Re-Making the Landscape for Indigenous Research in Truth and Reconciliation
Indigenous Peoples’ Troubled Relationship with Research
Indigenous peoples all over the world have adverse relationships with research and researchers. Historically, research involving Indigenous peoples is conducted at the intersection of colonialism and asymmetrical power relations amongst researchers, industries, colonial states, and other stakeholders. The importance of research in shaping the policy agenda for development, access to health, basic infrastructure and the empowerment of communities for self-determination is not lost on Indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples and many other local and marginalized communities have been proverbial guinea pigs for researchers, being ‘used’ as research subjects whose rights were abused without consequences. Regarded as docile subjects, their voices were hardly heard, making them one of the most researched and yet underrepresented demographics in research.
In Canada and elsewhere, Indigenous peoples have challenged and resisted their marginalization in research. They have sought to take ownership of setting their own research agenda by insisting on equitable partnerships with researchers. Over the years, various communities have developed their own research protocols and guidelines with ethical and culturally sensitive frameworks for conducting Indigenous research. The First Nations of Canada have developed the now globally famous OCAP Principles that outline an Indigenous-initiated approach to research. Its ramifications transcend the First Nations that initiated it. OCAP has made meaningful contributions to the research community, establishing Indigenous expectations over the use and management of research data. Additionally, it is an important starting point in the new momentum for Indigenous data sovereignty.
The Tri-Agency’s Response
Indigenous people’s interest and deep appreciation of the historical harms of inequitable research as well as the potential of research for good has not gone unnoticed in Canadian policy circles. After nearly a decade of omission in its 1998 Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct of Research Involving Humans, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CHIR), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) (collectively, the Tri-Agency) – Canada’s three main national postsecondary research granting agencies have decided to address the lacuna. In 2007 the CIHR singularly adopted Guidelines for Health Research Involving Aboriginal People. The now operative 2018 (revised in 2010 and 2014) Tri-Council’s Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct of Research Involving Humans (TCPS 2) dedicates its 9th chapter to Indigenous research under the title of Research Involving First Nation, Inuit and Métis Peoples of Canada.
Chapter 9 of TCPS 2 is mainly designed as a guideline for researchers regarding their engagements with Indigenous peoples, including conduct and outcomes. The Tri-Council conceives the guideline as an evolving and living instrument, mindful of the ever-changing landscape around Indigenous relations. However, beyond a guideline that focuses on conduct of researchers, more heavy lifting is required for substantive elaboration and integration of enhanced capacity for the realization of the potential of Indigenous peoples in research. There is now an urgency to go beyond researcher-centered guidelines and fully integrate Indigenous peoples as core stakeholders in research. The fillip for changing the landscape of research is provided by the Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC has set the tone and a flurry of policy activities in response, linking research to reconciliation in more substantive ways.
TRC: Driving a New and Emerging Indigenous Research Landscape
The TRC has called attention to the need for a more robust research agenda on reconciliation and more importantly the enhancement Indigenous peoples’ capacity as research stakeholders. The TRC has inspired a renewed interest by the Tri-Council including the active participation of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) for collaborative action on Indigenous research. In this regard, in 2019 they launched the Strengthening Indigenous Research Capacity (SIRC) as an interagency initiative to reinvigorate Indigenous research capacity building and research training in a new direction.
The effort has yielded the strategy document titled Setting New Directions to Support Indigenous Research and Research Training in Canada 2019-2020. While the title implies an end date of 2022, the fact is that this implementation effort is long-term and will require ongoing engagement with diverse groups to boost Indigenous research capacity as a living, ‘evergreen’ document. In 2020, an Indigenous exclusive Reference Group for the Appropriate Review of Indigenous Research was established. The Group is tasked with developing policies, frameworks, and guidelines to govern how research agencies review Indigenous research and to explore culturally sensitive adaptations to the traditional peer review model. This innovative awakening is the foundation for creating and envisioning the future direction of Indigenous-led research via the Indigenous Leadership Circle in Research.
Indigenous research is now a site of attention and policy activities, including those aimed at cultivating leadership, engagement, and collaboration around research with Indigenous peoples. To date, these initiatives have resulted in the 2020-2021 Tri-agency Indigenous Funding Opportunities Working Group. The Group shares findings on the current state of Indigenous research in Canada and makes recommendations on strategies to increase participation and support reconciliation. Notably, the Group has promoted data sovereignty as a key priority, vindicating the First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC)’s OCAP vision. Additionally, there is also the Tri-agency Administrative Barriers Working Group established in 2019 which focuses on increasing Indigenous peoples’ eligibility for research grants, empowering Indigenous organizations to administer funding.
Twelve years after the CIHR first adopted the Indigenous-specific Guidelines for Health Research Involving Aboriginal People, we have reached a point that goes beyond its initial focus on the ethical obligation of researchers to Indigenous peoples. The TRC has set the tone for the creation of a purposive research environment that is inclusive of Indigenous peoples to fully and unfetteredly participate in all areas of the research endeavors. This would include setting research agendas, awarding, obtaining, and administering research grants, the generation, curation, and interpretation of data to strengthen capacity and development and the equitable sharing of benefits arising from research. The effect of the TRC is to go beyond the Tri-Agency initiatives and to design a new and evolving landscape for Indigenous research. This will go a long way to address historic injustices against Indigenous peoples arising from research activities. The CIHR, SSHRC, NSERC and CFI appear determined to reset the button on the troubled relationship among Indigenous peoples, researchers, and the conduct of research from the perspective of reconciliation.