Frances Widdowson, Ph.D., Department of Policy Studies, Mount Royal University, 4825 Mount Royal Gate SW, Calgary, Alberta T3E 6K6, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Telephone: 403-440-6884
February 14, 2010
Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics, 350 Albert Street, Ottawa, ON K1A 1H5
I am a political scientist who studies aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations, and I would like to comment on the second draft of Chapter 9 of the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS). Quite frankly, I find this chapter very disturbing and a threat to the principles of sound academic inquiry. The threat lies in the Chapter’s attempt to politicize research, resulting in the justification of the suppression of findings that are contrary to the agenda of various aboriginal political organizations. In fact, Chapter 9 seems to be much more interested in pandering to the political concerns of the aboriginal leadership than in ensuring that research is conducted in an ethical manner.
The politicization of research is apparent in the first paragraph of Chapter 9, when it states that the recognition of Aboriginal and treaty rights in the Canadian Constitution “implies an ethical duty for those involved in research to acknowledge and support the desire of Aboriginal Peoples to maintain their collective identities and the continuity of their cultures”. This statement confuses politics with ethics. It should be recognized that the Constitution Act, 1982 was the result of a great deal of political gamesmanship (the reference to the “supremacy of God” in this document, for example, was incorporated because a number of evangelical Christians lobbied the government of the time, but this does not mean that researchers should be required to “acknowledge and support the desire” of these groups to assert the existence of “God”). Therefore, it is very dangerous to try to impose this political agenda on researchers. What if a researcher finds that the maintenance of certain aspects of “collective identities” and “the “continuity of…cultures” are socially destructive? Should they be prevented from documenting this in their research? Chapter 9 notes that “Aboriginal peoples are particularly concerned that research should enhance their capacity to maintain their cultures, languages and identities as distinct peoples and to facilitate their full participation in and contribution to Canadian society”, but this is a political argument and not the basis for a scientific research agenda. What if the aboriginal “capacity to maintain their cultures, languages and identities as distinct peoples” conflicts with “their full participation in and contribution to Canadian society”? Should a researcher avoid coming to this conclusion even if it is warranted by the evidence?
More specifically, there are two areas of the TCPS that are particularly destructive to the acquisition of knowledge about aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations. One involves “community control” over research. The second pertains to assertions that “Indigenous knowledge systems” should be “respected” by researchers.
With respect to “community control” over research, Chapter 9 notes that “while continuing to respect individual autonomy, this Policy acknowledges the role of community in shaping the conduct of research, in particular, research that affects First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples”. To achieve this end, it is maintained that “collaborative research should be relevant to community needs and priorities and should benefit the participating community as well as extend the boundaries of societal knowledge”. Research, therefore, “should be relevant and have the potential to produce valued outcomes from the perspective of the community and its members”.
But what if the “role of the community in shaping the conduct of research” conflicts with “respect [for] individual autonomy”? And what if “community…priorities” are intent on opposing “extend[ing] the boundaries of societal knowledge”?
These statements in Chapter 9 are completely oblivious to the possibility that “community control” over research can be used to oppose the acquisition of knowledge. This has been seen in two of the examples referred to in Chapter 9 – the “violation of community norms regarding the use of human tissue and remains” and the “dissemination of information that… stigmatized whole communities”. With respect to the use of “human tissue and remains”, some aboriginal leaders have tried to obstruct the study of ancient skeletons because it was feared that this knowledge would challenge their claims to the land based on original occupancy (the case of Kennewick man, for example). Finding the Long Ago Person Found skeleton even resulted in the remains being cremated in a “spiritual ceremony”, resulting in the destruction of a priceless piece of archaeological data that could have been used indefinitely to increase knowledge about the people living at that time. The research of Spencer Wells into genetics also has been obstructed because a number of aboriginal leaders did not want their creation myth to be refuted with DNA evidence. In addition, concerns about “stigmatization” have been used to suppress research on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, AIDS in native communities and reserve corruption. The muzzling of these research findings under the guise of “community control” has prevented an understanding of the seriousness of these problems and the urgency of the policy response needed.
These problems about “community control” of research are related to the other major difficulty found in Chapter 9 – the dictate that research findings should be interpreted “in the context of cultural norms and traditional knowledge”. It is maintained that researchers should “respect…Indigenous knowledge systems by ensuring that distinct world views are represented wherever possible…”, but “indigenous knowledge” is defined as including “feelings”, “spirit”, “the land as a living entity that reveals the way to living a good life”, and “spirituality expressed in traditional or Christian practices, relationships with ancestors and responsibilities to future generations”. With this definition, Chapter 9 is confusing knowledge with belief, and is therefore mandating researchers to accept untrue beliefs and opinions as “knowledge”. This will not have the effect of “extend[ing] the boundaries of societal knowledge”, but the opposite.
Chapter 9 refers to circumstances where there has been a “devaluing of Indigenous knowledge as primitive or superstitious”, but there are numerous examples of “Indigenous knowledge” where such a label would be appropriate. Throwing beaver fetuses into the water so that they can be “reborn” is just one such instance. This is a belief that existed before the development of scientific wildlife management practices, and it could, therefore, be characterized as “primitive”. Also, the definition for “superstition” is the following: “an irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome” or a “belief, practice, or rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature or by faith in magic or chance”. The views of some aboriginal people, like all who believe in the supernatural, can be characterized as such. Why should researchers be prevented from making such an accurate declaration if the beliefs in question are consistent with this dictionary definition?
The demand that that research findings should be interpreted “in the context of cultural norms and traditional knowledge” is very destructive to the research process and will result in the acceptance of research findings that are not supported with evidence. This has the capacity to undermine research that is being undertaken in all academic disciplines. In the case of political science, for example, pressure to accept the viewpoints of certain aboriginal people as “knowledge” is already resulting in the acceptance of incorrect information in our discipline. One example concerns claims about the “Iroquois Constitution”. Aboriginal political scientists like Kiera Ladner, for example, maintain that the Iroquois political system influenced the American Constitution, despite the paucity of evidence to support this contention. Arguing that aboriginal viewpoints must be accepted as “knowledge”, however, is preventing these dubious claims from being subjected to scholarly criticism.
Another example concerns the claim by the aboriginal “oral historian” Stephen Augustine. According to Augustine, his “reading” of a wampum belt indicated that it was a component of the “Mi’kmaq Constitution”. An in depth investigation of the matter by the University of Toronto anthropologist Alexander von Gernet, however, found that the belt had nothing to do with the Mi’kmaq, but had actually belonged to a French aboriginal group that gave it to the Pope as a present. In this case, would the dictate to “respect…Indigenous knowledge systems by ensuring that distinct world views are represented wherever possible…”, mean that researchers would have to put forward Augustine’s highly suspect “interpretation” as a form of “knowledge”? If so, how would the two “world views” be reconciled in terms of trying to understand the actual nature of the wampum belt or the political traditions of the Mi’kmaq?
Chapter 9 needs to determine its purpose. Is its goal to appease the political demands of aboriginal organizations or increase knowledge in academic disciplines? These two objectives are often incompatible with one another. As has been shown above, mandating aboriginal “community control” over the research process and respect for “Indigenous knowledge” often results in incorrect ideas being incorporated into academic disciplines such as political science. Not only will this seriously undermine scholarship on aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations; it is also condescending to aboriginal people and prevents them from becoming legitimate actors in the research process and actual contributors to social knowledge.