From the Magazine

Relationships, resistance & resurgence in northern-led research

Ashlee Cunsolo & Amy Hudson

Two powerful worlds
Indigenous Peoples have been actively participating in research, observing and monitoring changes upon their lands, making decisions based on evidence and lived experiences, and adapting for generations (Stewart-Harawira 2013). Yet, research has often remained within the domain of researchers and universities, perpetuating imbalances and inequities in who has power over “evidence” and whose voices are most often heard or valued. In response to these inequities, Inuit organizations and governments throughout the North have increasingly been calling for more sovereignty – that is, more control, freedom, and determination – over research and science that is conducted in their home territories.

In December 2016, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national representational organization for most Inuit in Canada, published a submission to the Naylor Panel for Canada’s Fundamental Science Review (2016). In it, they argue for Inuit self-determination in research and science, citing the critical need for a change in the unequal power dynamics that have existed between Inuit and researchers. As the authors of the report write,

Inuit are rights holders in scientific research communities, including as funders of research and custodians of scientific facilities. We are striving for self-determination in research. This means that we demand to play a role as equal partners in setting the research agenda…; work as equal partners with researchers in the design, implementation, and dissemination of research; and have access to and – as appropriate – control over how information gathered about our population is used and disseminated.

At the same time, institutions of higher education throughout the country are striving to find ways to respectfully decolonize and Indigenize their curriculum and their structures, and looking for ways to respond to the 94 Calls to Action that the Truth & Reconciliation Commission put forward in 2015. With the current Federal focus on Nation-to-Nation relationships, science, and the North, there is a rich and changing academic landscape where renewed research relationships can be negotiated and fostered among Inuit and institutions of higher education.

We are writing this article from and about “two powerful worlds, the world of Indigenous Peoples and the world of research” (Tuhiwai Smith 2012, ix), and how these worlds intersect through ongoing efforts to negotiate relationships between an Inuit government and an institution of higher education. As a Southern Inuk (Hudson) leading research for the Inuit region of NunatuKavut in Southern Labrador, and a settler of Italian and Irish descent (Cunsolo) leading a division of a university in the North and on the homelands of the Inuit and Innu of Labrador, we are continually contending with the complex questions and action, ethics, and politics, that emerge at the intersection of those two worlds. Our two worlds of Indigenous governance and academia often interact and overlap in Labrador, as research and governance cannot be separated in the region. We are trying, together, to negotiate new relationships between our respective organizations. We do so to develop processes and protocols for nation-to-institution engagement, to find ways of conducting research that not only meet the needs and priorities of the North and grow from the lands on which we live, but also push for research sovereignty in the North.

Research & our organizations
The NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) represents the Indigenous rights of approximately 6,000 Southern Inuit. NunatuKavut means “our ancient land” and is the home territory of Southern Inuit in south and central Labrador. The primary function of the NCC is to ensure “the land, ice and water rights of its peoples are recognized and respected” (NCC 2013). The vision of the NCC is that of a self-sufficient and self-governing territory. Through diverse departments, the NCC has been and continues to provide programs, services and resources to NunatuKavut communities related to natural resources, health and wellness, employment and skills, research, education and culture, to name a few. The NCC is also a modern land claimant organization and is optimistic that land claim acceptance is imminent.

Research is a key component of the organization. In 2016, NCC developed a Research, Education, and Culture (REC) department and has since been leading innovative research in community sustainability, cultural revitalization, Inuit education, renewable energies, Inuit research ethics, and governance and self-determination. Over the past decade, NCC implemented a research ethics framework and community engagement principles to guide research relationships and to ensure that research is accountable to the goals and objectives of the NCC. The implementation of the research department has created a dedicated space to advance the work that has been done and to strengthen research processes, community engagement practices, and community readiness and awareness. We work with the knowledge that our people in our communities are the “experts” and knowledge holders regarding matters that affect them, their communities, and the land to which they belong.

The Labrador Institute, a division of Memorial University, has been located in Labrador for 39 years and is focused on meeting the needs and priorities of Labrador and the North. As a public centre of research, education, and outreach, and as one of the only full-time university-run divisions in the North, the Labrador Institute has a deep commitment to place, and to allowing our research and our programming to be shaped by and responsive to the peoples, lands, and waters of Labrador. With a focus on Northern-led, Northern-focused, and Northern-inspired research and education, the Labrador Institute has 20 staff members, including faculty members, scientists, researchers, post-doctoral fellows, program coordinators, and administrative specialists, as well as a range of students, visiting researchers, research assistants, and interns. Key areas of research include Northern food systems and sovereignty; language, culture, and identity; governance and determination; community knowledges; resources and changing environments; place, health, and environment; and Northern methodologies. Since the Labrador Institute is situated on the homelands of the Innu and Inuit, the Institute also has a special obligation to the Indigenous Peoples of the region and works in partnership on a variety of Indigenous-led and Indigenous-focused research and education programming.

