Science & Tech

SciQ: A new approach to ethical research in the North

Inuit see the value of Western science when it is done in collaboration with communities. How can we shift current practices to a more respectful model?

Arctic researcher Dani Nowosad snapped this photo on the final leg of a 45-kilometre canoe trip on Inuit Nunangat to collect samples for her PhD. The trip took place east of Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut in 2021 and was supported by Polar Knowledge Canada, Viventem and Arctic BIOSCAN. (Photo: Dani Nowosad)
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The history of Qallunaat (non-Inuit peoples) on Inuit Nunangat, or Inuit homelands, is a tale that leans towards extractive at best and acutely violent at worst. As with most interactions between Indigenous Peoples in what is now called Canada and eager explorers, settlers, and colonists, the relationship between Inuit and Qallunaat began from a place of altruism. Europeans turned up in the North woefully unprepared, lacking thousands of years of carefully honed skills and knowledge about how to not only survive, but thrive in the Arctic. Inuit are exemplary engineers, naturalists, scientists, nutritionists, hunters, knowledge mobilizers, artists, and healers. Unlike Qallunaat who colonized Canada, they did not need to “master” their territories; instead of shaping the environment to suit them, they lived in harmony with the tundra and the sea with the utmost respect and a bottomless depth of understanding of non-human processes and kin. Inuit have tread so softly that Qallunaat still refer to vast swaths of northern land as “pristine” and “untouched” – untouched, perhaps, by Qallunaat, but Inuit have been lovingly and tenderly caring for the land and the sea that has in turn cared for them for millennia.

Fast-forward to modern-day Canada, where Inuit battled for 20 long years for a modern-day treaty with the colonial government, resulting in what is now called Nunavut – “our land” in Inuktitut – and some 1.9 million square kilometres of territory as of April 1, 1999. This prodigious land claims agreement gives Inuit legal jurisdiction over their historic and current territory, including rights to traditional practices in terms of land management and self-governance. In short: when Qallunaat go north, they are, and always have been, guests on Inuit homelands.

Helicopter pilot Corey Skender invited Nowosad to join him for a systems test flight above the town of Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut in 2021. (Photo: Dani Nowosad)
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Bridging the gap: Western science and Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit

 According to ethical guidelines laid out by the Canadian government, universities, and various permitting agencies, and broadly understood by practitioners of Western science, scientists may journey to wherever they see gaps in literature (figuratively and literally) and conduct research to answer a question — but where does this leave the communities who host these scientists? From an Inuit perspective, scientists who study the Arctic are too often collecting knowledge and drawing conclusions about their lands and disappearing without so much as chatting with folks in town. There are many barriers in place that prevent Inuit from accessing Western scientific results, including jargon and pay walled academic journals. Despite new requirements for community engagement and knowledge mobilization from funders, it seems as though researchers struggle to incorporate these into practice in a way that honours and respects locals. This pattern reinforces the extractive legacy of Western science on Indigenous Peoples and lands. Furthermore, Inuit, like all Indigenous Peoples, consider themselves part of the environment; therefore, work done on their lands (even if a scientist is collecting rocks, measuring snowpack, or looking at sea kelp) is work being done on them.

Despite centuries of mistreatment, misrepresentation, violence, attempted erasure of culture and knowledge, and the weaponized use of Western science, Inuit see the value that Western science can bring when it is done in a collaborative and respectful way with communities. The truth is that Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or IQ, and Western science are not so different. Science is an attempt to standardize methods to help humans understand our world. It values evidence, experimentation, curiosity, objectivity, repeatability, accuracy, record-keeping, and peer-review. IQ is also a way to understand the world, crafted and passed down by generations of ancestors in specific regional contexts. It values evidence, experimentation, curiosity, objectivity, repeatability, knowledge mobilization, and peer-review. IQ is built on respect and care for others and the environment, fostering good spirit by being inclusive and welcoming, being innovative and resourceful, and working together. IQ is ingrained in Inuit and is as respected by Inuit as Western science is by scientists.

In contemporary times, new models and methods of respectful and ethical Western scientific research on Inuit Nunangat are cropping up, but the actual uptake and practical comprehension of requests for respectful, ethical, and equitable research is slow. Credit must be given to scientists who have made huge progress in conducting research in this way, yet it is far from widely implemented. ArcticNet, a national network that gathers scientists and other professionals to study the impacts of climate change and modernization in the Arctic, immediately jumps to mind as being trailblazers on this front. Often, researchers and scientists want a blueprint that is black and white that can be applied ubiquitously across disciplines and geographical regions. In practice, each community and project is unique, so a “simple” one-size-fits-all solution isn’t necessarily feasible. How do we shift this harmful pattern to an inclusive, respectful, mutually beneficial process?

