Research and reconciliation: Thoughts from two Yukon First Nations citizens

Tosh Southwick & David Silas

This piece brings together reflections on the past, present, and future of Northern research and reconciliation from two people working with First Nations Initiatives and Community Engagement at Yukon College. We each take a different approach to the work of reconciliation while being rooted in a Northern Indigenous perspective.

Tosh Southwick
I am a citizen of a self-governing Yukon First Nation and a member of the Wolf clan. A large part of my life is dedicated to advancing reconciliation in academia.

Research has been a negative word in many First Nations communities. My experience supports this designation. The concept of community driven, owned, and possessed research was not something I had seen or heard of, until recently. I grew up in the North, a place that has for a long time, seen southern institutions and researchers arrive in our communities, conduct research and then leave, never to be seen again. At one end of my traditional territory there is a research centre that has conducted decades of southern directed, controlled, and disseminated research on topics that are decided by large universities and graduate students. There is a literal and a figurative lake between my community and the research centre. I do not recall any community discussions about what our community research questions were, what our First Nation government’s priorities were, and I definitely never saw any long term mutually respectful relationships developed. Neither were there any angry confrontations, or resistance fueled letters of cease and desist activity in our traditional territory. For the most part, it was only a story of separation and divide. They conducted their research, sent us large, for the most part unreadable, reports, and we worked on building a healthy vibrant community for our future generations.

As I got older and began to participate more and more in the governance and leadership aspects of Yukon First Nations, I began to question why the only thing we shared with the research centre was a geographical location. I wondered how we could harness the immense resources being applied to various research questions posed by others towards the very real and pressing needs we had in our own communities. Needs like climate change impacts, food security, reliance on diesel, and all of the social problems associated with colonization and systemic trauma are realities in many communities, and community-driven research in these areas could be so valuable. My frustrations, confusion, and anger only grew at the disconnect between the truths on the ground in our communities and the massive amount of energy being focused on southern-directed research. As I gained more awareness of what was happening on a larger scale throughout the Yukon and across the North, it became apparent that my experience was not isolated. It also became crystal clear that the journey of reconciliation would need to include, and focus on, the area of research.

A few summers ago, the necessity for reconciliation through research became a personal reality. I was travelling and picked up a magazine in an airport. I think I was drawn by the scenery on the cover of a beautiful Northern landscape. When I began reading the cover article I was shocked. The article was about a researcher and the project they were working on, which was located in my traditional territory in the Yukon. It was about a place that I am indescribably tied to. It was about a place that fundamentally grounds me, that my ancestors called home. Yet, the article was completely devoid of any reference to the Indigenous people, my people, who lived in the region. The article was so glaringly flat and empty. It outlined how researchers had “discovered” a river that had dried up, which was presented as a very real effect of climate change. The problem was the research and the resulting article completely ignored any of the context. There was no mention of the river being in the traditional territory of a self-governing Yukon First Nation. There was absolutely no consideration given to the local people, traditional knowledge, Indigenous ways of knowing and doing, impacts on the traditional lifestyles of those who live there, or any other critical components of the story. How could anyone claim to discover something that had always been part of our lives and now was forever changed?

The worst part was that this type of disconnect in research from the local communities was not an exception; it is, for the most part, the norm. This researcher’s story was only a sliver of the reality. Yes, the river dried up, but what does that actually mean on the ground for the people who live there? What does that mean for the families who set a fish net in the same spot as their great grandmothers and are no longer catching any fish? What do the Elders have to share about the history of this river? What do the impacts mean on the ground in real life? All of these questions are left unanswered because they were fundamentally unconsidered.

That article drove me to write a personal letter to the researcher (yet unanswered) to explain how the presentation of their research, and the disconnect between the research and the realities in our traditional territory made me feel as an Indigenous person, and a Northerner. The article has been a constant in the back of my mind, reminding me of everything I want to work to change and how I want to use a reconciliation lens to address and change how research is driven, conducted and shared. The experience has become a map for me of where to focus reconciliation efforts in research. It is everything I seek not to recreate.


David Silas
I come from the Northern Tutchone people of Selkirk First Nation. I work on a personal and professional mandate to support and lead in reconciliation. The things that are really exciting me these days are the opportunities for reconciliation in research.

