2020 Trailblazer Award Winners

The CIHR Institute of Population and Public Health (CIHR IPPH) Trailblazer Award supports early, mid and senior career researchers who continue to make exceptional contributions that promote population and public health for Canadians and citizens around the world through evidenced-based health policies as well as interventions.

CIHR-IPPH is pleased to announce the 2020 CIHR-IPPH Trailblazer Award Winners:

"Trailblazer Awards recognize the contributions made by new, mid-career and senior population and public health researchers. These awardees have not only made exceptional contributions to Public Health research, but are also recognized for their outstanding leadership, mentorship and innovative contributions to the field.

We have issued this award for five years now and – for the first time ever – our distinguished peer-review committee has selected our first all women host of award winners. The work of these three exceptional women showcases an excellent range of what is possible in population and public health. I would like to congratulate Elaine Hyshka, Meghan Winters, and Cecilia Benoit for their outstanding contributions to our field."

Marisa Creatore, Assistant Director, IPPH

Senior Career Researcher: Cecilia Benoit

Cecilia Benoit is a Scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Research and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Victoria, BC, Canada. Of Mi’kmaw and French ancestry, Cecilia has been instrumental in making known the Indigenous knowledge held by midwives and birthing women in pre-settler communities and has worked diligently to change medical practices so that midwives can legally work and their services reimbursed by the public purse.

Cecilia has also investigated social inequities faced by Indigenous women searching for a healing place in Canada’s inner cities, street-involved youth in transition to adulthood, pregnant women dealing with poverty, substance use and other challenges, and people who sell sexual services. She works closely with frontline service providers and other stakeholders to develop innovative programs to promote the health, dignity and human rights of those who are unjustly treated.


Hello, my name's Cecilia Benoit, and I am based at the University of Victoria. I am a scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research. We are on Indigenous lands here at the university, so I have been a settler here for the last four decades in Victoria. I am originally from Newfoundland, of Mi'kMaw French and English background. All of my life I have tried to hone a sociological eye about marginalization, and in particular how we might improve access to health and health care for Canadians. I thank you for this honour, and I'm reflecting on why I might have been chosen for this award. I think it may relate to some of the research that I have been honoured to be part of for the past four decades.

I began my career trying to understand the question of why midwives were excluded as legitimate workers in Canada while they are honoured for their work in other countries – as demonstrated in research I had done in Sweden. I worked to shed light and conduct research with midwives and women seeking midwifery care to try and change those policies. We proved to be successful. Today, midwives are working in most parts of the country, they have access to public education, and their services are paid through the public purse. So that is quite a wonderful change in a lifetime.

Other research that I have also been invited to be part of and have helped conduct research through the help of funding from CIHR and other agencies have to do with understanding the situation of Indigenous women in our inner cities – including the downtown eastside. I also worked with street involved youth who try to tell their stories about social exclusion/ marginalization, and how they have tried to build services that are more appropriate for them. I have also worked with pregnant women who are dealing with substances and other challenges, and thinking about developing one stop health care community centres that can give better care to them.

The most recent group that has faced the most marginalization in Canadian society is my work with sex workers. CIHR has funded a number of projects where we have tried to shed light on their backgrounds, and the challenges that they are facing. This includes the policies and practices that the criminal code in particular has in place to really limit their life choices. By bringing sex workers to the table and organizations that represent them, we try to think of more inclusive policies that will help improve their situation as well as their children.

These are some of the projects that I have been lucky to work on that focus on marginalization and social inclusion. It concentrates on how we can improve Canadian society so that some of the bigger health challenges, such as COVID, demonstrate how we have failed to provide ongoing non-judgmental services and funding for excluded populations. So my work is going to continue to work with those groups and hopefully get through this pandemic. Some of the changes that we have made can become part of public policy and our public health care system that will lead to greater inclusion for the most marginalized.

So I thank you again.

Mid-Career Researcher: Meghan Winters

Meghan Winters is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, a researcher at the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility, a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar, and the Founder & Lead of the Cities, Health, and Active Transportation Lab in Vancouver, BC.

Meghan is an epidemiologist interested in the link between health, transportation, and city design who regularly conducts research and knowledge exchange activities collaboratively with local governments and health authorities.


First, I want to say thank you so much for this Trailblazer Award – what an honour!

