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Dr. Melissa Arcand, a soil scientist at the University of Saskatchewan and member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, received a federal grant to convene a meeting on indigenous farming. More than 100 projects across a broad range of disciplines received support through a one time funding call as Ottawa looks to research as an aid to reconciliation.Kayle Neis/The Globe and Mail

For Melissa Arcand, Indigenous agriculture is a matter of family heritage.

Long before she was a scientist, she grew up on her father’s farm, part of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, in a community where her grandparents also farmed and raised turkeys.

After she became an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan, Dr. Arcand, who is an expert in soil biogeochemistry, got curious about how Indigenous approaches to agriculture might affect soil quality and function. But her academic interest was stymied by a lack of data of the most basic kind.

“There’s just no information,” Dr. Arcand said.

That meant no one could tell her how many First Nations people were involved in agriculture across the Canadian prairies, let alone what they were growing and how. Nor had anyone systematically tracked how much First Nations land was being worked by non-Indigenous farmers, and under what terms – or how much decision-making power communities held over agricultural practices on their land.

Last month, Dr. Arcand moved to address that knowledge gap by convening a first-of-its kind meeting on Indigenous farming in Saskatchewan.

Her effort is just one of scores of projects set to be unveiled this week as part of a one-time federal funding call to bolster Indigenous research.

The call was launched last summer, based on a $3.8-million allocation in the federal government’s 2018 budget, which was later topped up to $5.6-million by granting councils. Winning projects received notice in November but Ottawa has waited until now to publicize the results, with Science Minister Kirsty Duncan set to officially announce the funding on Monday.

While the 116 grants are modest – none exceed $50,000 – collectively they represent one of the most significant steps the federal government has taken toward building Indigenous research into its funding machinery.

For many, that step is long overdue. Ottawa spends more than $6-billion on research each year, much of it channelled toward universities, hospitals and other research institutions through funding competitions that First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities typically have little or no access to. The disparity was identified by an independent review of federal science funding in 2017, but the main impetus for the grants that are set to be announced this week traces back to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report in 2015, which includes a call to action to establish a national research program “to advance understanding of reconciliation.”

In response, the government has taken a broad view of what such a research program would do, said Ted Hewitt, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the federal organization named in the call to action.

“It’s not simply a narrow exercise of studying a concept called reconciliation,” Dr. Hewitt said. “It’s about doing everything we can possibly do to support research by, for and with Indigenous communities in their own interest.”

The winning applicants are located across Canada and their projects span a broad range of disciplines, from environment and health to Indigenous knowledge, language, culture, education and economic development. Rather than direct research, the grants are largely intended to underwrite events and meetings such as the one organized by Dr. Arcand, where stakeholders come together to identify Indigenous research needs and how they are best addressed.

“The response has been tremendous,” said Ursula Gobel, who is overseeing the grants and tracking their outcomes for SSHRC. She said a key factor in raising the level of participation was the decision to open the competition to Indigenous organizations rather than just restrict it to university-based researchers.

One such organization is Saskatchewan-based Indigenous Works, which seeks to develop and improve connections between Indigenous communities and Canadian corporations across all sectors. Aided by a grant through the federal initiative, the organization is hosting a gathering of 50 Indigenous, business and academic participants in Vancouver later this week to discuss the potential for Indigenous involvement in small- and medium- size businesses whose owners are nearing retirement and in the process of developing successions plans.

Kelly Lendsay, Indigenous Works CEO, said that in addition to the grant, the organization has received an institutional status that would make it eligible for other research funding opportunities going forward. He added Indigenous organizations that receive such status from funding agencies are better placed to partner with universities and non-profit groups to develop Indigenous-led research.

“It’s going to accelerate and increase the opportunities for everybody,” he said.

Another project that won support through the competition is a two-day symposium in Montreal starting this Friday that aims to raise the profile of Indigenous research and address questions of respect and accountability when researchers work with indigenous communities.

“We want to build Indigenous research capacity and foster a culturally responsive research environment,” said Janine Metallic, an assistant professor in Indigenous education at McGill University and the symposium’s organizer. She added the efforts were a starting point for a larger role for research in the reconciliation process.

Lana Ray, an Indigenous faculty member at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, is working on another of the funded projects, related to documenting stories from the Lac Seul First Nation, which was displaced by a hydroelectric dam project in 1929. She said in addition to greater access to research funding, it is crucial for Indigenous communities to be able to set research priorities on their terms.

“Knowledge is power,” she said. “So whether people like to admit it or not, research is still an inherently political act.”

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