Arctic Interruptions Social Policy

Interrupting the Northern research industry: Why Northern research should be in Northern hands

iStock_North Pole research_ Antrey

This begins the second set of articles in our ongoing Arctic Interruptions series. Edited by Sara Komarnisky and Lindsay Bell, this series challenges our expectations about the North and opens new windows on its life and history. The series will appear in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Northern Public Affairs.

Ware three women involved in research in the Northwest Territories. Each one of us comes to the research experience from different backgrounds. However, over the last few years we have collectively expressed our misgivings with some aspects of the Northern research industry and its relationship to Northern governance and Northern self-determination. In this piece, we share our thoughts about how we feel research can be directed towards a reciprocal, accountable praxis that is deeply rooted in the issues that are identified by, and that matter to, Northerners. What follows are three separate meditations on what it means to be accountable as researchers working in the North.

Here to Stay: Morgan Moffitt

Where do you come from?

Who do you belong to?

Where do you stay?

In the North, these questions are the means through which you are positioned. They root your identity and your place in the communities that you work within. They connect person to place and people to places, and they matter. I am at once a disappointment, a relief, an expectation fulfilled, and yet another researcher. I am a non-Indigenous Northerner and a PhD student.

Like many young Northerners, I left the North to receive a university education when I graduated from high school. It was during my time in post-secondary institutions in southern Canada that I realized the teachings that have stayed with me the most are those that I received at home. When it came time to decide whether or not to continue with my graduate education, I knew that the only place in which I wanted to do so was the North and that the work I wanted to do was about home.

Unfortunately, this is still not an option. Despite decades of talking around it and millions of dollars being funnelled into university programs and research institutions in the south, Canada has not yet established a Northern university, proving once again to be lagging behind other circumpolar nations. Further, academic research in the Northern territories of Canada is still, in the vast majority of cases, controlled (i.e., proposed, carried out, and managed) by non-Northerners and non-Northern institutions.

Research in the territories began to boom after the Second World War. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the influx of researchers and bureaucrats was intimately tied to the ‘modernizing’ agenda of the federal government and the development agenda of industry and government. Since that time, the Northern research industry has undoubtedly poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of southern researchers, institutions, and consultants. But what have we, the North, got to show for it? What impact have we, researchers, made? What is our role and our place in this system?

In On Being Here to Stay (2014), Michael Asch provides an insightful and timely argument for recognizing and honouring the treaties and rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada by reconciling relationships between Indigenous nations and Canada. Taking as his starting point a statement by Chief Justice Antonio Lamer in the 1997 Delgamuukw decision—“Let us face it, we are all here to stay”—Asch (2014:3) asks, “What, beyond the fact that we have the numbers and the power to insist on it, authorizes our being here to stay?” What can we do to reconcile the research relationships in Canada between North and south? What if we were to ask the same questions Asch poses about our research relationships: What, beyond the fact that southern institutions have the funding and the ‘expertise’, authorizes the Northern research industry to determine research priorities and formalize research relationships on southern terms? As researchers, we should question this. Is it our intention for the majority of Northern research to continue from afar? To drop in for a few weeks, or months, and leave an expert? What does it mean to be here to stay ethically and relationally in a context of research? Why do decision-making bodies, funding institutions, and many researchers themselves remain outside of the reach, the voice, and the hearts of Northern peoples?

I am too young to feel this tired when I think about the problems with Northern research. But, I know that there is hope; the changes that have happened are because of the relentless commitment and ethics of those who have come before me. I look to the Elders, I look to the community members in Tulít’a with whom I work, and I look to my mentors and the researchers here in the NWT and I am filled with a deep admiration. There has been amazing research generated in the North by Northerners at the community level, by non-governmental organizations, by Indigenous governments, and by government. These projects often do not receive the attention and credit they deserve, but when they do it is another step forward and an inspiration to us all. Northerners doing research do the work that they do because they believe in the inherent value of the knowledge and the stories of the places that we call home. We must push to ensure that the rights and ethical obligations of Northern peoples are respected throughout this process. We must insist on the continued support and establishment of our own research institutions and our own research agendas.

Stolons. Photo credit: Courtney Chetwynd

(stolons), September 2014. (stolons) included stories being gathered and developed in a visually directed manner inside the bush tent, which acted as a mobile studio space as well as an installation based piece, for the duration of the exhibition. The exhibition evolved as time progressed. The projected image was developed from glitching melded images of Northwest Territories waterways, traditional beadwork, and historically-based images of significant events. Composition: Courtney Chetwynd; Photo credit: Kyle Thomas.

