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uOttawa Students and Community Weigh in on ABS and its Relevance to Reconciliation

At the heart of ABS Canada’s capacity-building agenda is outreach to law students and Indigenous youth. Encouraged by the enthusiasm and engagement at our recent workshop at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law in Thunder Bay, ABS Canada recently held a similar presentation at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law on Tuesday, October 25, 2016. This interactive, awareness-raising and career focused outreach initiative was delivered in a panel format chaired by ABS Canada Principle Investigator Professor Chidi Oguamanam and project manager Chris Koziol. As in Thunder Bay, the presentation objectives were simple: engage students at the law school by highlighting the realities and interplay between genetic resources, Aboriginal traditional knowledge, biodiversity conservation, and intellectual property rights in the context of the ongoing goal of national reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.


Participants were introduced to the concept of genetic resources, as well as contemporary examples of the social, economic, and legal tensions generated by the divergent interests of various stakeholder in ABS. As discussed before on the blog, commercial entities seeking to utilize GR often do so from insights that are derived from Aboriginal traditional knowledge. Addressing the distinct power imbalance between commercial stakeholders and Indigenous peoples, ABS Canada’s presentation stressed the importance of developing an Aboriginal-sensitive ABS policy framework for Canada that promotes fairness and equity in a climate of mutual understanding, respect, and reconciliation.


Given the present uncertainty regarding Canada’s position on ratification of the Nagoya Protocol, ABS Canada had a unique opportunity to inform students about the current policy vacuum, the potential for biopiracy and other forms of exploitation, and the role young lawyers and young members of Aboriginal communities can play in helping to shape how Canada responds to these policy issues moving forward. As ever, the project’s focus remains bringing different ABS stakeholders together to facilitate a discussion about ABS in a positive and respectful environment. These deliberations will inform one of the project’s ultimate objectives: the curation and development of an online, public-access clearinghouse for Canadian and Aboriginal-centric ABS information.


Student discussion during the Q & A after the presentation raised several interesting points. First, there was interest in creating a more even playing field between different stakeholders in ABS. Participants were strongly supportive of Aboriginal peoples creating or beginning to review or consolidate any existing community protocols around access to GRs pending the ratification of the Nagoya Protocol. This approach would require leveraging existing expertise both from within and outside each community, as well as Aboriginal people’s engagement in related discussions and developments around Aboriginal rights, natural resources and the environment.


Second, students were curious about the issues of legitimacy and representation, noting Canada’s failure to include Indigenous voices among its negotiating teams to international fora, and stressing the importance of “two-way” capacity building – Indigenous peoples learning from lawyers and law students, and lawyers and law students learning from Indigenous peoples. To this end, the presentation reviewed how ABS Canada’s research is being conducted “by and with” Indigenous peoples, in a spirit of friendship, cooperation, and mutual respect. This research model fosters long-term partnerships so that Aboriginal peoples directly affected by ABS can take the initiative and direct the conversation in their own way.


Finally, students raised the issue of Indigenous entrepreneurship and the economic opportunities afforded by commercial or scientific exploitation of GRs. Our team reflected on the desire to encourage rather them stymie creative capacity building initiatives that involves traditional knowledge in order to empower and increase the self-determination of Aboriginal communities. Stronger economic empowerment for Indigenous peoples and communities through the promotion of entrepreneurship is one way Aboriginal peoples can take control of their knowledge systems and turn them into opportunities on their own terms.


Overall, the workshop generated lively exchanges amongst the students and other community members.  Specifically, for first year students, the workshop used the subject matter of ABS to provide them with insights on a number of issues at the intersection of intellectual property law, environmental law, Aboriginal rights and constitutional law, and how each of these issues are being engaged at both national and international fora.


Stay tuned for more information on upcoming workshops!