Research with Indigenous communities: engaging respectfully  

Building meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities is the only way to conduct respectful research in and with those communities, a group of 40 Saint Mary’s faculty members and graduate students heard at a workshop on May 1. 

“I get three to four calls a week from people who want to do research within our community,” said guest speaker Pamela Glode-Desrochers, Executive Director of the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre in Halifax. “My gut reaction is always, ‘What do you really want, and what’s the benefit to my community?’”

Some researchers expect to get results with a quick email or phone call but that’s not going to work. In sifting through hundreds of research requests per year, “the ones I tend to accept are from the people who show up, who come to our community events, who remain in contact,” said Glode-Desrochers, who is also a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Indigenous Affairs at Saint Mary’s.

“We have to have a real relationship, not just a fly-by-night thing. We have to know you’ll be there for the long term.”   

Professor Dr. Trudy Sable facilitated the half-day workshop. It opened with a ceremony and prayers led by Elders Mary Rebecca Julian and Gary Joseph, to acknowledge the importance of connectedness and creating community in doing research. The panel also included Roger Lewis, Curator of Ethnology at the Nova Scotia Museum; and Raymond Sewell, SMU’s Indigenous Student Advisor. The session focused on ethics and practice for appropriate and respectful engagement on research projects with Indigenous communities, particularly First Nations, Inuit and Métis in Canada.

In working with university students at the museum, Lewis impresses upon them that not all education happens in an academic setting. “I tell them there’s a new type of learning happening here. It’s important to try and understand the perspectives of the people you’re looking at,” he said.   

Language and technology can pose barriers to effective communication in research, added Sewell: “It’s important to try to get beyond the context of academia, and understand us in our own language. Some of our words and concepts don’t actually exist in the English language.”

When reading a final research report, people can sometimes feel misrepresented or “that ‘I didn’t say that.’ Our words can have a different meaning, we have a different way of thinking,” said Sewell.

University research continues to be vitally important but goes much farther when it’s conducted in a true partnership with Indigenous communities, said Glode-Desrochers. That means the community actively participates in setting the research priorities, in shaping the research proposals, and in framing the research questions.

“What will change things is when communities are holding their own research dollars. That’s when you’ll see a really big shift,” she said.

“We are finding our way through research. It’s an opportunity to find our own way, and that’s really important for us.”

An example of a collaborative research partnership is the making of the film Nakatuenita: Respect, which was a production of the Innu Nation with the Community Conservation Research Network (CCRN). The documentary was produced by Dr. Sable and Richard Nuna. Released last fall, it is now available to watch online and is worthwhile viewing for all researchers who work with Indigenous communities.

—Marla Cranston, Faculty of Arts