Tag Archives: Kiera Ladner

More on research ethics and aboriginal peoples

Frances Widdowson, Ph.D., Department of Policy Studies, Mount Royal University, 4825 Mount Royal Gate SW, Calgary, Alberta T3E 6K6, Email: fwiddowson@mtroyal.ca, Telephone: 403-440-6884

February 14, 2010

Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics, 350 Albert Street, Ottawa, ON K1A 1H5

Dear Colleagues,

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.


Frances Widdowson

Academic freedom, scholarly debate and the CPSA

Stuart Soroka, the 2010 Programme Committee Chairperson for the CPSA, had a message posted on the Women’s Caucus listserve before it was moderated (see Email from Stuart Soroka – January 4 on the Ethics page of this blog).  In this message, Soroka assured members of the Women’s Caucus that my paper was transferred to a poster session because it “did not easily fit into a panel with other papers from the REIPP [Race, Ethnicity, Indigenous Peoples and Politics] section”.  He goes on to point out that the “the committee approved of the decision (as the committee must approve of all section heads’ decisions for CPSA conferences)” and that “the charge of any unprofessionalism on [Kiera Ladner’s] part is, to be frank, wholly unfounded”.

While “the charge of any unprofessionalism” could very well be without merit (it was merely noted that Ladner “seems to have left herself open to a charge of unprofessionalism”, and this suspicion was based on Ladner’s previous inability to be objective about my work on aboriginal policy), there are a few things that should be mentioned in response to the committee’s decision about my proposal’s lack of “fit” within the REIPP section.  I have been told that the CPSA, in the past, has been concerned about placing me on a panel with other scholars who study aboriginal politics out of fear that my ideas could create a hostile reaction (a circumstance that was realized at the 2008 conference).  The creation of the REIPP section has exacerbated this problem because it has tended to move presentations about aboriginal peoples and aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations out of more traditional academic sections (comparative politics, Canadian politics, etc.), and into a section that is influenced by an “identity politics” orientation.  Therefore, the idea of “fit” could have more to do with trying to avoid conflict than with academic considerations.

Second, it seems odd that the CPSA would not want to have a proposal concerning research ethics and aboriginal peoples, aboriginal epistemology, etc., discussed in a formal panel.  The CPSA devoted a section of its report on research ethics to “Research involving Aboriginal peoples”, and the second draft of the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans’ chapter concerning “Research Involving Aboriginal Peoples in Canada” has just been released for scholarly consideration.  Brock et al., in their letter “Racism, chilly climate, our responsibility and the discipline”, even suggested that a “major CPSA *Plenary on Responsibility Difference and the Discipline* might be productive” and “would attract a phenomenal attendance and would generate the kind of constructive professional debate we desire within the CPSA, and would be a mentoring opportunity for graduate students and junior faculty” (the people recommended for the plenary, however, did not come from a wide range of perspectives and were largely supportive of the existence of different “ways of knowing”). 

Past CPSA sessions also have sparked considerable interest in these topics.  The panel that Albert Howard and I participated in with Sandra Tomsons in 2009 was packed and led to a lively, but restrained, discussion.  Kiera Ladner’s proposal last year entitled “Decolonizing the Discipline: Respecting Indigenous Knowledge & Using Indigenist Methodologies” was also accepted.  The abstract for this presentation was as follows:

“Since Columbus was discovered, knowledge of the Americas and the peoples who lived there captured the minds and imaginations of some of Europe’s greatest political philosophers: More, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Spencer, and Engels, to name but a few. Despite the fact that Indians of the Americas have occupied the imaginations of the world since the time of ‘discovery’, Indians have not occupied the imaginations of modern political scientists. Political science has ignored Indigenous political traditions and studied contemporary Indigenous politics only from the vantage point of the western-eurocentric tradition. Simply put, most have been unable to escape their paradigm paralysis to understand the politics of the ‘other’ on its own terms or as separate from the western-eurocentric experience. In so doing, political science has perpetuated a western-eurocentric understanding that virtually denies ‘others’ a voice within the discipline. This paper draws on the theoretical undertaking of my dissertation and updates the uncirculated paper presented at UofA (the abstract of which led to a heated exchange at CPSA). It engages the discipline’s construction of the Indigenous and argues that it is necessary to understand the ‘other’ not from the vantage of the western-eurocentric intellectual tradition as this readily perpetuates misunderstanding but from the vantage of their own intellectual and political traditions. It argues that proceeding as such enables a trustworthy post-colonial/decolonizing understanding of Indigenous politics within political science and that the effect of such a paradigm shift has the potential to be of great benefit to the discipline as a whole not just the study of Indigenous politics”.