Tacit Knowledge: Courtney Chetwynd

We are confronted with fallacies of the North posed as binary opposites. There are the media representations of the imaginary North as an uninhabited beauty; an idea that this land is a well of untapped riches to be exploited and emptied. I see researchers from the south here for short periods of time, their feet touching the ground just long enough to conduct random projects that often have little importance or use for people here. Visitors often take what they need and then leave, filled up with stories and images of the strange and idiosyncratic ways things happen here, smug for having participated in a temporary mapping of their own piece of the North. Depictions of an idealized free space, as blank as the snow and ice that covers the landscape, have spurred the idea that this place is misguided, lacking in creativity and knowledge. It incites being written upon.[1]

I recognize my home differently. Being raised in Canada’s Eastern and Western Arctic was a gift that I didn’t understand at the time, when I was desperate to leave to the south where I thought real learning occurred. I wouldn’t comprehend until later the importance of teachings that are animated within the beliefs and lived structures of everyday life for Indigenous Northerners, which exist through the performance of self-determination in everyday seemingly mundane practices integrated with the land. These same fundamental teachings need to be acknowledged and honoured when undertaking ethical research in the North.

Collaboration is not a trend, but a fact of living in the North. When meeting someone from the North, they will often ask you who your mom is, or inquire about your familial ties after you exchange handshakes and hellos. This is very much in contrast to southern manners and social graces, where you are most often primarily asked, “What do you do?”, most often referring to your ‘job’ in society, and not how you live in the world. In the North, knowledge is acquired through pragmatic engagement based upon directly integrated experiences grounded within your relations. It is a shift in research from displaced theories, towards information derived through stories, cultural teachings, and connection with place, people, and materials, through acts of ‘doing’. Circumventing traditional research methods that involve hierarchy of knowledge, these actions function within an interwoven system and trace a continuum, rather than operate divisively. As Kovach (2010) addresses in Indigenous Methodologies (2010), Indigenous frameworks offset the mistrust of research with communities because of important pre-existing relationships, which increase perception of honesty and credibility of the researcher. She further writes (2010:169):

This means exploring one’s own beliefs and values about knowledge and how it shapes practices. It is about examining power. It is ongoing. It is only after carrying out this personal and institutional examination that scholars and disciplines can be in the positions to acknowledge Indigenous knowledge and what it means in changing organizational culture.

It is very important to consider the moral codes embedded within the environment. You do not take more than you need or can use; you share and exchange; you give back (to the land). Rooted from as early as I could remember, the tradition of giving an offering to the land when harvesting was law.[2] Learning how to listen is sometimes more important than speaking. One comes to know that quickly up here.[3]

Referring to these ways of knowing, the philosopher Michael Polanyi coined the term tacit knowledge, which involves knowing more then we can tell, or knowing how to do something without thinking about it.[4] Whereas explicit knowledge is technical or requires understanding gained through formal education, tacit forms of knowing draw upon intuition, praxis, and more intimate person-to-person teaching. It encompasses values, beliefs, and perceptions. I never defined this knowledge as tacit at the time; it was simply how you approached life in the North.

Art and practice-led research relies on tacit knowing in conceptualization, process, material engagement, aesthetics, and the conveyance of ideas. Recognizing this same interrelationship that takes place within the creation of art is an important preliminary process; a part of the making that starts before hands are laid upon materials. Exchanges in knowledge and teaching transpire in process, wherein one learns of the previous lives of these substances, a curiosity of what is intended of these materials, and why particular ideas are being made tangible. The materials perform this practice through social interaction. Relying on process, artistic practice has the potential to shift conceptions, and to some degree, transform. This practice of allowing opens up essential spaces for thought, conversation, and understanding as these materials enact composites of shared knowledge.

Such tacit ways of perceiving and knowing are plentiful within Indigenous Northern cultures, although challenges arise while uncovering and articulating this epistemology under the Euro-Western based research frameworks that are fraught within southern research institutions. How can this be considered in a meaningful way when working in and with the North? How might we encourage new contexts under which these may be applied in an interdisciplinary manner in order to transgress the bounds of Western-based, siloed knowledge? Such a practice-focused approach is at home within the context of the North; it is perhaps one of the most defining interdisciplinary subjects. As a studied space of development and process, the North needs to direct its on-going development. Contemporary realities face traditional culture head first in a meeting of extremes, rather than mitigating one and the other by their coming together. This encounter of boundaries permeates atmospherically, reminiscent of emerging cycles of transformation on a constant basis – in a land of dark winter days, and midnight sun summer nights.

