Roundtable on Traditional Indigenous Knowledge and Western Scientific Knowledge

3 minute read
Sog Idsk Notext

Author: Rhonda Moore, Science and Innovation

The Government of Canada has committed to a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples “based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.” The Government of Canada has also committed to strengthening the role of science evidence in government decision-making. Many federal departments and agencies are seeking guidance on how to most effectively bridge these two commitments.

On February 8, 2019, the Institute on Governance hosted a roundtable with Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Scientist, that explored traditional Indigenous Knowledge and Western scientific knowledge, how the two systems function, and how they can be woven together, to shape and inform public policy and decision-making.

Before any of these steps are possible, the individuals who are seeking these types of knowledge must first understand how they both work and when and how they may work together. In preparation for this roundtable, the IOG conducted a review of literature on Indigenous Knowledge. The review synthesized findings regarding the nature of Indigenous Knowledge, principles for collaboration between Indigenous Knowledge and Western science, some of the supporting models and theories, and remaining challenges and recommendations from the academic literature.IOG staff then interviewed all roundtable participants. The purpose of the interviews was to invite their questions on this topic. From those interviews, the agenda was set and a discussion paper created.

The roundtable was structured into three parts: learning; discussion; and next steps. Elder Verna McGregor of the Algonquin Community of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg gave the opening prayer, followed by presentations from Dr. Carrie Bourassa, Scientific Director, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Indigenous Peoples Health and Professor, Community Health & Epidemiology, College of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, and Dr. Jeannette Armstrong, Canada Research Chair in Okanagan Indigenous Knowledge and Philosophy and Associate Professor, University of British Columbia.

The morning focused on learning and presentations that explain the culture and methodologies of Indigenous knowledge and how, when and where it is meant to be applied.

Both Dr. Bourassa and Dr. Armstrong spoke to the misuse of Indigenous Knowledge, and the exploitative relationships that occur between researchers and Indigenous communities. These exploitative relationships are damaging to the Indigenous communities in question for many reasons, including, but not limited to, the following. A) Indigenous knowledge can be mis-used or used without permission, B) results of the research findings often do not find their way back to the community for the benefit of the community, C) research projects are designed and implemented without input by the community and so there is no capacity development locally.

It is time to get past the historically exploitative relationships to a place where individual Indigenous communities are determining their own research needs and co-developing those questions and research projects alongside research teams. Dr. Bourassa presented a framework of principles and concepts for ethical and mutually-beneficial research with Indigenous communities which includes building relationships, giving back, taking a holistic approach, and conducting research with respect.

Dr. Jeannette Armstrong also spoke about how Indigenous Knowledge is collected, curated, and passed down through generations as part of each community’s culture. Indigenous knowledge includes the physical and the metaphysical and is based on relationships in nature, including with humans. The application of Indigenous Knowledge is location specific. When used in the region it was generated, the knowledge is often complementary to the scientific process. However, unlike scientific knowledge which is meant to be universal in application, Indigenous Knowledge cannot be picked up and recreated, or regenerated in another region. Dr. Armstrong used many examples from her own community to illustrate this point, and she provided suggestions for how the federal government could reorganize some of its scientific committees to make better, more accurate use of Indigenous knowledge.

After lunch, the roundtable participants spent time in small groups exploring how to weave these two types of knowledge together, in the context of nation-to-nation relationships and reconciliation. The roundtable closed with a report back and reflections on the day.

The roundtable was attended by close to 40 individuals ranging from senior executives in the federal government and funding agencies to experts and knowledge holders in academia, Indigenous organizations, and the non-profit and private sectors. They shared many rich thoughts and ideas from the day of discussion:

  • To achieve a successful and mutually beneficial relationship, all parties must first understand each other: our languages, our cultural symbols, our value systems combine to inform how we communicate.
  • Weaving two types of knowledge together will create changes in a system that produces large ripple effects. We must rethink how we inform and produce public policy.

A report of the Roundtable will be available in March.

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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