A number of assertions put forward by Ladner still need to be analyzed and debated (for some reason, Ladner did not produce a paper fleshing out this abstract).  What are the “Indigenous political traditions” to which Ladner refers?  How do we “understand the politics of the ‘other’ on its own terms”?  And what is a “trustworthy post-colonial/decolonizing understanding of Indigenous politics within political science” and how will this “be of great benefit to the discipline as a whole not just the study of Indigenous politics”?  Once again, we seem to have the contradiction of saying that there should be a “different” understanding that only the identity group can have (i.e. it cannot be evaluated with universally accessible social scientific methods), yet this “understanding” must be accepted by all as a benefit to political science.

Ladner’s proposal was included in a workshop on “‘Race’, Racism and Anti-racism as Political Science: Framing and Re-Framing Relationships”, which also included presentations on “Race, Empowerment and Crisis Management: Black Political Leadership and Hurricane Katrina” and “Beyond Racial Exceptionalism: Explaining the Convergence of Mixed-Race Census Categorizations in Canada, the US and Great Britain”.  Interestingly, the two latter presentations are very dissimilar from Ladner’s and do not really concern epistemological matters.  Ladner’s presentation, in fact, would have “fit” much better with the presentations of Tomsons, Howard and myself, but, for some reason, Ladner was not included on our panel, which largely concerned epistemological questions.  Therefore, “fit” appears to be a very subjective determination of the programme committee.

It should be noted that unscholarly responses to work critical of the prevailing “aboriginal orthodoxy” have been occurring for quite some time, and so it should not really be surprising if this is continuing in my case. Radha Jhappan, for example, stated publicly that “fundamental racism” formed the basis of Tom Flanagan’s book First Nations? Second Thoughts even though no evidence was provided to sustain this accusation. Similar problematic conduct occurred when Flanagan’s book was awarded the Donald Smiley Prize. The chair of the jury, Gurston Dacks, quit when he was outvoted, displaying contempt for a process that he had agreed to participate in (rejecting it only when he lost the vote).  Joyce Green has noted that the political science community was “fractured” because the jury’s decision “implicated us all in rewarding something that many of us felt was deeply wrong” (Marci McDonald, “The Man Behind Stephen Harper”, The Walrus, October 2004, www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/the-man-behind-stephen-harper-tom-flanagan/5/).

Green’s comments reflect the deep problems that exist in political science with respect to the study of aboriginal peoples and aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations.  What is meant by saying that someone’s scholarship is “deeply wrong”?   Shouldn’t political scientists be concerned about the quality of the arguments and the amount of evidence that is being put forward to support them?  Unfortunately, the characterization of Flanagan’s work in moral terms has prevented a comprehensive analysis of his arguments.  Postmodern political scientists feel justified in dismissing Flanagan’s arguments as reprehensible, when engaging with them would help us all to more fully understand aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations.  One does not have to agree with arguments to critically analyze them; avoiding opposing viewpoints because one dislikes their preconceived implications, however, is anti-intellectual and is harmful to the academic integrity of the discipline of political science.

Is criticism of cultural relativism racist?

The battle with certain members of the Women’s Caucus of the Canadian Political Science Association appears to be entering a new phase.  In a posting on the Women’s Caucus listserve, the distinguished political science professor from McMaster University, Janet Ajzenstat, weighed in with the following (for the full posting see “WC email – Janet Ajzenstat” on the Ethics page of this blog):

“In a recent contribution Jill Vickers speaks of “an issue” but doesn’t elaborate [see  “WC email – Jill Vickers” on the Ethics page of this blog]. She apparently wants to settle an issue. Let me suggest two issues the Caucus might discuss. Neither can be easily settled.

