Proposed Approaches for Conducting Research in the North

The Importance of Engaging

Undertaking research in the North is all about working in close cooperation with the communities, governments and organizations concerned, at every stage of the research project. Continuous follow-up is key throughout the process. A number of documents highlight these two aspects. In the Cree Regional Conservation Strategy, a document produced by the Cree Nation Government, it is clearly stated that all research must involve the full participation of the Cree. This recommendation is also set out in Makivik Corporation’s Guidelines for Research in the Nunavik Region. Lastly the Research Protocol of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador stresses the importance for First Nations to actively participate and collaborate in all the steps of the research process in their environment.”. In light of these examples, it is clear that both among the First Nations and the Inuit, this mutual engagement in research is essential, and is key to the success of such research projects.

Makivik Corporation recommends dividing research into different stages and providing feedback to the community at the end of each stage, from project development and data collection to results analysis, validation, and dissemination. This allows researchers and community members alike to see how the research is advancing and to make adjustments along the way. Flexibility is essential on the part of both sides.

The researchers must also be aware that this process can place a tremendous burden on communities that may or may not have readily available resources and capacity to fully take advantage of this collaboration. Researchers must thus also work to minimize this burden while still ensuring effective, meaningful collaboration with communities.

Interpersonal Skills in Northern Settings 

A community-based approach can help researchers engage fully in their research environment. The goal of this approach is simply to get the “newcomer” to take the time to get to know people, to introduce themselves, and to show an interest in their situation, with a view to gaining a better understanding of their culture.

Researchers must adopt the appropriate attitude and keep in mind that they are “visitors” in northern Indigenous territory. Rather than imposing their own practices, they must be receptive to those of the communities. It is important to take the time to forge ties with the community and respect the cyclical pace of life of Indigenous cultures.

Honesty, openness, patience, a willingness to listen, and humility are attitudes that researchers, students and organizations are encouraged to develop and put into practice when seeking to engage with an Indigenous community to conduct research.

Starting Points

Initial contact is a crucial stage that researchers are advised to prepare for carefully. Before making any contact, it is essential that researchers conduct a review of the scientific literature on the research topic (including that produced by Indigenous organizations) and perhaps even take an introductory course on Indigenous culture. This will allow them to identify where their topic fits in the existing corpus. It is also an indication of the researcher’s seriousness. The literature review must also take into account the social, political and institutional context into which their research will be inserted. In addition, it should include any existing research protocols within the Indigenous nation in question. This will help the researcher to develop a strategy for implementing such protocols. Researchers should also be aware that the large majority of literature comes from the non-Indigenous scientific community, which in itself reflects a bias against Indigenous knowledge. A literature review is therefore the first scientific step, however it needs to be carried out in conjunction with the study of Indigenous knowledge and information. Adopting a humble and prudent attitude with regard to one’s own interpretation mindset is useful when juxtaposing Indigenous knowledge and knowledge stemming from our Western scientific heritage.

In addition to reviewing the literature, an important part of preparing this initial contact involves describing the project and various research methodologies. This will help situate the researcher’s topic of research and intentions, and define the ethical space for discussions with the community so as to identify its needs within the framework of the research project. When researchers contact the local or regional government, band council, municipality, or community or regional organization, they must show an openness and willingness to co-construct the most suitable research goals and methodology for the context, and demonstrate that they have gathered knowledge during their preliminary research. While it is not always the case—and research funds do not always allow for it—it is recommended that all bachelor’s, master’s, and, in some cases, PhD students from universities around the world be accompanied by their research supervisor (or co-supervisor) during the first meeting(s) with the concerned Indigenous authorities. During these initial discussions with the community, the researcher must also mention the funding sources for thier project and explain the confidentiality of their data.

Once these initial stages are complete, researchers must validate their research protocol with their research partners and submit it for analysis to a research ethics board (REB).

A research ethics board is an authority created to assess the acceptability of research projects submitted to it. It is composed of individuals with various fields of expertise (traditional ecological knowledge, empowerment skills, and know-how; academic and scientific knowledge; local, community, and political representatives; and any other individual with relevant expertise in a First Nations context).

REBs are common in university settings, and certain Indigenous organizations also have a similar structure, e.g., the First Nations Information Governance Centre. Some Indigenous communities, including Mashteuiatsh and Kahnawake, also have their own guidelines and/or ethics committee. It is therefore up to researchers to be mindful of the existing authorities in the territory in question, while complying with the regulatory requirements of the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS 2). Where the project does not involve human subjects, researchers are generally not required to apply for an ethics certificate from their university. However, if their project is carried out on the territory of an Indigenous nation, even if no human subjects are interviewed, the researchers should seek the support of the Indigenous communities, governments, or organizations present before beginning their project.


Researchers, in cooperation with Indigenous partners, must ensure they “choose a research methodology that respects the conditions prescribed by the Aboriginal community, taking into account the values and knowledge of Aboriginal women”. The selected methodology must then be presented to the community.

While there are various existing research methodologies, there is no single prevailing model. However, the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador and the Quebec Native Women’s Association both recommend participatory action research (PAR), the preferred methodology in Indigenous research due its collaborative approach. PAR is defined as a co-constructivist approach based on partnership between Indigenous Peoples and researchers.

The participatory action research approach is built around knowledge sharing and mobilization, shared responsibility for the research project, and community engagement. The goal of PAR is to empower communities by mobilizing and using their own expertise. This process is carried out with the involvement and collaboration of all stakeholders.

Once the data is collected and analyzed, the interpretation of the results, prior to publication, must be validated with the community in question. As Schnarch explains, “[as] with academic review, a First Nations review process is generally intended to ensure quality of the work, its relevance, and the appropriateness of interpretation. The review should be viewed as an opportunity rather than a threat. The definition of peer needs to be broadened”. The results validation stage should therefore be viewed as an opportunity for discussion, for example, during focus groups, where several interpretations of the same results may be valid and may coexist. If there are divergent opinions in the results analysis, the researchers must include the point of view of the Indigenous Peoples in their publications. The communities and stakeholders concerned must be able to dissociate themselves at any time from the results or the analysis conducted by the researchers.

This review can be carried out in several different ways, for example, by involving Indigenous researchers in results analysis, consulting the communities concerned, forwarding preliminary results, consulting interviewees, and other means. In all cases, it is important to ensure that the communication methods used by the researcher are appropriate and compatible with the community or organization (language, visual tools, written documents, popularization, etc.) Among other things, it is important for researchers not to overly generalize their findings, whereas there is a tendency to assume that the perspective of a few research participants is representative of a position held by the entire community, or even the entire nation.

Research Results

For too long, Indigenous communities have opened their doors to researchers without being able to take part in their research projects or receive any benefits once the work is complete. Today, where a collaborative approach is used, research results must be validated by the communities concerned, and must also benefit these communities. Researchers must transmit their results to the communities in question, and ensure that their research serves to rally and strengthen the communities.

The results must be disseminated in an appropriate manner for a northern community. In other words, the researchers must consider the various methods of communication used by Indigenous communities. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Nunavut Research Institute set out a number of different methods, stressing the importance of developing a communication strategy to disseminate results, for example, by way of local or regional radio shows; the creation of posters, brochures, or newspaper inserts; the use of social media; the publication of project summaries in accessible language; and others.

It is therefore crucial that researchers set aside the funds and time needed to disseminate their research results. They must also be willing to translate their documents and transmit them in accessible language to the communities in question.

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