The word research, written on a blackboard.

Carleton Institute Guides Indigenous Research Ethics

By Dan Rubinstein

For generations, scientists regularly did “mosquito research” when working in Indigenous communities. They flew in, extracted the information they needed, then left town and were not heard from until an article appeared in an academic journal.

That practice has changed over the past couple decades. Today’s research is much more collaborative and communicative. But this revolutionary transformation still needs the occasional push, such as the Carleton University Institute on the Ethics of Research with Indigenous Peoples (CUIERIP), which was held in the River Building from June 5 to 10.

The institute, which grew out of a three-day pilot in August 2014 and is part of a broader effort to indigenize the university, is held this time of year to coincide with the spring term session of courses for Carleton’s new master’s concentration in Indigenous Policy and Administration.

Supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Tri-Council Secretariat for the Responsible Conduct of Research, and the deans of several Carleton faculties, CUIERIP is intended to “build understanding among researchers of all kinds — students, faculty, governmental — about good ethical practices when doing research in Indigenous communities,” said Katherine Graham, an emerita professor at Carleton’s School of Public Policy & Administration and co-facilitator of the gathering alongside journalism adjunct research professor John Medicine Horse Kelly.

“Mosquito research,” said Graham, “tends to be very project focused and not responsive to community needs.

“There’s a need for stronger relationships, for reciprocity. Research is not about taking anything away — it should be about an exchange, about co-creating and co-owning knowledge.”

CUIERIP, which drew 25 participants from across Canada, featured nearly 20 presenters and was presided over by a trio of Elders. Workshops focused on subjects such as the research lifecycle, research ethics boards and the legacy of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

There were many other valuable and insightful sessions throughout the week, as well as interactive learning experiences for students to explore and address the more practical elements of developing appropriate ethical approaches to working with Indigenous communities.

The Importance of Indigenous Tradition

At the start of each day, Kelly, a member of the Haida Nation and co-director of Carleton’s Centre for Indigenous Research, Culture, Language and Education (CIRCLE), began the morning with a smudging ceremony and then a prayer.

“When the Creator is part of something,” he said on the second-last day, “you see relationships start to develop. My hope is that these relationships will continue to grow when this institute is over.”

Opening remarks from Kelly and Graham were followed by daily teachings with elders, including David Serkoak (Inuit), Verna McGregor (Algonquin) and Marcel Labelle, an Algonquin and Métis trapper, canoe builder and artist from Northern Ontario.

With attendees sitting in front of one of his uniquely crafted handmade canoes, Labelle told humourous stories about his life and about how he learned to navigate through the wilderness — literally and metaphorically.

When the declining market for furs made trapping unsustainable, and when his university degree led to an unfulfilling technical services job in southern Ontario, Labelle turned to the canoe, a “gift” from Canada’s First Nations to European explorers. “Now I know how to make a living,” he said, “by harvesting the materials that Mother Earth provides.”

Finding Solutions

Labelle’s teachings set the tone for a panel discussion called “Anticipating Problems, Finding Solutions,” which brought together four Carleton professors: Patricia McGuire from the School of Social Work, Aboriginal Enriched Support Program co-ordinator and governance expert,  Rodney Nelson, Gita Ljubicic from the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, and Canada Research Chair of Environmental Science and Biology Steven Cooke. Gordon DuVal, chair of the National Research Council of the Canada Research Ethics Board and a member of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa, was also part of the panel.

McGuire, an Anishinaabe and Métis scholar who is planning research on how land-based interventions can help people overcome trauma, noted that Indigenous knowledge(s) are forms of resilience. The development of community-based ethics boards provides a path toward reclaiming Indigenous knowledge(s) targeted under colonialism, and this could foster social and political development in a different manner.

“Indigenous people have been on this land for thousands of years,” she said. “We just have to tap into that knowledge.”

Nelson, who is Anishinaabe, stressed the need for researchers to publish their findings, both in academic journals and in a form that is accessible and understandable to people in the communities where the fieldwork was conducted.

“You almost have to write two different articles,” he said, adding: “I’m always trying to incorporate traditional values and stories into research, because a lot of traditional teachings guide the way Indigenous people do business today.”

Relying on Local Knowledge

Cooke has worked with Indigenous communities on the West Coast for years while studying Pacific salmon. He talked about relying on local knowledge, such as when the fish are migrating and where to go to catch them, as well as the importance of devising research questions and applying for funding collaboratively.

Cooke’s group holds an annual workshop at UBC where all partners gather. His students are tasked with managing a lot of the interactions with Indigenous communities, which helps them learn how to collaborate responsibly and effectively.

“I think of our work as a ‘program,’ not a series of ‘projects’ that have start and stop dates,” he said, “so there is a more fluid transition between people who come and go.”

Ljubicic, who has been working with Inuit communities for 15 years, recalled spending two months on the tundra as a master’s student conducting Arctic fieldwork for the first time. “I was there to learn about plants,” she said, “but really, I was learning about myself.”

Through that experience she realized that she wanted to work more with people to learn about Arctic environments. Now she emphasizes working with communities from the earliest research planning stages in order to be guided by local research priorities and preferred methods.

“The historical legacy of poor communication comes up almost every time we begin a research project in a community,” said Ljubicic, “so we prioritize communications not only at the start but also throughout a project.

“Any visit we have, any meeting, we do short reports with pictures, to show people what we’ve done and what we’re planning to do, to keep the conversation going. Knowledge dissemination is ongoing, and it’s a two-way flow.”

Steps toward Greater Collaboration

Crediting community members through direct quotations and citing interview contributions as one would for academic papers, she said, are small but important steps toward greater collaboration.

Canada is positioning itself as a global leader in Indigenous research ethics, Kelly said in an interview after the panel. Attitudes have shifted since he joined Carleton in 2002, he said, “and Indigenous people are seen as equal partners, not as people to be studied. I didn’t think this change would happen in my lifetime.”

Universities are at an important juncture, he added, and institutes such as CUIERIP can help create an atmosphere of camaraderie where people can express themselves in a non-threatening space.

“The Indigenous way of knowing is very different than the academic way of knowing,” said Kelly, “and these two worlds need to be brought together.

“That’s the main reason this institute exists: to bring people together to talk about and explain issues, to help researchers and community members get to know one another and build relationships. At the end of the week, it starts to feel like we’re a family.”