The first is that Kiera Ladner seems to have left herself open to a charge of unprofessionalism. I may not be in possession of all the facts. Correct me if I am wrong. It seems – a number of people may conclude – that Ladner rejected Frances Widdowson’s submission for a panel presentation at the CPSA this spring because it criticizes Ladner’s research.

I’m in touch with Widdowson. I read her Mount Royal University blog. I understand that she was offered a poster session. For goodness sakes! She could fill an auditorium. She should have been invited to address the Congress at large.

Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry (with co-author Albert Howard) has attracted almost unprecedented attention in academe and in the public sphere. Widdowson and Howard are major contributors to what many see as the most important domestic problem in this country: the wretched poverty on some reserves, the appalling condition of housing, and aboriginal exclusion from Canadian political life. Not everyone agrees with the analysis in Disrobing, but the argument is extensive, well grounded, and must be addressed openly. A few panel presentations will not suffice. There will be – there should be – continuing exploration of Widdowson’s facts and arguments. She must be allowed to develop her argument and take it in new directions. We can expect years of fruitful debate.

The second – related –  issue is this: Widdowson is tackling the problem of cultural relativism. The book has additional gravity because it deals head on with one of the central philosophical themes of our age. The main outlines of the argument on cultural relativism are well established. I won’t rehearse them. “Aboriginal ways of knowing,” “women’s ways of knowing”: there is every reason to welcome discussion of the subject. Indeed it can’t be suppressed. It cannot be adequately pursued on a poster board.

Widdowson’s current research promises an investigation into the SSHRC’s insistence that research on aboriginal reserves be limited by respect for “aboriginal ways of knowing.” Let me urge the Women’s Caucus to endorse investigation of this topic. Widdowson writes (Mount Royal blog): ‘If the CPSA were really interested in open and vigorous debate, as it claims, it would organize a debate on aboriginal epistemologies in political science between Kiera Ladner and myself.’ I agree. I’d nominate Rhoda Hassmann as commentator/chair”.

Ajzenstat’s comments about cultural relativism are especially pertinent.  If it can be believed, it seems that the question “is criticism of cultural relativism racist?” is being answered in the affirmative by certain members of the Women’s Caucus of the Canadian Political Science Association.  Although there has been no substantiation of the anonymous allegations that “racist remarks” were made and “overt and blatant racism” was expressed in my presentation, a person attending the 2008 Women’s Caucus meeting inferred that it was my “critique of aboriginal epistemology which was racist and offensive” (see the “Email exchange between F and and L” on the Ethics page of this blog).  Because these members of the Women’s Caucus appear to assume that questioning the scholarly value of “aboriginal ways of knowing” is “racist”, they feel that it is appropriate to prevent this viewpoint from being discussed.

But does it make sense to argue that there are “aboriginal ways of knowing”?  To do so is to assume that ancestry (race?!) determines philosophy – a proposition that is actually racist.

This is not to argue the point, as Joanna Quinn has attributed to me (see Letter from Joanna Quinn on the Ethics page), that “aboriginal scholars have nothing to contribute simply because they are aboriginal”.  It is to state that all people, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, must use rigorous methods if they are to make a meaningful contribution to political science.   As I pointed out in “Native Studies and Canadian Political Science: The Implications of ‘Decolonizing the Discipline” (see the Advocacy Studies page of this blog), what is referred to as “aboriginal ways of knowing” in the Native Studies literature does not really constitute “knowledge” at all, since it asserts that subjective opinions are fact and maintains that unsubstantiated supernatural forces shape the nature of the universe.

Minutes for the 2008 CPSA Women’s Caucus meeting

When double checking how the list of women attending the 2008 Women’s Caucus’ meeting was represented on the minutes (Kiera Ladner, who is now helping to vet proposals for the 2010 CPSA  conference, played a prominent role in this meeting but was not recorded as being “present”), it was discovered that these minutes have been removed from the CPSA Women’s Caucus website (www.cpsawomen.ca/lucheon/index.htm).  Fortunately, I was able to retrieve a cached version from November 2009 and have made a PDF and posted it on the Ethics page of this blog.

As I am not included in the correspondence about these matters, I have no idea what the removal of the minutes means.  Is there now concern, after over a year, that making unsubstantiated allegations about the expression of “overt and blatant racism” is at best unethical, and at worst libelous?  Or perhaps it is the fact that not recording Kiera Ladner as being “present” at this meeting (a fact publicized two days ago on this blog) might result in a questioning of the professionalism of this body? 