What we mean by relationships
Through the overlaps and intersections of our positions, we often find ourselves talking about “relationships” as we grapple with our work, about what they mean and who they are with. We talk about how we maintain and support those relationships that nourish and push us, and how we try to enhance those that are struggling. And we also talk about how we take care in the relationships that cause damage through disrespectful research practices and behaviours that reflect colonized approaches or ignore rights and responsibilities, histories, and homelands.

In particular, we often talk about relationships between universities and Indigenous Nations and organizations, and how many of the “relationships” that currently exist are at the individual level – i.e. individual researchers working with Indigenous groups on particular projects of mutual interest – rather than at the level of institutional relationships among institutions of higher education and Indigenous governments. In these conversations, we imagine what it would be like to think with and work together differently, to forge new pathways and relationships at the nation-to-Institution level. These are relationships that learn from the people with whom they serve and on whose traditional territories our institutions and organizations reside. They are relationships that are held to account – and are humbled by – those who have come before, and recognize their diverse ways of knowing, strong wisdom, place-based connections, and kinship relations. They are relationships that support research that emphasizes not only rigour, but also respect, reciprocity, relevance, recognition, resistance, and resurgence. They are relationships that understand that research and education are essential to the survival of communities and cultures who have been previously marginalized, silenced, or narrated by others – communities and cultures who are often, as Eve Tuck (2009: 412) writes, “overresearched but underseen.”

Dog sledding in Charlottetown, Labrador. Photo Credit: Belinda Williams


These are the relationships that we try to foster between ourselves, and between our respective organizations. And with these relationships we attempt to make changes to the systems of research and the organizations that govern them, including universities, funding agencies, and publication outlets. And we are not alone in this endeavour. There is a strong and vibrant network of institutions of higher education across the North, from Aurora College and Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning in the Northwest Territories, to Yukon College in the Yukon, to Nunavut Arctic College in Nunavut, to University College of the North in Manitoba, and to Nunavik Sivunitsavut in Nunavik. These are all organizations that have often struggled to gain recognition on the research landscape as important places of Northern-led research and thought. And these are all institutions that look and act differently than southern institutions because they are responsive and committed to the peoples and cultures of the North.

Self-determination through research sovereignty & partnerships
Currently, our two organizations – the Nunatu-Kavut Community Council and the Labrador Institute – are forging new strategies within our own respective organizations : leading research and partnering with researchers meaningfully on local needs and priorities (NunatuKavut); and working more respectfully and responsively with Indigenous partners in all research and academic initiatives (Labrador Institute).

For NunatuKavut, this process involves connecting our past to the present so that decisions that impact the future are grounded foremost in community and culture. Our commitment to self-determination through research, and the fundamental importance of research to our communities, exists beyond an ideal of social justice. We are committed to research for our survival. It is about reclaiming who we are and where we come from and continue to belong as a people, as we continue the decolonizing work synonymous with our Indigenous resistance and cultural preservation efforts. It is about the telling of a story – our story – from our perspective and from the vantage point that we wish to tell it. The potential of self-determination through research sovereignty and partnerships is predicated upon the ability of Southern Inuit to continue to make decisions that impact them and us, to identify research priorities, and to be equipped to equally and equitably engage and negotiate processes in partnership that reflect our people and place.

For the NCC and its role in research governance, specific expectations of engagement and research partnership have arisen from a history of colonially-motivated research relationships. At the same time, the continued resiliency and resurgence of our people and communities has resulted in a commitment to reclaim our collective past and honour our Inuit ancestors, as we and they embark upon a future together. We understand that research can be a powerful way forward if we work together, nation-to-institution, in a way that recognizes this colonial past and present, and creates pathways that allow for true Indigenous self-determination. On a nation-to-institution level, we envision collaborative research partnerships that are aware of the colonial role of research in the past and today, and research relationships that support Indigenous communities in their ability to pursue decolonizing work.

Plucking partridge on the ice. Photo Credit: ‘My Word’: Storytelling and Digital


For the Labrador Institute, this process has involved re-visioning and re-framing our core activities and processes, through ongoing dialogues, listening, and learning with the Inuit and Innu of Labrador. It has meant a re-setting of strategic directions and research priorities, a re-examining of who and what the organization is, within the context of Indigenous sovereignty, self-determination, and research leadership. It has also meant ongoing engagement and dialogue with people at Memorial University about Labrador, Northern sovereignty in research and science, and about the need to further empower the Labrador Institute to grow as a unit, guided by the Indigenous Peoples of the region. To assist in this process, we are currently in the process of establishing an Indigenous Advisory Board for the Labrador Institute, which will direct and guide our future activities and initiatives, ensuring we are responsive to and reflective of the needs and strengths of the North.

