education attainment levels and success rates.

Statistics report that Indigenous students are leaving university for multiple reasons. Dr. MacDonald wants to understand these reasons and what can universities can do to support Indigenous student success.

She says success in higher education is crucial for capacity building and assisting Indigenous communities to meet self-determination and self-governance goals.

In the UCR research project, Dr. MacDonald says the qualitative study was guided by participatory action research and Indigenous principles in a “Two-eyed Seeing” approach. “This study built upon a current body of literature by critically analyzing reasons for low Indigenous student’s retention and success rates. This study added awareness and critical consciousness to issues of culture, colonial and historical contexts, inequities in education, and economic and social conditions that affects Indigenous student success at university.”

This research also provided a platform for Indigenous students to give voice and validation to their experiences, challenges, and highlighted the various factors influencing their success, stated Dr. MacDonald.

Fifteen interviews were conducted with Indigenous undergraduate students representing nine First Nation communities in the Maritime provinces.

From the Indigenous students’ stories, three themes emerged, including recommendations to include the Indigenization of courses, mandatory cultural competency education for faculty, students and staff, and recruitment and hiring for Indigenous educators, and including Indigenous students and communities to inform university policies and procedures. Indigenous students also communicated having courses offered in their communities, a mandatory Mi’kmaq course for all students regardless of what program, orientation to the university for Indigenous youth, and implementing a mentorship program for Indigenous university students would assist with their success.

The SSHRC-funded research is a partnership between Dr. MacDonald and Paqtnkek First Nation and was fostered to identify ways to increase retention and university completion rates of Paqtnkek community members who attend StFX.



This project is of utmost importance to the Paqtnkek community, located just 24 km east StFX. Over the years, students have attended StFX, but completion rates have been low—even though there have been collaborative initiatives and ceremonial events with the university.

Dr. MacDonald says this research is required to inform changes at the university and to give the Indigenous students and their communities an avenue/voice to address their concerns.

The success of Indigenous people in post-secondary education is of vital importance to all Canadians, she says, as our country’s social and economic prosperity depends on improved educational outcomes. Also improving the health and health outcomes for Indigenous people is imperative. 

In a broader sense, the research is timely and important as statistics show the percentage of Indigenous persons aged 25 to 64 holding a university degree is lower than the general population, and as a group, they continue to be notably underrepresented in higher education.

Dr. MacDonald hopes her research will be impactful for raising the knowledge of what’s required, and that change will be implemented as a result—change that will help build capacity and help Indigenous students and communities.

She says the ability of research to inform policies and practices and to enable change for the betterment of society is what drew her to research in the first place.

Dr. MacDonald says seeing the research used for assisting Indigenous students is reaffirming and exciting, as is seeing it live and carry on in the work of the students, she has the privilege of mentoring.

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