This omission in the Women’s Caucus’ minutes, in fact, led me to be much too charitable about Kiera Ladner’s behaviour last year.  As I stated in the following comment on Janet Ajzenstat’s blog “The Idea File” on November 22, 2008: “It should be noted that this letter [to Canadian Political Science Association members] does not concern the conduct of either Joyce Green or Kiera Ladner, two political scientists were originally mentioned in relationship to the events that transpired… The people to whom this letter refers are those unidentified members of the Women’s Caucus who were in attendance at the June 6 meeting and stated that my presentation expressed “overt and blatant racism” (according to the Women’s Caucus’ minutes, neither Green nor Ladner were present at the meeting [emphasis added])”   (http://janetajzenstat.wordpress.com/2008/11/02/from-fierlbeck).

If the Canadian Political Science Association really wants to repair the damage caused by its affiliate, it should demand that those present at the 2008 meeting either substantiate their accusations that “overt and blatant racism” was expressed in my presentation, or a retraction should be posted on PolCan for all members to see.  But since the CPSA seems reluctant to take a principled stance against this clique of its membership, this remedy is likely to remain elusive.

Peer review and Native Studies

Writing about the circumstances surrounding climategate has prompted me to think about the peer review process and research involving aboriginal peoples. While climategate constituted just one instance of peer review politicization, and is unlikely to be representative of the huge amount of research that is currently being undertaken with respect to global warming, the same cannot be said of the peer review process for scholarship undertaken on aboriginal peoples.  Even more disturbing is that the corruption of the process takes place at the level of the selection of reviewers, and so evidence is suppressed much earlier in the process.  This circumstance is legitimized by an acceptance of “indigenous knowledge and methods” in scholarship pertaining to aboriginal people, which results in highly dubious claims being published in respected peer reviewed journals.

In political science, the politicization of the review process has meant research that comes to conclusions that are supportive of parallelist arguments for land claims and self-government is eagerly embraced, while scholarship challenging these political demands is rejected.  As a result, there are numerous claims about the existence of pre-contact aboriginal “nationalism”, “governance”, “law”, and even “constitutionalism”, which are being incorporated into the foundations of the discipline and introductory textbooks. In the case of the Canadian Journal of Political Science, for example, an article published is supposed to be “excellent in all its aspects”, yet this journal published an article by Kiera Ladner – “Up the Creek: Fishing for a New Constitutional Order” (December 2005) – that made many claims supported only by political statements from the Union of Nova Scotia Indians and the wishful thinking of James Youngblood Henderson and his associates.   The paper is so poorly proofread, in fact, that it misspells the name of John Borrows numerous times, and does not contain a reference for “Henderson et al., 2000”, even though this work was used to provide a full page quotation in support of the alleged “connections…between the Mi’kmaw worldview and their constitutional order”.

Compare the publication of Ladner’s piece, which makes highly improbable claims that a pre-contact “Mi’kmaw constitutional order” was “similar to the British Constitutution” and “comprises and defines distinct, political, economic, educational, property and legal systems” (without any evidence except a reference to another, very problematic peer reviewed article of Ladner’s – “Governing Within an Ecological Context: Creating an AlterNative Understanding of Blackfoot Governance”, Studies in Political Economy, 2003), to my article on corruption in aboriginal communities that was rejected (the article, “Inherent Right of Unethical Governance – Widdowson – peer reviewed copy”, is available on the Aboriginal Policy page of this blog). This article was rejected because

“the author offers the argument that traditional governance systems based on kinship networks and norms of generalized reciprocity deny the rule of law and are inherently unethical and an inappropriate basis for governance in modernity. The author argues that corruption is inherent in aboriginal governance, without providing a compelling account of its actual scope. The author provides evidence from a variety of reasonable sources that corruption exists in aboriginal communities, however this evidence is largely anecdotal.  As a reader I am not provided with an analysis that allows me to make my own evaluation of the severity and extent of corruption on a national level.  The author makes no attempt to show that x% of reserve communities, for instance, have evidence of corrupt political practices, or have an endemic history of political nepotism. For if such an analysis showed, for instance, that 60% of aboriginal governments were corrupt and 40% were not, then I would be able to accept a conclusion that corruption is a big problem, but certainly not inherently so. If the numbers showed a corruption rate of 100%, then I could go about evaluating the empirical analysis and then, if the data was sound, have to deal with the consequences of such a remarkable finding. Surely making a sound empirical case is difficult, given the difficulty in getting this kind of data.  However, this type of methodical empirical analysis is necessary for me as the reader to jump from the observation that corruption exists to the conclusion that aboriginal governance is inherently unsound”. 