Through discussions between our organizations, it was also clear that we needed to create a “terms of relationship,” which would guide not only our individual interactions, but organizational interactions and nation-to-institution relationships. With the suggestion and guidance from the President of Memorial University, Dr. Gary Kachanoski, and with the agreement of the President of NunatuKavut, Todd Russell, our organizations are embarking on the development of a memorandum of understanding and terms of relationship, to guide the relationships that NunatuKavut and Memorial University have, whether it be in research or in other activities related to higher education. As we are beginning to develop this agreement, we are emphasizing strength-based and desire-based research over deficit- and damage-based research; Inuit sovereignty over territory and research priorities; respect for all ways of knowing and all forms of science, be it Indigenous, local, or Western; and understanding of the importance of working together to ensure research supports Inuit flourishing within NunatuKavut.

Such discussions and visioning are illustrative of what is possible when an Indigenous nation and an institution of higher education work together to achieve a desired future. Within this context, we contend that the onus is, and should be, upon institutions of higher education to create spaces and to facilitate opportunities to pursue meaningful relationship building with Indigenous communities that are Northern-led, and Northern-focused. Indeed, when research relationships and relationship-building recognize and prioritize Indigenous sovereignty in their homelands, everyone is better positioned to meaningfully engage in conversations and actions that seek to decolonize past, present, and future, and that support the self-determination efforts of Indigenous communities.

Old boat in William’s Harbour, Labrador. Photo Credit: Ashlee Cunsolo


Responsibility in a time of reconciliation and resurgence 
We believe we are in a time of great resurgence, where the world of Indigenous Peoples and the world of research in the North are shifting and transforming to be more reflective of unique spaces, places, peoples, and cultures. Yet, in many ways, institutions of higher education are neither structured nor equipped to respond to these relationships of research and reciprocity, sovereignty and science, data and determination. There will be inevitable growing pains as the policies and bureaucracies shift and expand. There will be challenges as individuals struggle to maintain imbalances of power to which they have grown accustomed and seek to maintain a privileged and colonial position of research belonging solely to the domain of academia and to higher education. And there will inevitably be mistakes. But, as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2017: 20) writes, “Mistakes produce knowledge. Failure produces knowledge because engagement in the process changes the actors embedded in process and aligns bodies with the implicate order. The only thing that doesn’t produce knowledge is thinking in and of itself, because it is data created in dislocation and isolation and without movement.”

There are many pathways to research resurgence and science sovereignty in the North. We contend that one essential pathway is through nation-to-institution relationships, which see the opening of higher education to Indigenous governments, histories, knowledges, and sciences. These relationships reflect the ways in which Indigenous governments are reclaiming research and education space within higher education systems. This can take place institutionally, through formal agreements, joint programs, shared spaces, and institutional change and growth through meaningful and equitable partnerships. This can also happen through the development of curriculum and programs that are responsive to place and culture, and are guided by and premised upon Indigenous knowledge, including land-based programs, co-taught programs, and curriculum that emphasizes integrated knowledge systems. And this can also emerge through a transformation of academic funding structures and agencies, which often only fund institutions of higher education directly, rather than flowing funds to Indigenous organizations to lead their own research.

Skidooing on the sea ice. Photo Credit: Ashlee Cunsolo


It is no longer the time for the south to guide the research questions of the North. It is time for the North to ask the questions they want, to lead the research they need, and to receive the support of Institutions of higher education along this pathway. If partnerships between Indigenous Nations and higher education are to be one of the pathways forward for Northern research sovereignty, there must be willingness on the part of academic institutions and researchers to conceive of a role that is supportive of Indigenous autonomy and sovereignty in research and community – a role that legitimately creates space for Indigenous Peoples to make decisions that impact them upon their own lands, to act as self-determined peoples, with shared leadership and governance over research. ◉

Ashlee Cunsolo, PhD, is the Director of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, a former Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Healthy Communities and Associate Professor. She is a member of the Royal Society of Canada College of New Artists, Scholars and Scientists.

Amy Hudson, PhD Candidate, is from the Southern Inuit community of Black Tickle, located off Labrador’s southeast coast in NunatuKavut. She is the Manager of Research, Education and Culture at the NunatuKavut Community Council and is a PhD Candidate in the Interdisciplinary department at Memorial University specializing in Inuit community governance and sustainability.

Betasamosake Simpson, L. (2017). As we have always done: Indigenous freedom through radical resistance. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. (2016). Submission to the Naylor Panel for Canada’s Fundamental Science Review. Available at:
NunatuKavut. (2013). NunatuKavut: Our ancient land. Available at:
Stewart-Harawira, M. (2013). Challenging knowledge capitalism. Indigenous research in the 21st century. Socialist Studies, 9(1): 39-51.
Truth & Reconciliation Commission. (2015). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to action. Available at:
Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3): 409-427.
Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York, NY: Zed Books.

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