I struggle with how tacit Northern knowledge can be understood by someone who has not spent time living, listening, and receiving the teachings embedded here. It is not something instantly attained. This knowledge is not so explicit, and its complexities cannot be known through reading or gained through intellectual scholarship. There is an idea that tacit knowledge doesn’t become part of a person’s knowledge until it is articulated and internalized through one’s own practice. Gestures cannot simply be re-performed, but rather practiced until they are understood.

Trickster. Photo credit: Courtney Chetwynd

trickster (fox), October 2014. Drawing & photography on paper. Photo credit: Courtney Chetwynd


Ethnographic Refusal: Zoe Todd

I am not a Northerner, but my diasporic Métis family has lived and worked in the North for various periods of time since the 1940s. My grandfather worked on the Alaska Highway during the Second World War as a heavy machine operator. My older sister was born in Yellowknife in the 1970s when my Dad and his partner lived there. Two of my uncles flew for Northern airlines in the Beaufort Delta region in the 1970s and 1980s/90s respectively. So, in this sense, I feel a duty to the North. It is another place where people and communities have allowed Métis families like mine to seek work and to live when we were pushed out of our homeland. But I do not hold any illusions that I have any claim to this place. It is not my home, and I was not raised in its laws, lands, and stories. I am, and always will be, a visitor to Northern places, and I must be aware of the reciprocal duties I hold to Northern nations, laws, and governance.

Paspaschase Cree scholar Dwayne Donald, from my hometown of Edmonton/Amiswaciwâskahikan/pêhonan, asks us to consider his framework of ‘ethical relationality’ (2009). He defines (2009: 6) this relationality as:

an ecological understanding of human relationality that does not deny difference, but rather seeks to more deeply understand how our different histories and experiences position us in relation to each other. This form of relationality is ethical because it does not overlook or invisibilize the particular historical, cultural, and social contexts from which a particular person understands and experiences living in the world. It puts these considerations at the forefront of engagements across frontiers of difference.

It was really in the last year that I realized that to embody an ethical relationality in my work as a Métis woman is to strive to change the institutional frameworks that currently root research in Euro-Western ethical and legal-governance discourses. This serves to concentrate funding and decisions about Arctic or Northern research into southern bodies, and applies more broadly to research funding agencies and research discourses that still concentrate the research voice outside of the governance and sovereignty discourses of autonomous peoples around the world. It seems rather simple to me: the only way for truly ethical work to take place in the North is for Northern research to be in Northern hands.

The work of Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson (2007; 2014) demonstrates that the authority of the Euro-Western academy must continue to be challenged. Its claims to knowing, translating, describing, and re-producing thought remain problematic as they intimately impact and disrupt the ability of Indigenous peoples to assert their self-determination, personhood, and sovereignty. Simpson’s work demonstrates that, when it comes to self-determination, it is important for people to voice their stories about themselves and their nations/societies on their own terms. And, therefore, as researchers we must always consider how our work impacts self-determination. Through her idea of ‘ethnographic refusal’, formalized as an act of resistance and narrative which recognizes the agency of Indigenous actors to not share stories and materials with anthropologists, Simpson draws attention to how such a refusal operates as a way to enact sovereignty. In this way, the process of deciding how and when to share information is an act of self-determination. As Simpson (2007: 67) notes:

To speak of Indigeneity is to speak of colonialism and anthropology, as these are means through which Indigenous peoples have been known and sometimes still are known. In different moments, anthropology has imagined itself to be a voice, and in some disciplinary iterations, the voice of the colonized. This modern interlocutionary role was self-ascribed by anthropologists, nor was it without a serious material and ideational context; it accorded with the imperatives of Empire and in this, specific technologies of rule that sought to obtain space and resources, to define and know the difference that it constructed in those spaces and to govern those within.

What I have learned through my apprenticeship in Northern social science research is that the dynamics that Simpson identifies in the above quote are still operating in many contexts, albeit in a more covert manner, as Arctic research claims to work in collaborative, community-based ways. In other words: collaboration in some cases is really just a buzzword rather than a guiding ethos or principle rooted in reciprocal and accountable Northern governance relationships or ‘ethical relationality’.

