The best research emerges when it is done ethically and in collaboration with the communities it is meant to serve. Yet for hundreds of years, Indigenous Peoples have been either excluded or severely mistreated in research.

Recently, researchers at U of T, Dalhousie University, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) published a set of guidelines for research involving Indigenous peoples, developed over several years in collaboration with Indigenous scientists.

“Colonizing the disciplines” and “disciplining the colonized” 

When European colonizers arrived in what we now call North America, they brought their research practices with them — and imposed these practices on Indigenous Peoples in Canada. 

Linda Tuhiwai Smith is Māori of Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou, and director of the International Research Institute for Maori and Indigenous Education at the University of Auckland. They’re the author of Decolonizing Methodologies, a book on the history of research involving Indigenous peoples that discusses how to break out of a strictly Western research framework — explains this history through two lenses: “colonizing the disciplines” and “disciplining the colonized.” 

Western scientific disciplines and ways of research have become individualistic, assertive, and hostile toward other manners of thinking and research, wrote Smith. “Disciplining the colonized” has come in the form of marginalizing Indigenous peoples and their ways of thinking in forceful and violent manners. This marginalization naturally led to a mistrust of researchers within Indigenous communities.

A “paradigm shift” for research

In response, Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars have written extensively about how to approach research involving Indigenous peoples in culturally conscious ways. One example is a recent set of ethical and policy considerations published in Frontiers in Psychology by Dominique Morisano, Margaret Robinson, Brian Rush, and Renee Linklater from U of T, University of Ottawa, Dalhousie University, and CAMH, respectively. 

The researchers wrote that these guidelines have been inspired by previous documents created by Indigenous organizations and groups. While working at CAMH, three of the authors of the current paper conducted a review of numerous scholarly articles, policy-oriented documents, books, and online resources offering guidelines for Canadian settlers conducting mental health research with Indigenous peoples. 

They summarized this work in a 2018 CAMH internal report. To obtain feedback on the report, Morisano and colleagues requested that a large advisory committee of First Nations and Métis scholars and clinicians CAMH and other non-profits in Toronto review and make suggestions on the report. Those who did so were credited in the Acknowledgement section of the 2018 report. The current article in Frontiers in Psychology draws upon their contributions. 

One common thread throughout the guidelines is a need for fundamental shifts in how scientists think about and perform research. “The whole [research] system has to be… different to be inclusive of different ways of approaching research,” said Morisano, one of the co-authors of the review and an adjunct professor of public health at U of T, in an interview with The Varsity.

For instance, tight deadlines for publication and grants limit the time researchers have available to build relationships with Indigenous communities, which is crucial to any community-based research. 

“Something that’s done often, that I’ve seen, in teaching Indigenous research methodologies [is] placing yourself. [Asking yourself] who are you? Where are you from? Why are you interested in this as a researcher?” explained Julian Robbins in an interview with The Varsity. Robbins is of mixed ancestry with Mi’kmaq heritage and is the manager of research and knowledge mobilization at Shkaabe Makwa, a team at CAMH working on health justice and wellness for Indigenous Peoples. “In the West, there’s this idea that you’re supposed to be objective and non-feeling. But from an Indigenous perspective, you are part of the research because you are part of those relationships [with the community].”

Another important and necessary shift that the guidelines talk about is for researchers to work with Indigenous communities from beginning to end. It has become common practice for researchers to fully form research questions before engaging with communities. However, researchers should not have immutable aims or questions and instead be open to changing these according to a community’s input. 

Working collaboratively with communities may also involve modifications to the principle of “informed consent”. The guidelines suggest that the consent process should be circular, meaning consent is not obtained just once at the beginning but is sought continuously and throughout. Furthermore, researchers may want to challenge Western ideals of individual consent when they are not in accordance with ways of thinking common to many Indigenous communities, such as collective ownership. In such cases, the guidelines recommend seeking collective consent from community groups prior to individual consent. 

Collaborative research that benefits the community

Ultimately, research should benefit the community it came from by giving the community increased knowledge of conditions that affect them or by helping the community to effectively communicate its needs to non-Indigenous structures. “One of the things that struck me from doing this review was that very little to no research that had been done with Indigenous peoples has actually benefited Indigenous peoples in any way, or served them in any way,” said Morisano in the interview. 

Far too often, research has been “extractive,” as Robbins put it, where Indigenous communities provide information and data, only for that data to never help the community or even be shared with community members.

The Tri-Council Policy Statement 2 (TCPS 2) — official guidelines from Canada’s three Canadian federal research agencies that outline research involving human participants — shows how Morisano and colleagues’ new research guidelines could be implemented. For example, the TCPS 2 writes that if scientists collaborate with a First Nations community to research diabetes in the community, they should then ensure their work helps increase understanding of the disease within the community. 

To disseminate their findings, researchers should once again work with the community involved in their research to find the best ways to communicate the research, whether that be through providing plain language versions of reports, translations, oral presentations, or other means. The data from research should also be easily accessible to the community, entirely free of charge.

Benefits to the community extend far beyond simply sharing results. Researchers should also hire and purchase locally and participate in ‘capacity building.’ Capacity building involves training any interested community members in research methods, building infrastructure such as a university in the community, and training researchers in Indigenous histories, languages, and methodologies. In essence, capacity building facilitates reciprocal learning between researchers and community members.

In performing research with an Indigenous community, the key for researchers is to work alongside the community and never treat Indigenous Peoples as a monolith; there is immense diversity between and within Indigenous communities. These guidelines should serve as starting points for researchers working directly with an Indigenous community. 

“Indigenous-led research [is] about understanding and making efforts to understand… the underpinnings of these Indigenous methodologies that are out there and just waiting to be used,” said Robbins.