Publishing this piece would have been impossible  under these conditions – as the reviewer seems to recognize – because of the difficulties in acquiring the data that would be necessary to meet this standard or rigour, even though it is generally recognized that corruption is much higher in aboriginal governments than in municipal, provincial or federal governments in Canada.

A similar problem occurred in an article that Albert Howard and I tried to submit to the journal Arctic on “traditional knowledge” (the article – “Aboriginal traditional knowledge, science and public policy – Widdowson and Howard – peer reviewed copy” – is available on the Aboriginal Policy page of this blog).  Although the the article was favourably reviewed by two wildlife biologists working for the federal government and Robert McGhee, an archaeologist with the Canadian Museum of Civilization, it was rejected by three other reviewers who thought it was too “antagonistic” and did not contribute to constructive debate.  One reviewer even stated that the paper “…should offer a more balanced way forward rather than just a rant. The overall tone is too negative and sometimes, just outright offensive. The paper puts ‘science’ on a pedestal where it does not belong. The argument about relativism is perhaps ironic as there is not much in this paper in seeking common ground…”.   One of the most interesting aspects of this review is that the word “science” is put in ironic quotation marks, suggesting that its existence is somehow in doubt, even though the journal’s mandate is to “advance the study” of this region “through the natural and social sciences”.

 The obstacles to expressing critical viewpoints in scholarly venues appear to be increasing with the decision of the Canadian Political Science Association to divert a paper that I proposed presenting – “Aboriginal Peoples, Political Science and Research Ethics: Should Indigenous Politics be Studied Differently?” – to a “poster session” (where pictures and graphs are put on a 4′-6′ poster in the reception area, not in a formal panel).  The ideas in this proposal will be very difficult to present in this visual form, since they will require the elaboration of complex arguments with detailed examples provided as evidence.  This problem can be discerned by examining the proposal’s abstract: 

“In the development of research in Canada, there are increasing attempts to ensure that the study of human subjects is conducted ethically. As a result, bodies like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] recommend that research ethics boards should be put in place to review research applications requesting funding. Of particular significance is research pertaining to the study of groups that are perceived as vulnerable. There is heightened concern about the impact that research can have on aboriginal peoples, for example, because of the power imbalances instituted by colonization. It is argued that additional protection should be provided to the native population, and it is even assumed that the preservation of culture should be a goal of the studies conducted. Although it is important that individuals be protected from physical and psychological harm as much as possible, these developments in research ethics raise a number of questions about the constraints that will be placed upon academic freedom and a researcher’s capacity to investigate their area of study. In the efforts to balance the risk of harm with the potential benefits for society, it has become apparent that the importance of academic freedom is almost completely ignored in these ethics guidelines. This is particularly pertinent with respect to the study of aboriginal peoples; it needs to be recognized that the application of “research ethics” in the area of Native Studies often opposes researchers’ attempts to increase knowledge about the actual character of aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations”. 

How can this be represented on a poster?  As a result of this decision, I will be unable to present these ideas and “aboriginal epistemologies” will be promoted unopposed within political science.  This will be detrimental to to the academic credibility of the discipline of political science and its professional body in Canada.

