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How Indigenous peoples are reclaiming control over academics’ research agenda

By Laurie Chan, Lynn Barwin, and Malek Batal       

Many Indigenous peoples are demanding that the risk-assessment process be holistic and demonstrate how any proposed project will affect the well-being of the peoples for future generations.  

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In Canada, the resource-based industry contributes a significant portion of the gross national product. There has been increasing tension, however, between developers and Indigenous peoples, especially when the proposed project affects Indigenous lands.  

Legacy projects such as the Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories or the chloro-alkali plant upstream of Grassy Narrows in Ontario caused chemical pollution. Reparations for past decisions and rebuilding the trust of Indigenous peoples on the process of environmental planning and risk mitigation of proposed industrial projects is critical.

Many Indigenous peoples are demanding a paradigm shift away from the current top-down consultation process with governments and developers. They are demanding that the risk-assessment process be holistic and demonstrate how any proposed project will affect the well-being of the peoples for future generations.  

Lessons can be learned from experiences of the research community. For example, Indigenous peoples reclaimed governance over the research agenda by establishing the principles of ownership, control, access, and possession in research that involves them. Chapter 9 of the Tri-Council Policy Statement—a joint policy of Canada’s three federal research agencies—is designed to serve as a framework for ethical research conduct that respects the diverse worldviews of Indigenous peoples.

The relationship between academic researchers and Indigenous peoples in Canada is being redefined. A participatory approach that requires meaningful partnerships built early on—with the research mandate coming directly from the people, with support from regional and/or national Indigenous leadership—has become the norm.

One example of how adopting such an approach can lead to success in obtaining data and rebuilding capacity in communities through partnership is the First Nations Food, Nutrition, and Environment Study.

With over $12-million in funding support from the First Nations Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada, researchers from the University of Ottawa and the Université de Montréal worked with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) to develop and implement the study.

A total of 6,487 First Nations peoples living in 93 reserves participated in the study. It helped give a full picture on diet quality, nutritional and health status, food security, drinking water quality, and food safety. This information can then be used by First Nations and policymakers to develop effective programs to promote health.

As a community-based research initiative, First Nations’ expertise was sought throughout the project, consulting on methodology, hiring community researchers, and vetting community reports. The study also adhered to the principles, which means First Nations control their own data.  

We envision research in the future that celebrates diversity, recognizes distinct languages and culture, promotes individual and community self-determination, and fosters the protection and conservation of the natural environment. We also hope that the resources industry will adopt a similar approach in forming meaningful partnerships with Indigenous peoples, to develop the economy in a responsible and sustainable manner, and to promote healthy environments and healthy people.

Laurie Chan is a Canada research chair in toxicology and environmental health at the University of Ottawa. Lynn Barwin is a research associate at the University of Ottawa. Malek Batal is a professor of nutrition at Université de Montréal and the director of the WHO-Collaborating Centre on Nutrition Changes and Development.

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