Researching First Nations

Canada’s major granting agencies, including the SSHRC, are overhauling their guidelines governing research on human subjects. Rhoda Howard-Hassmann, Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights at Wilfrid Laurier, comments on the proposed guidelines for research on Canada’s First Nations. (My thanks to Rhoda for forwarding this critique.)

[The section on Aboriginal Peoples] is by far the most problematic of the draft document. It is suffused with assumptions about the nature of aboriginal society and aboriginal knowledge that may very well not be accurate. It is, moreover, the only section of the document that seems to directly deny researchers the right to academic freedom: article 9.5 (p. 99), for example, states that First Nations people have a right to control all aspects of research that affects them, directly undermining academic freedom.

“Aboriginal knowledge” is used throughout this chapter without explanation as to what it is. As far as I can determine, it refers not only to statements of fact that are empirically verifiable according to normal scientific standards, but also to aboriginal beliefs and myths. For example, at p. 105, lines 3673-76, we are told that aboriginals objected to a genetic research program that challenged their “knowledge” about their identity. There is no suggestion here that this knowledge might be inaccurate. Academic freedom implies that any researcher can investigate anything an individual or a group claims to be its “knowledge”; we do not, for example, protect non-aboriginal Christians who insist on the empirical accuracy of their Biblical origin myth from academic inquiry into it, even if falsification of such a myth might undermine their Christian identity.

Lines 3853-54 p. 110 in the chapter on qualitative research state that “Knowledge…is treated as socially constructed.”  Yet we are enjoined in the chapter on aboriginal peoples to assume that knowledge is immutable, non-malleable, and not socially constructed.

There are also questionable statements of fact in the chapter on aboriginal peoples. What is the source of the statement on p. 101, lines 3508 ff, that traditional leadership structures are legitimate while leadership established under the Indian Act is not? Is this always the case?  This statement appears to present as fact particular ideological or political beliefs about legitimacy in aboriginal communities.

Furthermore, the injunction not to conduct research on aboriginal peoples which could result in stigmatization of whole communities could result in both denial of academic freedom and non-generation of research findings that might have a beneficial effects on aboriginal or non-aboriginal populations in the longer term. “Stigma” is a loose term; what one individual or group considers stigma another might consider necessary scientific information. If, for example, a particular indigenous population suffers from a disproportionately high rate of HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis, this could be considered by some people as stigmatizing and by others as information that a particular health, social or economic problem requires immediate remedy.

Along these lines, as well, why should researchers always avoid deepening divisions in a community? (p. 101, line 3523). Sometimes it is a good idea to deepen a division. Would we advise researchers on caste divisions in India, for example, to avoid conducting research that might make clear to Dalits their subordinate position in society? This injunction seems to deny to aboriginal individuals the autonomy that the draft claims is one of its key principles. Aboriginal individuals are not supposed to be allowed to think in ways that might deepen the divisions among them, although non-aboriginals are permitted to think that way.

This chapter is suffused with a very strong stress on aboriginal communities, as if they are consensually-based entities without divisions according to status, wealth, gender, or other such criteria—unlike any other community anywhere else in the world. While I agree that the interests of aboriginal groups must be protected, given their long suffering under colonial and assimilationist policies, there must be some statement that aboriginal leaders or elders do not have the right to veto research in which individual aboriginals might be interested in participating. With regard to Article 9.2, for example, the possibility of not engaging with the community in some situations must be allowed; for example, if all the community leaders are members of extended family x, and do not want extended family y’s circumstances to be investigated, the researcher must be permitted to circumvent the community leaders and go directly to family y. With regard to Article 9.4, the statement that in no case can community consent substitute for individual consent should be supplemented by a statement that in no case may community representatives block researchers’ access to individuals who wish to be research participants despite community disapproval.

As a minor matter, regarding Article 9: 13, p. 106, why do aboriginal communities have to share in the costs of research?  No other community of research participants is required to pay part of the cost of the research. What is the Panel getting at here?