So where do we go from here and what needs to occur to ensure First Nations’ knowledge is recognized, utilized and appreciated throughout the research process? To begin, I think a definition of reconciliation in research is needed. I see this in its truest form as a path not yet defined, a path that includes First Nations’ ways of knowing and scientific knowledge working in concert with each other. In research, this can be incorporated under an umbrella of sharing, caring, teaching and respect, and includes a reciprocal relationship where there is an opportunity to define that path early on and in true partnership. In his book, Research is Ceremony, Shawn Wilson (2008) explains the existence of a research paradigm that each researcher must face when trying to understand beliefs and assumptions about reality (p.33). Using Indigenous ways of knowing is a major part of this paradigm for researchers in the Canadian North and for true reconciliation to occur it must be answered and not ignored. In this piece, I will describe what I see as critical to creating reconciliation in research and provide some examples of how I see this being put into action.

How to include reconciliation actions into research processes, methods and outcomes is one of the challenges and opportunities facing Northerners conducting or leading Northern research. This is truly expressed through the various understandings of the dynamics of the political regions of Northern Canada. Modern day treaties in the North compounded with rapidly changing climate has caused a new sort of “Gold Rush” for the North, but this time it’s for knowledge and understanding. First Nations carry millennia of knowledge of the areas they are from, and they have passed on this knowledge through the generations with stories, legends and teachings. It is important for Northern First Nations not to become informants or cradles of facts for research projects. Rather, they should be collaborators and true partners deserving of the same recognition as anyone else on the project.

Communication within a project is an important feature to any relationship. How communication within a project is conducted is as important as the results or outcomes. It allows for each party to outline what the expectations of the project are and where sensitive issues might arise. It is about guiding the researcher and protecting the researched. Institutes across the North that are engaged with research have developed best practices when working with Northern First Nations. At Yukon College we have an engagement protocol endorsed by Yukon First Nations aptly called “Nothing about us without us,” which allows Yukon First Nations the opportunity to engage in research in a way that works for them in true partnership form.

These challenges and opportunities within Northern research have arisen from a history of non-involvement and lack of understanding of cultural norms and practices. In order to right the history of a smash and grab approach to Northern First Nations’ knowledge, the relationship and partnership aspect of the project must be defined and agreed upon prior to research commencing, especially if it involves humans, sensitive topics and land. Lastly, when the research relationship is defined, the chances of getting an ethics review approval will be enhanced. Northern Institutes like Yukon College are ensuring these policies are practised to protect the researchers and the researched.

There are several important changes that need to happen in order to realize a future where Indigenous ways of knowing are part of the research paradigm, as described by Shawn Wilson (2008). Research tends to approach beliefs and assumptions as though they are easily managed, when in reality they are not. They are fluid and changing – for example, as First Nations continue to adapt to a rapidly changing climate – and researchers in the North must adjust to this reality. To this point, there is also a need to incorporate First Nations’ values, principles and ways of knowing into research as true collaborators and partners. The ethical considerations that exist when working with First Nations has to be recognized because, historically, First Nations’ knowledge and ways of knowing have not been used accordingly. The secondary use of First Nations’ information has been an issue in the past, and the sooner we recognize this as a problem, the better position we will be in to address it through robust ethical review processes like those that exist here at Yukon College. In turn, First Nations have to let down some barriers developed from past colonial practices and approaches to see research as a tool to enhance community understanding of the research process, its expected outcomes, and its benefits to the community and those involved. The more a rural First Nation community is exposed to the applications of research, the better the opportunities for exposure in mathematics and science, for example. As a post-secondary student, I see these two subjects as major barriers facing our First Nation youth trying to become successful in their post-secondary education.

The way I understand reconciliation through a research lens is as a reciprocal relationship that goes both ways. It is reciprocal in the outcomes, it must benefit or contribute to those involved, the knowledge shared must reside with the First Nation community, and the derived data or information must be available to be accessed for their continued and long-term use.

We both grew up in the North and continue to live and work here. We see a fundamental role for reconciliation in research and for a formative shift to occur in the way research is created, conducted, disseminated and informed. As our own experiences have demonstrated, our relationships with reconciliation in research have evolved, and will continue to evolve. We are driven by the examples of what reconciliation does not look like, and by the endless possibilities for advancement of reconciliation. And we want to continue to support opportunities for what it could look like in the future. ◉

Tosh Southwick is a Citizen of Kluane First Nation, and belongs to the Wolf clan. She is a mother of three children and an Auntie to many more. Tosh recently completed her Masters in Education from UBC, and is currently the Executive Director of First Nations Initiatives and Community Engagement at Yukon College.

David Silas is from central Yukon, is part of the Selkirk First Nation, and is a member of the Wolf clan. He works for First Nations Initiatives at Yukon College and is also a fulltime student studying with the University of Alberta in the Bachelor of Science Northern Environmental and Conservation Sciences program offered in partnership at Yukon College.

Download Article