Although it is not clear why diverting this topic to a poster session occurred, it probably has something to do with the fact that Kiera Ladner is the head of the section of the programme committee to which the proposal was submitted (the Women’s Caucus cabal is also heavily involved in promoting this session).  Ladner’s work, in fact, would have been discussed in my paper as an example of the problem of insisting that “aboriginal knowledge” must be respected (a requirement of current research ethics guidelines).  Ladner was also present at the infamous meeting of the Women’s Caucus in 2008 where anonymous allegations that my work was “racist” were made (I did not know Ladner was present until a few months ago because her name was not recorded in the minutes in the list of members “Present: (2008 Caucus Meeting)”. Evidently, at this meeting, Ladner was very distraught during the discussions about the paper that I had presented. It is reported that a large amount of hugging and comforting Ladner ensued,  as well as “talk of solidarity and outrage”. Although the discussion of the nature of my “overt and blatant racism” was not specified, it appeared that my critique of aboriginal epistemology – the idea that native people, because of their ancestry, have a “different way of knowing”, not accessible to others – was believed to be offensive by the postmodern clique now controlling the content of some CPSA panels.

When will it end?  One colleague has recommended that I try to present my ideas in other political science venues that are “less parochial”.  But, if I choose this course of action, doesn’t this mean that unsubstantiated and highly improbable arguments such as Ladner’s will continue to be accepted as legitimate within the discipline of political science?  What impact will this have on the discipline and our capacity to understand aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations and the development of politics and government more generally?  If the CPSA were really interested in open and vigorous debate, as it claims, it should organize a debate on “aboriginal epistemologies” in political science between Kiera Ladner and myself.

The Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA) responds

On December 10, 2009, Dr. Keith Banting, the President of the CPSA, sent me a letter responding to a complaint that I had made to the Board of Directors (this letter is available on the Ethics page of this blog).  For those unaware of the events that transpired last year, a number of members of the Women’s Caucus of the CPSA posted anonymous allegations on the their website that “overt and blatant racism was expressed” during a “panel on aboriginal politics”, and that “similarly offensive behaviours” had occurred at “previous CPSA meetings” (http://www.cpsawomen.ca/lucheon/index.htm.  The examples given of “offensive behaviours” were that members were called “squaws” and “similar offensive language was used”.  There was even a “discussion of whether this was ‘hate speech’ under the criminal code”.  Although I was not named on the website, I was specifically mentioned in discussions on the Women’s Caucus listserv (see the letter from Joanna Quinn posted on the Ethics page), and I was identified as the person being complained about on Janet Ajzenstat’s blog “The Idea File” (http://janetajzenstat.wordpress.com/2008/08/28/harvey-mansfield-on-canada/). 

Although there has been no substantiation of the “overt and blatant racism” that I supposedly expressed, a letter was submitted by Kathy Brock, Joyce Green, Kiera Ladner and Malinda Smith to the CPSA Board asserting that “the CPSA needs to address racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia”, as well as “scholarship…which suggest[s] that racism must be protected by academic freedom”.  They also obliquely refer to the fact that “similar views [to a “junior woman scholar”] have been expressed by senior male scholars (and in one case have been awarded)”, without any elaboration of what these “views” are or if/how they are racist or responsible for promoting a hostile environment (see the “Racism, chilly climate, our responsibility and the discipline – Brock et al” on the Ethics page).  These assertions, along with discussions that occurred on the Women’s Caucus listserv (see “Women’s Caucus emails” on the Ethics page on this blog), led to a motion requesting the CPSA to “create policy concerning (1) speech that promotes hatred or creates a hostile environment; and (2) the consequences of such speech. In particular, we would like guidelines concerning professional conduct during the Annual Meeting (for panels and all other formal and informal sessions). These guidelines should include instructions for session chairs, participants and discussants. We also request the establishment of protocols for registering complaints and a process for their resolution”.

Dr. Banting’s letter tells me that there is currently nothing that can be done about the remarks legitimized by the Women’s Caucus since the CPSA does not have a complaints procedure in place for investigating individual members (although such a procedure will be discussed by members in June after the CPSA’s Committee on Professional Ethics releases its report).  My concern, however, is not so much the actions of individual members, but the fact that they are using the Women’s Caucus – an organization that is affliated with the CPSA – to make anonymous and unsubstantiated allegations.  Although the CPSA may not have the authority to police the behaviour of its members, surely it has the capacity to ensure that its affiliates are conducting themselves in an ethical and professional manner.  The actions of the Women’s Caucus of the CPSA, in fact, seem to condone libel.  Why doesn’t the CPSA rein in its Women’s Caucus?  Is it afraid to “offend” the postmodern sisterhood?