Nfld. & Labrador

MUN blazes new policy path for Indigenous-related research

The university has brought in a new policy that it says is unique to Canada, requiring consultation with Indigenous groups before any research involving them can begin.

Anyone doing Indigenous-related research must require an OK from Indigenous groups beforehand

Max Liboiron, the assistant vice-president of Indigenous research at Memorial University, led the efforts to create the policy. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Memorial University has brought in a new policy — which school officials believe is the first of its kind in Canada — requiring any research involving Indigenous people to get their stamp of approval before going ahead.

The university's board of regents green-lit the detailed policy on July 9. It took more than two years and involved consulting more than 2,000 people to get to that point, according to one of its creators, who sums it up succinctly.

"Policies are not simple documents, but it's fairly straightforward as policies go. It's, basically, you require consent," said Max Liboiron, the university's associate vice-president of Indigenous research.

That consent is required at the very beginnings of the research that involves an Indigenous element, from the Indigenous group affected — the Flat Bay Band, say, or the Nunatsiavut government. That means the idea gets passed before them, and their OK given, before the researcher — whether it be a professor, a visiting academic or a student — takes any step toward formal work such as applying for grants to fund it.

"We wanted to increase the impact, and integrity, of Indigenous research. So there's a very, very long history of research of all kinds that exploits Indigenous people, that harms Indigenous people. There was a lot of research done in residential schools that was deeply unethical," said Liboiron.

While Liboiron said many Memorial researchers are already good at following these principles, it's important to make it mandatory. Earlier in June, the university released its strategy to increase Indigenous content throughout its programs and the larger institution.

"In an age of truth and reconciliation, it's not good enough just to make verbal commitments as an institution, that pretend to be action, but actually to do those things, to build them into governance," she told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

The policy is set to roll out across the university in September. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Arriving at an agreement

Research involving Indigenous people has been a sticking point at the university in recent weeks, after an ethics complaint was lodged against a Memorial biologist for his research into genetic links between Beothuk people and contemporary Indigenous counterparts. Professor Steve Carr is fighting that complaint, as the work was sanctioned and carried out with the Miawpukek First Nation.

Under the new policy, getting the go-ahead and working with Indigenous groups should follow the Indigenous group's lead, and doesn't necessarily have to be a formal process, and while that will vary from project to project, Liboiron said there is one common goal.

"The end product is something that the Indigenous groups that are impacted can agree is good and right and true. Even if they disagree with some of the parts of it, that the process and how it's handled is good and right and true," she said.

In areas where getting specific Indigenous approval may be near impossible — for example, research involving the Beothuk — Liboiron said there will be a review panel to work with researchers on a case-by-case basis.

As the policy was being shaped, Liboiron said it attracted attention from other universities in Canada, as well as the agencies that provide research grants, as a document that could have legs across the country.

"They're looking at this as a potential model," she said.

The policy comes on the heels of another effort to increase Indigenous representation at MUN: on Friday, it announced the creation of a degree-granting campus in Labrador, the School for Arctic and Sub-Arctic Studies.

The policy is set to take effect in September, and Liboiron said the weeks leading up to that will be filled with finalizing details and processes.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show