Section 3: Ethical Processes

Indigenous Ethics and Values

Ethics are considered to be a set of practices and social behaviours based on values. Indigenous research ethics respect leadership and require developing trusting relationships. While there is much diversity among Indigenous Peoples and Nations overall, Indigenous ethics resonate with the values of honour, trust, honesty, and humility; they reflect commitment to the collective and embody a respectful relationship with the land. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify how Indigenous ethics can influence research design and process.

In Indigenous communities, the process of ethical thinking begins at birth with storytelling as the primary learning process. Storytelling is used to guide behaviour and solidify belonging and responsibility to the family, community, and larger world. Through stories, a child develops identity and learns about moral responsibility. Through stories, the community articulates and embraces its shared valued system or mindset. Ethical thinking emerges from a community’s customs, teachings, and ideals. Researchers must take this mindset into account when conducting research in Indigenous communities and with Indigenous participants.

In The Seven Sacred Teachings of White Buffalo Calf Woman, Bouchard and Martin (2009) explain how Indigenous teachings involve notions of taking care of one another, collective decision-making, and sustainability. All are based on a value system that locates itself within the Anishinaabe seven grandfather sacred teachings. The sacred teachings of respect, bravery, honesty, humility, truth, wisdom, and love are significant guidelines that resonate in most Indigenous cultures. The teachings are represented by seven sacred animals each having a special gift to help the people understand and to maintain a connection to the land and to each other. The values embodied in the teachings coupled with storytelling, and articulated through Indigenous language, reinforce Indigenous ways of being and doing. In other words, fortifying ethical thinking lends itself to ethical practice.

Researchers need to understand and recognize the significance of Indigenous shared values and the community conventions that accompany them. Understanding Indigenous thought requires taking time to learn the ways of the Indigenous community you are working with and locating it within the core principles of the Tri-City Council Policy Statement, version 2 (TCPS 2), which include respect for persons, concern for welfare, and justice. Learn by connecting with community Elders, knowledge keepers, and leaders as a natural prelude to conducting a research study. Ensure your research study will benefit community life. Know how the roles and responsibilities of the Elders and leaders (both hereditary and elected) shape protocols, and recognize the kinship and other governance systems will influence who is involved and when research can occur.

Furthermore, it is critical to know that Indigenous Peoples’ experience with Canada carries a legacy of oppression and colonization. The devastating impacts of residential schools, the child welfare systems, and other colonial experiences have created deep losses for Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous participants in your research may be vulnerable to experiences of secondary or retriggered trauma. You must be very careful when planning and doing research that involves personal or intergenerational loss. If you are doing research about child welfare or residential schools, you will need to consider that Indigenous people tend to experience the loss of a child or children from a family and community as a loss to the Nation. This is demonstrated by Dr. Deborah Canada who provided a Métis mindset in her research, The Strength of the Sash: The Métis Peoples’ Model of Child Welfare [PDF].

While there are commonalities between Indigenous research and Western research philosophy, there are some fundamental differences. The Western academy’s notion of freedom often links to freedom in inquiry, opinion, and the disbursement of information. Indigenous concepts of freedom focus on how the people convey stories, or collect data, as a lending of knowledge to the researcher, and they have the freedom to determine how it is placed in the research. Clearly, although both entities share a notion of freedom, the action applied is different.

Researchers need to apply particular considerations when conducting research with Métis people. The researcher must be able to clarify that Métis research is different from other Indigenous research because of the unique experiences of Métis peoples. It is critically important to understand the diversity among Métis peoples. To mitigate ethical dilemmas in conducting Métis research, review the Principles of Ethical Métis Research [PDF].[1] Suffice to say, Métis research, like other Indigenous research, makes a difference in the lives of Indigenous Peoples and therefore should be approached mindfully and carefully.

Researchers must also take into account the ethical rules of each community as well as the concept of non- invasiveness. Respecting the role of leadership is a must and a way to move the research to another level. One of the most significant roles of leadership is to ensure that the community remains the owner of Indigenous knowledge and the community maintains the right of control and access. Without the support of leadership, research can be seen as a mis-inquiry into Indigenous knowledge and ways of life.

The ethics of Indigenous research are complex and require much preparation, but research plays an extremely important role in social transformation and reconciliation. Do this work well and you may be gifting a collaborative future.

  1. Please note that these principles are archived online at the University of Ottawa. The Métis Research Centre, where these principles came from, was part of the now defunct NAHO.


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Pulling Together: A Guide for Researchers, Hiłḵ̓ala Copyright © 2021 by Dianne Biin; Deborah Canada; John Chenoweth; and Lou-ann Neel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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