The new Indigenous Research Support Team (IRST) within the University of Calgary’s research services has the goal of seeing research undertaken in “a good way” in Indigenous communities and on Indigenous lands.
It’s a necessary change, said UCalgary sociology professor Cora Voyageur, who has been carrying out research in Indigenous communities for decades.
Voyageur, who is from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in northern Alberta, is well aware of the other side of that research. Her community has been the destination for many academic researchers, some of whom have been “quite unethical.”
It’s now gotten to the point, she said, where Indigenous communities like hers are understanding they don’t have to welcome researchers to their lands.
“It’s all about relationships and having the people know you and trust you and (as a researcher) you’re placed in a very honoured position when people tell you their stories and give you information that can sometimes be seen as harsh, as hurtful.
“People will tell you what has happened to them in the past … This places people in a very vulnerable position. We have to honour that. We have to make people feel safe and to let them know we are working from a good place. So again, dealing with the issue of trust. Trust goes both ways,” said Voyageur, who spoke during the virtual launch of the IRST on Nov. 2.
“We want to do research in a good way,” said Dr. Robert Thompson, associate vice-president of research and director of research services at UCalgary.
Thompson, who took up his position in 2019, says the university understood the “crucial need” to both support its academic Indigenous researchers, as well as develop a “mutually beneficial relationship” with Indigenous communities.
He says Indigenous research is defined broadly: that which is done on campus; that which is conducted in partnership with Indigenous communities; and that which is carried out on Treaty 7 lands, where UCalgary is located. IRST will be the point of contact for all this work.
But more than that, said Thompson, IRST will be the “touch point” for Indigenous communities, entities and organizations to gather information. IRST will build the bridge between the academic world and Indigenous world.
“Building trust and that relational work is a hard thing to really navigate,” said Amber Bedard, who is lead for IRST. Bedard has an undergraduate degree in political science and Native studies and is a member of the Piikani First Nation in southern Alberta.
“I think it’s really important to acknowledge the history that research has had and the legacy that research has had in our communities and the negative interactions we’ve had. Indigenous people within the institution and externally through government channels, we’ve been studied and not in a good way. It’s been often one-sided, this conversation. So within this framework we understand these tensions.”
It’s a tension Dr. Michael Hart, vice provost of Indigenous engagement at UCalgary, can speak to. Hart is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba.
He says universities, which have been carrying out research over decades in a specific way, now must recognize Indigenous peoples’ practices.
“Research … (must) include things such as ethical space, developing relationships between peoples and respect for all peoples involved. The value of doing research in a good way, this has many meanings for our people, many meanings that we are incorporating within the University of Calgary and with our relationships with other academics and other institutions, with other people in other communities,” said Hart.
IRST is part of ii’taa’poh’to’p, UCalgary’s Indigenous strategy.
“ii’taa’poh’to’p acts as a foundation for our relationships with Indigenous communities and the responsibility that we all have to truth and reconciliation. Academic research is an area in which this relationship can be fostered,” said Dr. William Ghali, vice-president of research at UCalgary.
The creation of IRST, he said, was a priority for the university and will allow the post-secondary institution to “pursue Indigenous research in a reciprocal and responsible way.”
The strength of IRST, said Bedard, is that it is Indigenous-led and is accountable to the Indigenous community. Its protocols and guidelines will be developed with Elders and a circle of advisors and will be affirmed by the community and Indigenous leadership.
IRST is a three-year pilot project, which is concluding its first year of operation. Funding for it was received through the federal government’s Research Support Fund incremental project grants program.
Bedard says the hope is to make IRST a permanent feature in UCalgary’s research services.
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CJWE