Ikaarvik and the SciQ concept  

Enter a group of young Inuit from across Nunavut who are in a unique position. They are young enough to have had access to the internet and new technologies for most of their lives, yet being born and raised in the Arctic has exposed them to IQ from their Elders and Knowledge Keepers. They have seen scientists (in many cases) ignore Inuit and their expert knowledge and fail to communicate their intent or share the results of their work. They recognize that science and IQ share many similarities and can strengthen one another when combined. From communities throughout Nunavut, youth came together to form what is now a registered non-profit: Ikaarvik, meaning “to bridge.” They create opportunities for meaningful involvement of Northern Indigenous youth in Arctic research and in decision-making. Ikaarvik understood the need to create a high-level blueprint for scientists to respect and include IQ in their work. The recommendations outline how these changes look practically and can easily be tailored to various disciplines and communities. They dubbed this concept “SciQ.” 

The question then remains, why aren’t more scientists adopting the explicit instructions outlined by Ikaarvik (not to mention other Inuit for decades) and implementing Inuit-written ethical considerations into their work? I had to reflect on this question myself as a “traditionally” trained academic from southern Canada who has been in academia for 11 years. For three years, I had been shipped off to the Arctic to collect samples and data for scientific research. When that work was completed, I would travel back home, conduct lab work, write reports; wash, rinse, repeat, with no requirement to engage the community members on whose lands I was a guest. When the SciQ concept was published as an open-source academic manuscript, I began to consider how I was actively upholding the harmful and colonial aspects of Western science. What are my responsibilities to the communities I visit as a guest, kin, and the land? Am I honouring these responsibilities?

Youth from Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut take part in a "What's in the Water?" freshwater biodiversity workshop in 2022. This workshop was integrated into pre-existing land-and-culture-based day camp programming by the Kitikmeot Friendship Society and supported by the Friendship Society, Polar Knowledge Canada, and Arctic BIOSCAN. (Photo: Dani Nowosad)
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Implementing SciQ in my PhD work

In the spring of 2021, I accepted an offer to transition from my MSc program to a PhD working on the same project and took the opportunity to reshape the scope of my work to reflect what Inuit have expressed they need. The easiest place to start was speaking with community members in Cambridge Bay, which happened on a trip with the ArcticBIOSCAN team in April 2022. This was my first community consultation despite beginning my work there in the summer of 2019. Within minutes, community members expressed their concerns in terms of changes they have been witnessing on the land and its processes, and shared their expectations with regards to data visualization. It became clear that despite what I had been taught for over a decade, gaps in scientific literature do not always equal gaps in our collective knowledge. I couldn’t believe how easy this step was. I felt good that my PhD work had pivoted from simply identifying a gap in published academic literature to providing answers that serve Inuit concerns and interests.

Connecting with the community for that consultation was the tip of the iceberg. I now use SIKU, the Indigenous Knowledge Sharing Social Network, to post about sampling activities my team and I are doing on Inuit Nunangat. The Arctic BIOSCAN team is working with the creators of SIKU to make it possible for us to share results on a platform that protects Indigenous Traditional Knowledge. Facebook has been the perfect medium to communicate results and activities with the town at large. I typed up a community report and shared hard copies in town, gave a public presentation at the field station, and shared a PDF version of the report in the town Facebook group. Per suggestions from my consultations, I hired local guides for a sampling trip on the land. I partnered with a local youth and culture-oriented organization, the Kitikmeot Friendship Society, to deliver freshwater biodiversity workshops at the field station, integrated into their pre-existing land and culture-based day camps for youth. The third chapter of my PhD research was driven by consultations and is answering questions the community cares about, and we have been keeping lines of communication open by seeking feedback and approval for all aspects of my research, including sampling sites, personnel, and methods. 

It’s not too late for anyone to begin integrating Ikaarvik’s recommendations for researchers conducting studies in the Arctic. The SciQ concept and the recommendations are clear-cut calls to action aimed directly at researchers seeking a blueprint to begin changing historical patterns. It can be daunting, but we promise that your research will be strengthened and serve many more people than you can imagine.

Dani Nowosad was the recipient of a research grant from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2022. Learn more about RCGS grants and apply here.

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