In sum, if the principles of academic freedom are to apply to all other research except research about aboriginal communities, then this should be clearly stated so that researchers on aboriginal matters know they are operating under a different set of rules than they are used to. Moreover, if individual aboriginals are to be denied the autonomy that all other competent Canadian and other adults are assumed to enjoy, that should also be clearly stated.

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1 Response to “Researching First Nations”


  1. 1 Frances Widdowson August 16, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Dr. Howard-Hassmann’s critique of SSHRC’s proposed guidelines governing research on aboriginal peoples/communities is very timely. Restrictions on research being undertaken with respect to aboriginal communities have been around for a while (for example, an editor at UBC Press told me a number of years ago that his publishing house had protocols in place that stipulated that “the community” had to approve research findings before they could be published). What is changing is that these restrictions are now being formalized, and therefore will be imposed more widely and deeply across the country.

    Although I have not yet read these guidelines, Howard-Hassmann points to a number of assertions that also raise a red flag for me. While it is important that research is controlled to try to prevent harm to individuals (in drug studies, for example), the restrictions being imposed on research being conducted with respect to aboriginal communities are much broader. What one sees is often not the protection of individuals from harm, but an attempt to prevent research that is threatening particular political interests. The result is that studies done in aboriginal communities are more advocacy than research.

    This pressure to turn research into advocacy occurs in a number of ways. The first, as is mentioned by Howard-Hassmann, is the focus on “the community”. “The community” usually means the native leadership, and as a result, research that is threatening to those in power is censored. This has been happening informally for a number of years; Noel Dyck mentions that nepotism in aboriginal politics often is silenced out of concern for the image of “the community”. This problem is even greater when leaders are abusers of women and children; research that would document these circumstances often cannot be published, enabling powerful members of the community to oppress the vulnerable unopposed.

    This is related to two other points that Howard-Hassmann mentions – preventing “division” and “stigmatization”. Promoting “harmony” in aboriginal communities often amounts to pressuring the marginalized and abused from rising up against their oppressors (as has occurred in many “sentencing circles”). Stopping “stigmatization” means the prevention of studies that indicate high levels of dysfunction. As Howard-Hassmann correctly points out, this inhibits a timely response to address serious social problems. In the case of research into Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in B.C. for example, a study was halted because a high percentage of children were discovered to have been affected. This censorship is often justified under the guise that it is up to “the community”, not “outsiders”, to deal with the problem. But what if “the community” is in denial? Should the lives of future generations be sacrificed to appease “aboriginal pride”?

    Another significant problem concerns, as Howard-Hassmann notes, the definition of “aboriginal knowledge” itself. As Albert Howard and I have also pointed out in Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, much of what is referred to as “aboriginal knowledge” is not knowledge at all. It is often the unsubstantiated beliefs of certain members of the native population (usually elders). The result is the demand that assertions unsupported by evidence be accepted within the social sciences, and the questioning of these beliefs is met with all sorts of hostility and demands for censorship (as was shown by the reaction to my presentation on “indigenous methodologies” in June 2008 at the CPSA). The Bering Strait theory, the refutation of the assertion that the Iroquois influenced the American constitution, and the questioning of the claim that aboriginal peoples discovered hundreds of drugs now being used in modern pharmacology, etc., are vehemently opposed because a frank discussion of these ideas are perceived as a threat to aboriginal political aspirations. This has implications for a wide range of academic disciplines; even the scientific enterprise of archaeology is under threat because of the aboriginal “interest” in ensuring that thousand of year old skeletons should remain undisturbed.

    There is one statement of Howard-Hassmann’s that requires much more discussion within the academic community. This is her assertion that “…the interests of aboriginal groups must be protected, given their long suffering under colonial and assimilationist policies…”. What are the “interests of aboriginal groups” and how do these differ from those of non-aboriginal people? Are these “interests” perceived as being in conflict with the research that is being undertaken in the social sciences and humanities? One often hears, for example, how science has been “harmful” to aboriginal communities, but no elaboration is provided. There needs to be much more detailed analysis of what such cases consist of, and when these accusations of “harm” constitute an attempt to prevent uncomfortable truths from being recognized.


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