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Hayden King, left, executive director of Ryerson University's Yellowhead Institute, and Shiri Pasternak, research director. The Toronto-based Institute is an Indigenous-led think tank.

Clifton Li

University of Victoria environmental studies researcher Natalie Ban is helping to change the way academics do research in First Nations.

Historically, "helicopter researchers" flew in and out of First Nations, some of whom conducted research without consent, and academically exploited the community. But Dr. Ban is part of a growing movement in academia to change these practices, as well as to validate First Nations knowledge.

"I only do research with these communities if the research is co-created or invited by the First Nation," Dr. Ban says. This was the case for her recent research on fisheries management for dungeness crab and yellow-eye rockfish along British Columbia's coastline.

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"People who fish for these species within these First Nations have been observing a decline, but their observations tend to get dismissed as anecdotes by the people who are managing the fisheries."

Dr. Ban's research attempts to quantify this anecdotal, traditional information through extensive interviews so that it is recognized by fishery management bodies.

Researchers and academic institutions across the country are making it their mandate to overhaul the way Indigenous research, both past and present, is being used by changing the way information is gathered, acknowledged and viewed by Canadian academic institutions, government and policy makers.

"We need to make research not about exploitation … and we need to bring down the hierarchies of knowledge that say that only certain people are authoritative when it comes to having [or passing on] knowledge," explains Hayden King, executive director at Ryerson University's Yellowhead Institute think tank and who is Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation.

Dr. King says traditional knowledge – which is local, often culturally specific knowledge unique to a certain population or Indigenous community – has often been overlooked by the academic community and policy makers in Canada because it didn’t meet the standards set up in a colonial framework.

"I think often researchers will just say, 'We don't value your knowledge because you didn't pursue the scientific method,' but really that's just a guise for racism [because] … Indigenous researchers don't follow the same protocols."

The Yellowhead Institute, which opened in June, is an Indigenous-led think tank, and was developed to give Indigenous researchers the opportunity to provide greater input on both research and policy issues specifically relevant to Indigenous people.

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"The tradition we're bucking is the white Indian expert who values their knowledge over the people who have the lived experience," says Shiri Pasternak, research director of the Yellowhead Institute. "[They are] the knowledge holders in the community who are not only intelligent in their own right, but carry knowledge from past generations about medicine, about childbirth, about resource management, political governance and law."

According to Dr. Pasternak, there has always been a gap in Canadian university research because very little of it related to or took into account the more than half a million Indigenous, Métis and Inuit populations that make up the country.

"Yes, it's about filling the gap, but maybe it's also about picking up the work that's already been done and trying to recentre it within institutions that have historically ignored it," she adds.

However, there is a fear that incorporating Indigenous knowledge into academic institutions may be a temporary trend.

Chelsea Gabel, currently director of the Indigenous Research Institute at McMaster University and who is Métis, says the academic climate is ripe for this kind of change, but it needs to ride the momentum that is happening.

“I think we are at a critical time because we are in a truth-and-reconciliation era, but we don’t know how long that will last,” Dr. Gabel says. “We know it’s important now and for the last couple of years, but we don’t know how long this may last before we move on to something else.” But in this moment, in the current Canadian university research landscape, Dr. Gabel says she is optimistic about the momentum to change the way Indigenous research is conducted and traditional knowledge is viewed.

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“Never before have we had such a concentration of Indigenous people doing Indigenous research, and I think that’s a really important piece,” says Dr. Gabel. “Indigenous people are taking back control over their own research and doing really important work in our own communities.”

For Dr. Ban, who continues her fisheries management research on the West Coast, she is excited for a more collaborative framework to emerge, and says the future should see an increase of not only Indigenous research conducted by Indigenous people, but also more co-created studies by Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers.

“I think it really is a new era of doing research together,” she says.

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