Guest Blog by Rachael Cadman, PhD student
By the end of my week in Happy Valley, I had already sworn to become fluent in Inuktitut, write a review of the entire oral histories of Labrador fisheries, and attempt to single-handedly dismantle the colonial structures of academia. It was the first official week of my Interdisciplinary PhD, and I was so honoured and surprised by the warm and enthusiastic reception we received that I had immediately fallen for Labrador and the people I met there.
Megan Bailey (MAP Professor and my PhD supervisor) and I had travelled to Happy Valley/Goose Bay in late April/early May to attend the Labrador Research Forum. It was an opportunity to get oriented on ongoing research in Labrador, to build relationships with our research partners in Nunatsiavut, and to start planning for the future of our research project.
We started the week by meeting with potential partners on the project. We’ve teamed up with the Torngat Wildlife, Plants and Fisheries Secretariat to work, along with partners in the government and in the communities, towards a vision for the future of commercial fisheries in Nunatsiavut. We had meetings with the Torngat Fish Producers Co-operative and the Nunatsiavut Government Department of Lands and Natural Resources to hear their input on the project proposal. Both groups provided invaluable insights on how to improve the project, and the general enthusiasm for the work was so motivational that I got really fired up for the next four years of what promises to be fascinating and rewarding work.
Following the meetings, Megan and I attended the Labrador Research Forum. Because the Forum is thematically organized around “Labrador”, rather than being specific to a discipline, the proceedings were truly interdisciplinary, affording an opportunity to see the whole range of research that is happening in Labrador. Topics were generally organized around health, archival research, and social and environmental science. This gave me a chance to learn a lot of interesting and useful things about Labrador – did you know, for example, that Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province where researchers haven’t found the West Nile virus? That microplastics are intensely place-based forms of pollution? Or that rabies is reasonably common in Arctic foxes and stray dogs in Labrador?
While all of the research was engaging, I took three interrelated lessons from the conference that will play a major role in my work moving forward. I still have a lot of work to do unpacking and deepening my understanding of these concepts but some initial reflections on how they will affect my thinking and my actions as my PhD develops are expanded on below:
As a researcher in an Indigenous space, I am not a leader. I am there to listen, to learn, and to respond to the needs of the community. It is all too easy to act on the power that comes along with being an academic and a settler. Acting on those impulses, however, will not help anyone. It erases the knowledge, the history, and the relationships that Indigenous people hold. It closes my eyes and ears to the power of a completely independent system of knowledge.
Instead, as I embark on this project, I must always remain aware of everything I do not know, and everything I can never know. This is a frightening place to be in as a researcher – we are not supposed to say “I don’t know”. But I will never have clear and total access to Indigenous knowledge, and I can’t claim any ownership over whatever I do learn from the people I work with. My role is not to lead, but to follow – to help where I can, and to make sure that the benefits of my work are returned to the communities.
Centring Indigenous perspectives in research
In approaching this project with humility, I must necessarily move myself to the side – I am, as much as possible, an observer – and move Indigenous perspectives into the centre of the research.
Centering Indigenous perspectives transfers power from the hands of the researcher into the control of the community. This allows the communities to structure the project according to their needs and priorities. It opens up space for the research to become reciprocal, because the researcher can create something that is useful for the community.
Research methods must be highly participatory and iterative to reflect the needs of the community. Several panels of Inuit researchers, community members and elders pointed out that any researcher coming into the community from the outside should be asking: What does your community need? What do you want to know? and to make the answers the basis for their research.
Academia can make this a difficult task, as funding models and timelines may interfere with the ability to develop projects in this way. But it is necessary that I find avenues to work around these systems in order to be accountable to the needs and priorities of the community; centering Indigenous perspectives in research both encourages self-determination, and makes it possible to deliver a product that is actually useful for the community.
The importance of relational/place-based engagement
In order to do research that is reflexive, iterative and community-driven, the person collecting information must be embedded in the location of the research. This is true for practical reasons; participatory research should be evaluated and community-reviewed on a regular basis to make sure that it is true to the collective vision. Staying in the community makes this type of back-and-forth communication possible, and builds better trust relationships between the researcher and the community.
It is also more fundamentally true insofar as it speaks to the relational nature of learning. For a long time, it has been a tradition in Western science to lay claim to a neutral, value-free perspective. What was revealed to me through the course of this conference was the fact that knowledge is never value-free, and that presenting it as such erases the incredible complexities and nuances of life. All of our knowledge is grounded in culture and in place. Learning is human and relational, and it is my task to acknowledge that embodiment.
My research, therefore, must be (literally) grounded in place. It must acknowledge my limitations, biases and perspectives, and it must pay as much attention to the process of developing and conducting research as it does to the final result.
Megan and I have returned from Goose Bay, and I have since been grappling with the implications of everything I learned for my project. I maintain my sincere and probably naïve promises to accomplish all of the goals I set at the top of this post, and more (I am already looking into how I could participate in the West Nile mosquito project this summer), but I acknowledge now the implications of what it means to embark on a project like this one. It is quite an overwhelming first week of a PhD to realize that I need to commit not only my head, but also my heart, to the challenges ahead.