SSHRC Aboriginal funding as seen through the eyes of an Aboriginal (not quite) cynic

Recently I was invited to a two day meeting at the Social Science and Humanities Council (SSHRC) to undertake discussion on Aboriginal research at SSHRC, part of SSHRC’s new Aboriginal Advisory Circle. The meeting was an intense, professionally organized and ably led dialogue that included a clear and well-organized agenda that was peppered with breaks and a good mix of group discussion and small group reflection. Many of us had been to past SSHRC deliberations (one in the early 2000s and another in the mid 2000s) but numerous new faces, many of them Aboriginal and all working on Aboriginal issues, were also in attendance.

Following the event, I retreated to my Facebook to make a typically adolescent comment about what I saw as an underlying philosophical thread in which “Aboriginal research” was conflated with specific epistemologies and even ontologies, fueled conceptually by nearly two decades of Education-based Indigenous methodology literature. As people began to comment on my status update, however, I began to read my original status update as less “jokey” than I had intended it to be, hedging toward the snarky. More importantly to me, several of my junior colleagues, new to the SSHRC Aboriginal deliberations, justifiably took me to task for what they saw as my excessively negative tone. For them, the meetings were exciting, intellectually invigorating, and well worth a trip to Ottawa.

As I absorbed my more junior colleagues’ comments, I began to think about why I remained so cynical – if not skeptical – about the likely outcome of our deliberations. I thought back to the original meetings in 2002 in which a senior Education professor told me, point blank, that the statistical work I did wasn’t considered “Aboriginal” because I didn’t make use of an Indigenous methodology. My work was important, the professor assured me; it just wasn’t what this research-funding envelope was intended for. I was relatively new to the professor racket back then and lacked the vocabulary to articulate what I saw as an erroneous presumption – terribly wrongheaded, narrow in its application of Indigenous knowledge and, as such, potentially dangerous. Especially dangerous, perhaps, given the power of statistics in contemporary Canadian society, the categories used to measure selected aspects of our communities, while marginalizing others.

Flash forward to 2014. The two-day meeting was geared toward moving the discussion in particular directions of Aboriginal policy relevance to SSHRC. In this context, the SSHRC representatives were nonetheless quite respectful of the diversity of our opinions and as such, we managed to cover quite a lot of intellectual ground. At the end of the meeting, I was gratified by the discussion, and in particular the extent to which my (possibly contrarian) views were not just listened to but respectfully deliberated on. I didn’t expect everyone would agree with me (though that would make things easier) but nonetheless, I didn’t expect the level of discussion and agreement that ensued from my original statements.

But: I still felt cynical about the probable outcomes of “Aboriginal research”, because they still seems wedded to an “Aboriginal-as-different” model in which any subject areas or methodologies that non-Indigenous people engage in arguably fall outside the bracket of the distinctive epistemologies and/or ontologies of Indigenous communities. The issue is slightly more complex than this but at the same time, we can easily understand the protective ethos that undergirds it – Indigenous communities (and thus knowledge) are at risk; non-Indigenous researchers have undertaken research on, rather than with, Indigenous communities without outcomes that benefitted them but not the community; and non-academic Indigenous expertise (“wisdom”) was marginalized or denigrated in these research projects. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these assertions but as Maggie Walter and I wrote in our recently published book Indigenous Statistics, all these same things can happen in the context of statistical projects as well.

In the interests of offering a “finger crossed” discussion of what I hope future discussions of “Aboriginal Research” at SSHRC will think about (I’m neither naïve nor petulant enough to expect these to be incorporated in toto but nonetheless, I see them as important facets of future conversations relating to this subject matter):

  1. We need to stop worrying so much about how to differentiate between “Indigenous” and “western” knowledge. Obvious and not so obvious differences exist (though I would argue that these are less ontological than they are political), but it seems to me that funding only particular forms of knowledge production – “Indigenous knowledge” – misses an important aspect of the extent to which Indigenous communities are embedded in modernity. In this context, Indigenous communities/nations/peoples need all kinds of projects and methodologies to undertake issues of concern or desire, only some of which would count as “Indigenous knowledge”. I am not suggesting that SSHRC funds only narrowly conceived “Indigenous knowledge”-based projects. Having sat on a number of relevance and adjudication committees, I can personally attest to the wide array of high-quality Aboriginal issues research that has applied for funding through SSHRC. Nonetheless, presuming that we know what counts as Indigenous knowledge or that Indigenous knowledge is less important in any given instance than “western” knowledge, seems a fundamentally wrong-headed way to build robust research relationships with Indigenous peoples, a relationship that SSHRC arguably leads the world in.
  2. We need to think more broadly about what we mean about increasing Aboriginal “talent”, to include space for non-Indigenous allies. As various Australia-based Whiteness studies scholars have explored the complications of, part of a just society must involve the creation and transmission of a “retrospective” or “historical” consciousness among non-Indigenous people. Toward this end, it is nearly as important to award and to teach non-Indigenous researchers to engage in respectful research relationships with Indigenous communities and nations as it is, for example, ensure quotas of funding for Aboriginal researchers, regardless of our methodology or intent. The logical endpoint of this is not that SSHRC will end up funding only non-Aboriginal researchers but nonetheless, this kind of “equity” argument should continue to complicate this discussion. But in sum, we need to ensure that “Aboriginal research” make room for non-Indigenous allies and that all researchers build and maintain respectful relationships with Aboriginal communities. 
  3. Although SSHRC made Aboriginal research a priority area for its various granting programs (Insight, Partnership, etc.), perhaps it is time to think about the ways in which SSHRC funded research (and likely CIHR funding as well) has tended to privilege on institutionally “formal” communities like Indian Bands or communities with formal research centres. To what extent have Métis communities or urban communities lost out in this “institutions race” vis-à-vis their First Nation counterparts? This isn’t a criticism of the communities and nations that have received funding: in relative terms such funding is a pittance in comparison to the number of issues we need more research on, and in many cases, the research funding pockets advocate for direct research with rather than on Indigenous communities. Nonetheless, Métis, non-status Indian and urban communities are usually more fluid and less institutionally formal and have lost out on this funding. To be clear, this is not because of anything SSHRC has done or even anything relating to their existing policies and priorities. Instead, these kinds of communities are simply less able to put together the kind of proposal – in many cases have little or no researchers to assist – that would go before a SSHRC committee, let alone be awarded a grant.

Let me end my admittedly ranty screed by being clear about two things: 1) these are my opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else on the committee or SSHRC more broadly; and 2) I have been lucky enough to form professional relationships with many program officers at SSHRC and have never felt anything other than respected in our dealings together. This is not a criticism of the aspects of SSHRC I am most familiar with, nor the people I have interacted with. Instead, this post simply asks us to think more broadly about what SSHRC’s current construction of “Aboriginal research” might mean in practice and how we can think beyond those horizons, as welcome as they might be.

About BigMmusings

Chris Andersen, Ph.D., Associate Dean-Research, Associate Professor, Faculty of Native Studies University of Alberta
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