For these reasons, as a Métis person and as an Indigenous anthropologist, I consider it my responsibility to enact a form of ethnographic refusal: in my case, the refusal to conduct ethnography that is driven by southern or foreign research institutions until Northern research processes are changed to give Northerners more say in the ‘who, what, when, where, why, and how’ of research as it happens in the North. For me, to stop participating in the Northern research industry as it currently operates is a personal and professional duty. I am instead changing my research praxis in order to work within my own homeland in Amiskwaciwâskahikan, pêhonan, Treaty Six territory. I hope that in the future I can be part of a research community that is informed by Northern legal-governance principles, that is rooted in Northern institutions, that is attentive to Northern self-determination, and which engages all people in the North in an open and accountable way.


As students complicit in the research industry, we humbly submit that we need a total research industry interruptus, as per Simpson’s writing; one that ensures the research paradigm is truly in Northern control. It is not our place to outline what this interruptus looks like, as that is the business of self-determining people. We simply recognize that, as individuals within the academy, we must consider how we continue to participate in institutions and structures that concentrate funding and research decision-making power outside of Northern governance contexts and on what terms we should or should not participate.◉

Morgan Moffitt is from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. She is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Alberta and is currently working with Dene and Métis peoples in the community of Tulita, NWT on relationships with place and local histories of oil and gas development.

Courtney Chetwynd is an artist-researcher who was raised in the Northwest Territories. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Dundee in Scotland. To see more of her work visit

Zoe Todd (Métis/Otipemisiwak) is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She is a 2011 Trudeau Scholar. She is also a lecturer in Anthropology at Carleton University.

Photo credit: istockphoto/Antrey


[1] This can be likened to Paulo Freire’s notion of the traditional Western education system. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he refers to the term “banking model”, wherein the scope of the student’s potential is likened to an empty vessel to be filled with prescribed deposits of knowledge, rather than as self-determined individuals already in possession and holding the capacity to discover knowledge. (p.79).

[2] When collecting low bush cranberries, aqpiks, wild blueberries, animals, fish; you can offer tobacco, pieces of thread, say thanks and express your gratitude; you can also feed the fire when being out on the land.

[3] Anthropologist Julie Cruikshank talks about this type of knowing in her book, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, & Social Imagination, when discussing the perspectives of a group of scholars on the subject of orally narrated histories, saying “Coming from very different traditions- excelling in formal scholarship as compared to excelling in listening, watching, participating, and remembering experiences on the land- they all reached similar conclusions…“, 81.

[4] Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, 1967.

Works Cited

Asch, Michael. On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.

Cruikshank, Julie. Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, & Social Imagination. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005.

Delgamuukw v. British Columbia [1997] 3 S.C.R. 1010

Donald, Dwayne. (2009). Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Metissage: Imagining Decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts. First Nations Perspectives 2, no.1 (2009): 1-24.

Freire, Paulo, translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum International Publishing, 2010.

Kovach, Margaret. Indigenous Methodologies: Characters, Conversations, and Contexts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Polanyi, Micheal. The Tacit Dimension. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1967.

Simpson, Audra. On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship. Junctures 9 (2007): 67-80.

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.


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  • David Neufeld

    Mahsi cho for your insightful and forward looking approach to the autonomy of northern research. Raised on the prairies I joined Parks Canada in the mid-1980s as the historian for parks and historic sites in the Yukon and Western Arctic. Based in Winnipeg my seasonal arrival and departures in the Yukon led to my being called the last sign of spring and the first sign of autumn. Archival research through the winter created a framework of certainty for my research planning. Arrival in the north for the summer resulted in the shredding of my analytical preconceptions and a sharp feeling of unease.
    Didn’t take too long to realize that serious, and possibly useful, research could only happen from within a northern community. Our young family moved to Whitehorse in 1990 and my initial research task was an analysis of the interests and purposes of the southern Canadian institution employing me to perpetuate and develop narratives of meaning. I came to realize my professional responsibility to be the clear articulation of a northern intellectual and cultural perspective. After a decade I became a more capable northern community-centered researcher. After almost a quarter of a century an Elder told me I was heading in the right direction. Probably doesn’t get better than that.
    It is a pleasure to hear from keen young academics who will forward coherent and powerful statements about northern Canada.