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A focus on Indigenous research collaboration

Queen’s Adjunct Professor Alex McComber (DSc’16) delivers a lecture about Indigenous research collaboration. (University Communications)

Several recommendations within the Queen’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Task Force final report challenged researchers across the university to ensure they are engaging Indigenous communities in culturally appropriate and respectful ways.

To help share the perspectives of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers and build competency at Queen’s, the School of Graduate Studies, the Aboriginal Council of Queen’s University (ACQU), and Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre hosted a three-hour session about “Research Collaboration with Indigenous Communities”. More than 80 faculty and students attended the workshop, which included a keynote address and panel presentations by masters student Jon Aarssen; PhD candidate Natasha Stirrett; Heather Castleden, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Reconciling Relations for Health, Environments, and Communities; and Marlene Brant Castellano, Co-Chair of Aboriginal Council of Queen’s University. The event concluded with a talking circle which included all participants.

“This event is one way our School is responding to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report at Queen’s, a number of which speak to how we engage in research with Indigenous communities,” said Marta Straznicky, Associate Dean in the School of Graduate Studies and one of the event organizers. “The strong attendance at this workshop is a testament to the need for this type of information.”

This presentation was the realization of months of effort by the School of Graduate Studies to better educate its students on how to engage Indigenous communities in research – being ever mindful of the adage “nothing about us without us”. The workshop idea originated this summer, when the School of Graduate Studies and the ACQU established a Committee on Indigenous Research Collaboration. The committee includes representation from the ACQU, the School of Graduate Studies, Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre, and other faculty members and students.

The workshop represents phase one of a longer-term plan to help broaden access by First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities and organizations to the research resources of the university, appropriate to community needs and priorities. The School is also seeking to promote and develop the skills and intercultural competencies of graduate students and faculty for community-engaged research with, and by, Indigenous Peoples. Moving forward, The School of Graduate Studies will aim to provide students and faculty with the knowledge to build strong, mutually respectful, and durable research collaborations between Queen’s University and Indigenous communities, added Dr. Straznicky.

As an example of a successful research collaboration, Queen’s Adjunct Professor Alex McComber (DSc’16) gave a keynote address about a project within the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory aimed at supporting health promotion and diabetes prevention in local schools. This major and long-term effort united the local community and Montréal-based researchers. Dr. McComber said the approach of those original researchers, who incorporated community feedback and Indigenous ways of knowing into their work, resulted in a balanced relationship and served as a positive model for this type of research.

“Sometimes students come in with an idea, and when we hear the idea we think, ‘Well, that’s interesting but the way that they’re talking about it is never going to work,’ so we sit with the student and talk with them,” he said, reflecting on researchers approaching the Kahnawà:ke community leaders. “I remember the last time we told a student this she almost started to cry, thinking her idea was no good, and I said ‘No, the idea is awesome! But we need to help you understand [community participatory research]’. When she came back around, she understood what we were wanting her to learn, and how she could contribute back to the community.”

Dr. McComber noted, in the past, researchers would fly into Indigenous communities, gather information, and leave without contacting the community again; the next time the information would be seen was when a report was published. He suggested aspiring researchers should instead make the goal of their work to create new knowledge in collaboration with Indigenous communities and to build relationships that bring about understanding on both sides.

“As up and coming researchers…you have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth,” Dr. McComber said in closing. “Come in with respect, and be open to being challenged and doing things differently.”

The session was part of an annual two-day Indigenous Research Symposium organized by the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre. In addition to the Friday workshop, the symposium explored the themes of this year’s Queen’s Read title, The Break, from an Indigenous perspective.