New grants aim to bol­ster Indige­nous re­search

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS - IVAN SEMENIUK SCI­ENCE RE­PORTER

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 ex­ceeds $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, 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. 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 medi­um­size busi­nesses whose own­ers are near­ing re­tire­ment and in the process of de­vel­op­ing suc­ces­sions plans.

Kelly Lind­sey, 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 non­profit groups to de­velop Indige­nous-led re­search.

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.

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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