I used to be one of those hardcore cyclists, biking alongside busy highways. It was the fastest way to get around. Ten years went by, I was pregnant, and then I had kids in tow. It turned out that all of the places I could go to and the map of the city was much more sparse when safety was the priority.

My work on active transportation has really shaped the streets of Canadian cities. I am part of the movement that's shifted from planning for those strong and fearless cyclists to ensuring that people of all ages and abilities are able to cycle.

I now lead the Cities, Health, and Active Transportation Research Lab. With a dozen trainees and staff, we're looking at how community design impacts the way people get around and connect with each other.

We're still working on cycling, but also more pressing issues in the healthy cities space – such as gentrification, housing and social connectedness, and new mobilities. I am particularly interested in questions regarding equity. What makes a public space welcoming and inclusive? When I'm often biking, these questions just roll through my mind: Who is in those spaces? Who is not there? What is stopping them?

My research is almost always mixed methods, where we're looking at which contextual information complement charts, maps, and odds ratios. My trainees are part of all of this work. I benefited from such strong mentorship – and I'm really committed to making sure that we're training the next generation of researchers with these interdisciplinary skill sets that it takes to do population health intervention work.

So what does being a trailblazer mean to me? Our cities are changing faster than we ever thought possible. I'm committed to making sure that health and equity stay at the forefront of these conversations. It means working with your partners, listening to their questions, and elevating their voices in the conversation. It also means making sure that timely information gets into the hands of the people who are changing our streets ever so quickly. I'm also committed to learning new things all of the time.

Early-Career Researcher: Elaine Hyshka

Elaine Hyshka is an Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health and the Scientific Director of the Inner City Health and Wellness Program at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

Elaine’s work focuses on advancing a public health approach to substance use in Canada, and is conducted in partnership with health and social service providers, public health advocacy organizations, and governments at the local, provincial, and national level.


Hi, my name is Elaine Hyshka, and I am an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. I am also the Scientific Director of the Inner City Health and Wellness program at the Royal Alexandra Hospital here in Edmonton.

It is an honour to be named this year's recipient of the CIHR Institute of Population and Public Health's Trailblazer Award in the Early Career Category.

It is especially nice to be recognized alongside amazing public health researchers for having an impact on population health both nationally and internationally.

In lieu of an in person awards ceremony, I was asked to make a video briefly describing my research in public health advocacy.

On top of the COVID-19 pandemic, North America is currently in an unprecedented overdose epidemic that killed over 11,000 Canadians and 136,000 Americans between 2016 and 2018 alone.

This epidemic is so severe that for the first time in four decades life expectancy in Canada has stopped increasing and is actually declining in the United States.

These statistics clearly show that how we approach illegal drug use in society is not working.

Responding to the epidemic, improving population health, and achieving health equity will require us to address multiple health system and health policy failures that are compounded by stigma and discrimination against people who use substances and those living with substance use disorders.

My research addresses this challenge by advancing a public health approach to substance use that shifts resources away from criminalization and punishment towards evidence-based treatment, prevention, and harm reduction interventions.

I work alongside multiple community based organizations, health system leaders, and a large advisory group of people with lived experience of substance use, poverty, and homelessness.

Together, our work has had an impact in two main areas. The first has been in expanding and scaling up supervised consumption services in Alberta and Canada through epidemiological and implementation science research.

The second area has focused on transforming how health care systems respond to substance use. In particular, we have conducted a number of studies that have sought to optimize the implementation of harm reduction services, like sterile supply distribution, naloxone kits, and other strategies for acute care hospitals. We have also been able to study health authority policies on substance use and positively reform them to improve care for all kinds of people who use drugs.

Beyond research I have also worked with multiple levels of government to help shape public policy. Highlights here include serving as the Co-Chair of the Minister's Opioid Emergency Response Commission in Alberta, as well as working with Health Canada to help support the implementation of safety supply initiatives.

I am indebted to many mentors who have shown me how to have a policy impact with my public health research and advocacy. In particular, I would like to acknowledge and thank Dr. Tania Bubela and Dr. Shanthi Johnson for nominating me for this award. I would also like to thank the peer review committee for selecting me. I will endeavour to go back to this Trailblazer Award for the rest of my academic career.

Thank you so much.

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