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Inuit call for a greater role in how northern research is conducted

The aim is to bring an end to “colonial approaches” that have traditionally excluded Inuit from research planning processes.


The organization representing Canada’s 65,000 Inuit said this country’s northernmost residents are tired of being regarded as incidental figures when research is conducted on their land – an area they know more intimately than most scientists do.

“For far too long, researchers have enjoyed great privilege as they have passed through our communities and homeland, using public or academic funding to answer their own questions about our environment, wildlife and people,” said Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK). “Many of these same researchers then ignore Inuit in creating the outcomes of their work for the advancement of their careers, their research institutions or their governments. This type of exploitative relationship must end.”

Mr. Obed’s comments are contained in the recently released National Inuit Strategy on Research. The document proposes a new approach that prioritizes local governance in the setting of research goals and managing the conduct of scientific projects. Mr. Obed launched the strategy in late March at an event in Ottawa. The aim, he said, is to bring an end to colonial approaches that have traditionally excluded Inuit from research planning processes and limited their access to findings.

The strategy identifies five priority areas to facilitate research that is “effective, impactful and meaningful to Inuit.” They are: advance Inuit governance in research; enhance the ethical conduct of research; align funding with Inuit research priorities; ensure Inuit access, ownership and control over data and information; and build capacity in Inuit research.

Even before the announcement, such demands were already finding favour among non-Inuit researchers who have worked in the North and come to value the contributions of local partners. Susan Kutz, a professor of veterinary medicine in the University of Calgary’s department of ecosystem and public health, recalled that soon after she began studying the effects of parasites on wildlife, she realized just how much the local hunters already knew about what was happening to species like caribou and musk oxen.

“I started to work really closely with communities to understand what it is they’re seeing out on the land,” she explained, adding that this interaction now represents more than just a component of her activities. “In the last decade, we’ve really moved beyond that and recognize there’s valuable information that people have – Inuit science and Inuit knowledge – that can be incorporated and guide research.”

Dr. Kutz was in Ottawa to address a breakfast gathering on Parliament Hill two days before the ITK released its research strategy document. The event, organized by the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering and the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, was attended by members of the Royal Society of Canada and its counterparts in the G7 group of countries. These academic organizations will be holding their own parallel conference in June as political leaders meet in Charlevoix, Quebec for the annual G7 summit, and will be producing their own public statements on northern research as part of that process.

A primary theme for those deliberations will be the sustainability of northern communities. The group responsible for drafting that part of the statement is being led by Jackie Dawson, an associate professor of geography who holds the Canada Research Chair in environment, society and policy at the University of Ottawa.

Dr. Dawson also spoke at the breakfast meeting, where she shared the insights she has gained through her work on the rapidly changing nature of arctic shipping. While the famed Northwest Passage dominates Canadian discussions of this topic, she pointed out that our coastline’s relatively narrow channels are still too ice-choked to support much marine traffic – although they are expected to become easily navigable in coming decades. She cautioned that this lead time should not make us complacent. “We have time to do it right, but we have to start right now,” she said.

Dr. Dawson added that as Canadians prepare for a changing Arctic, they must not view the region’s economic future exclusively through a southern lens, but also in terms of how this can benefit northern communities. For example, increased shipping means more opportunities to import food to the north and thereby reduce its exorbitant cost to local consumers. Progress could be further enhanced by the installation of harbour infrastructure that is taken for granted in the south but altogether absent in the north, where the unloading of ships is a challenging matter of moving goods across open shorelines and beaches.

This emphasis on improving the lives of northerners was welcomed by Carleton University graduate student Pitseolak Pfiefer, an Inuit born and raised in Iqaluit who moderated this discussion. He offered his own hope that the research role for northerners could be transformed into a genuine occupation, whereby hunters become paid employees with a status comparable to that of anyone else involved in a scientific undertaking.

Dr. Dawson suggested that the benefits of such employment could help to alleviate many of the social problems that afflict the region, including a high suicide rate driven by poverty and isolation. “We need to think about this in a holistic perspective, not just as a need for scientists,” she said. “We no longer come up to the north, take our work, and leave. We’re teaching our southern scientists how to be better northern researchers.”

Mr. Pfiefer, for his part, could not resist taking that mission a step further. “My goal is Inuit becoming better researchers,” he said, “but I think researchers can become even better Inuit.”

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  1. Jason G. / April 18, 2018 at 11:32

    One thing that must be frankly discussed is the often-encountered issue of timeliness, which is frequently encountered when conducting research in collaboration with Native American communities. I have experienced this several times and it is not an uncommon experience. For example, I am currently working on a project where the social consultation process involving Native American stakeholders/communities was essentially abandoned, because it could not be organized in a timely fashion. The researchers genuinely tried their best, but in the end it was just not feasible for a variety of reasons. So this important demographic slice is excluded because the project and funding had reasonable deadlines that had to be respected.

    We need to include Native Americans and other stakeholders in our research, but there has to be some compromise. I understand that there can be differences in goals, methods, communication, and time frames, but the fact is research must progress in a timely fashion. Of course this is a sensitive topic and few want to discuss it seriously, people invariably say the onus is all on the researchers. The work will also benefit these communities, therefore they should do their best to meet the researchers halfway.

    Blaming westerners and insinuating that they are unsympathetic, marauding bioprospectors is unhelpful and absurd; I believe you will be hard pressed to find a modern researcher who would not want to include relevant TK or indigenous input in their work, it’s just often not practical or feasible.

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