When Lee Wilson was hired at the University of Saskatchewan in 2004, he became Canada’s first chemistry professor of Indigenous ancestry.
Today, he remains one of just a handful. Dr. Wilson hopes to change that as a newly minted member of the Indigenous Leadership Circle in Research, meant to advise the presidents of the country’s three federal research funding agencies – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council – plus the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
“There is a large under-representation of Indigenous peoples in the natural sciences and engineering,” said Dr. Wilson, who is Métis and grew up in Lake Francis, Man. “There might be students in undergrad, but they don’t often go on to the graduate level. There are ways to address that.”
In May, Ottawa announced the 18 members of the circle – made up of elders, youth, knowledge keepers and academics at various career stages from across the country. They were selected based on the recommendations of an external committee of First Nations, Inuit and Métis scholars and community members.
The circle’s mandate is to help the agencies in four specific areas: building relationships with First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples; supporting research priorities of Indigenous peoples; creating greater funding accessibility to granting agency programs; and championing Indigenous leadership, self-determination and capacity-building in research.
An oversight role
As the official announcement takes pains to highlight, the circle is supposed to be more than just an advisory body. Often, advisory bodies are designed to ask specific questions, solicit advice and then hand over decision-making responsibilities, says Dominique Bérubé, vice-president of research at SSHRC.
“This is more of an ongoing oversight body for the implementation of our strategy” to support Indigenous research and research training, Dr. Bérubé said. “They can also decide if they want to engage on other topics. We don’t limit their mandate to specific questions,” she said, adding that other government agencies have asked if members might also advise them.
The impetus for the circle dates back to the release in 2015 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s watershed report. It identified 94 calls to action and highlighted the important role of research to advance the understanding of reconciliation.
Three years later, Ottawa committed $3.8 million to SSHRC to develop a strategic plan to identify new ways of doing research by and with Indigenous communities. This includes strategies to grow the capacity of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities to lead their own research and partner with the broader research community.
The circle, which held its first meeting in June, is still deciding how it will fulfil its role, said Dr. Wilson, and will hold its first meeting with the presidents of the tri-agencies in late July.
Dr. Wilson would like to see the circle pursue what he calls a “laddered approach” to getting more Indigenous academics into faculty positions. When he was hired for the University of Saskatchewan job, Dr. Wilson was awarded an NSERC sponsorship designed for women, Indigenous and other minority scholars. The sponsorship paid for half his salary during the first five years of his tenure.
While he had other offers, he decided to accept the award at U of S because it felt like the best fit and would allow him to work on water quality issues – a hugely important area of research in remote Indigenous communities.
Social and educational supports
The NSERC sponsorship program no longer exists, but Dr. Wilson doesn’t think it would be particularly helpful right now for most Indigenous scientists anyway. “It’s not sufficient unless you have a pool of people ready to enter the faculty stream,” he said. “What we need is a sequence of programs to support Aboriginal students so they can get opportunities that would be hard to get otherwise.”
That means more programs at the high-school level to encourage Indigenous students to take up science. Once Indigenous students get to university, the best way to keep them there is to offer social supports such as specialized academic counselling, and guidance on how to apply for scholarships and band funding, Dr. Wilson said. “These social supports are equal to, if not greater than financial support.” Like Wilson, fellow circle member Alexander Duncan stressed that the particulars of its mandate are still a work in progress.
“The circle is meant to guide the implementation of the strategic plan, but I think the mandate will likely expand to encompass more than just that,” said Mr. Duncan. “One aspect I think that is very important for this group is to hold the tri-agencies accountable to appropriately implementing the strategic plan and making sure this occurs in a good way that is respectful and meaningful.”
Mr. Duncan is a PhD student at the University of British Colombia, a sea lamprey researcher, and a member of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation in southwestern Ontario. He said being Indigenous has made an important impact in the way he approaches research, which will undoubtably inform the way he approaches his role in the circle.
“With this comes a responsibility to all my relations – fish included!” he said. “It has provided me with two perspectives – that of western science and that of Indigenous ways of knowing.”
It is time, Mr. Duncan said, for institutional and funding barriers to come down for Indigenous researchers and communities. The “extractive and unethical research practices of the past” need to change, he said. “While [the circle] can’t change the past, it can help to create a better future for Indigenous scholars and communities.”