Offended by Offence

Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans

On January 19, 2009, Rhoda Howard-Hassmann, Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights, Wilfrid Laurier University, sent a letter to the the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics.  The letter was commenting on the revised Draft 2nd Edition of the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS), and it provides a number of criticisms of this document.  Because of the important contribution that this letter makes to the discsusion of research ethics, especially those concerning the study of aboriginal peoples, I have posted it on the Ethics page of this blog (see TCPS research ethics – Howard-Hassmann).

It should be noted that Howard-Hassmann’s criticisms relate to an earlier draft of TCPS, since the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics has just released a revised version in November 2009 (  This revision involves chapter nine of the draft – “Research Involving Aboriginal Peoples in Canada”.  A review of this document indicates that many of Howard-Hassmann’s criticisms are still valid.  Because of the implications that this revised version has for academic freedom, it is important that people concerned about the rigorous study of aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations analyze this document and submit their comments to by March 1, 2010.

The interest in developing special research guidelines for the study of aboriginal peoples began in 2002, when it was asserted that research involving aboriginal peoples should be “based on respect for Aboriginal knowledge, research modalities, and rights and needs”.  As Howard-Hassmann points out, the guidelines that came out of this concern are extremely problematic because they state that aboriginal peoples should be able to control all aspects of research that pertains to them.  Restrictions on research being undertaken with respect to aboriginal communities have been around for a while (for example, an editor at UBC Press told me a number of years ago that his publishing house had protocols in place that stipulated that “the community” had to approve research findings before they could be published), but what is changing is that these restrictions are now being formalized, and therefore will be imposed more widely and deeply across the country.

While it is important that research is controlled to try to prevent harm to individuals (in drug studies, for example), the restrictions being imposed on research being conducted with respect to aboriginal communities are much broader. What one sees is often not the protection of individuals from harm, but an attempt to prevent research that is threatening particular political interests. The result is that studies done in aboriginal communities are more advocacy than research.

This pressure to turn research into advocacy occurs in a number of ways. The first, as is mentioned by Howard-Hassmann, is the focus on “the community”. “The community” usually means the native leadership, and as a result, research that is threatening to those in power is censored. This has been happening informally for a number of years; Noel Dyck mentions that nepotism in aboriginal politics often is silenced out of concern for the image of “the community”. This problem is even greater when leaders are abusers of women and children; research that would document these circumstances often cannot be published, enabling powerful members of the community to oppress the vulnerable unopposed.

This is related to two other points that Howard-Hassmann mentions – preventing “division” and “stigmatization”. Promoting “harmony” in aboriginal communities often amounts to pressuring the marginalized and abused from rising up against their oppressors (as has occurred in many “sentencing circles”). Stopping “stigmatization” means the prevention of studies that indicate high levels of dysfunction. As Howard-Hassmann correctly points out, this inhibits a timely response to address serious social problems. In the case of research into Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in B.C. for example, a study was halted because a high percentage of children were discovered to have been affected. This censorship is often justified under the guise that it is up to “the community”, not “outsiders”, to deal with the problem. But what if “the community” is in denial? Should the lives of future generations be sacrificed to appease “aboriginal pride”?

Another significant problem concerns, as Howard-Hassmann notes, the definition of “aboriginal knowledge” itself. As Albert Howard and I have also pointed out in Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, much of what is referred to as “aboriginal knowledge” is not knowledge at all. It is often the unsubstantiated beliefs of certain members of the native population (usually elders). The result is the demand that assertions unsupported by evidence be accepted within the social sciences, and the questioning of these beliefs is met with all sorts of hostility and demands for censorship (as was shown by the reaction to my presentation on “indigenous methodologies” in June 2008 at the CPSA). The Bering Strait theory, the refutation of the assertion that the Iroquois influenced the American constitution, and the questioning of the claim that aboriginal peoples discovered hundreds of drugs now being used in modern pharmacology, etc., are vehemently opposed because a frank discussion of these ideas are perceived as a threat to aboriginal political aspirations. This has implications for a wide range of academic disciplines; even the scientific enterprise of archaeology is under threat because of the aboriginal “interest” in ensuring that thousand of year old skeletons should remain undisturbed.

There is one statement of Howard-Hassmann’s that requires much more discussion within the academic community. This is her assertion that “…the interests of aboriginal groups must be protected, given their long suffering under colonial and assimilationist policies…”. What are the “interests of aboriginal groups” and how do these differ from those of non-aboriginal people? Are these “interests” perceived as being in conflict with the research that is being undertaken in the social sciences and humanities? One often hears, for example, how science has been “harmful” to aboriginal communities, but no elaboration is provided. There needs to be much more detailed analysis of what such cases consist of, and when these accusations of “harm” constitute an attempt to prevent incovenient truths from being recognized.