Reconciliation through science: How ethical space drives science to action for all

Published On: November 2023Categories: 2023 Conference Editorials, 2023 Editorial Series, Editorials


Kyle Bobiwash

University of Manitoba

Assistant Professor

Office of the Chief Science Advisor

Emily McAuley

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Director of the Indigenous Science Liaison Office

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Director of the interdepartmental Indigenous Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (I-STEM) Cluster

Zoe Todd

Simon Fraser University

Associate Professor, Indigenous Studies

Cara Tannenbaum

Health Canada

Departmental Science Advisor

Hasu Ghosh

Health Canada

Senior Policy Analyst

Collage of four headshots, the first a man in a ladybug costume, then a woman with short hair and glasses, then a woman with long hair and glasses, and then a woman with curly hair.
Disclaimer: The French version of this editorial has been auto-translated and has not been approved by the author.

Many of us may be familiar with the principles of western ethics, such as beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy and justice.  We assume these four principles are universal and applicable to all contexts.  But assumptions come at a cost, the same way our unconscious biases inadvertently cause harm.  It is crucial to recognize that western ethical principles have emerged from western/settler and colonial cultural contexts, and may not always reflect the ethical and moral frameworks guiding Indigenous cultures.  For instance, the principle of autonomy, highly valued in western ethics, may not be justified in some Indigenous communities, where community well-being and being in good relation with the natural world may hold primacy over the needs or wants of the individual. In the ever-evolving landscape of scientific inquiry and collaboration, the concept of ethical space begins to shift the focus from merely acknowledging the promising practices in building research relationships with Indigenous communities to a more profound exploration of the core of research ethics. Recognizing the limitations of existing research ethics practices, which predominantly stem from western worldviews, approaches, and frameworks allows us to craft space where diverse worldviews can interact and coexist, while respecting and reciprocally engaging with one another’s values and beliefs.

Science and discovery go hand in hand in western contexts. Many western scientists today are ‘discovering’ the value of Indigenous knowledge (IK) systems. Ursula K Le Guin (1982: 4) famously said that “one of our finest methods of organized forgetting is called discovery.” With the expanding interest in research and policy spaces to weave western science and IK in Canada, it’s important not to forget the deep and powerful ways Indigenous knowledges have always shaped western scientific understandings. When we look back at the development of knowledge about lands, waters, plants, fish, geology, and other physical beings that make up diverse homelands across this country, we find example after example of times that scientists, explorers, prospectors, missionaries, policymakers, and others relied intimately on IK to develop their understandings of local lands and waters, which shaped economies and policies that grew from those ‘discoveries’. For instance, in 1793 explorer Peter Fidler came to understand coal deposits in the western Plains by learning from Indigenous knowledge keepers about how they used this material (Haig 1990).  In 1898, Dene Elder Liza Crookedhand was the person who found gold that prospectors then exploited to build the Giant Mine (Mathisen 2015). As we try to navigate relationships within, across, and between Indigenous knowledges and science, it’s very important for scientists and policymakers to remember that Indigenous peoples have always shaped science here– and to make sure that current efforts to weave knowledge systems together also acknowledges that the power of one group to erase another peoples’ contributions, as a kind of ‘organized forgetting’, has long term consequences for how we build ethical research and policy.”

Indigenous knowledge and more specifically Indigenous Science (IS) systems have innate guideposts that specifically outline the locally relevant principles and values of knowledge generation that occur between people and those they maintain relationships with. These foundational drivers of the knowledge bases of communities will vary across regions and Nations and represent the key concepts that have been historically and contemporarily identified as being those essential to maintain some measure of homeostasis in our relationships. Whether it is a relationship between ourselves and our ecosystem components or our cultural practices and the more-than human world they allow us to connect with, ceremony, methodology, knowledge translation and mobilization strategies are a product of key indicators embedded in local ways of knowing and being. Amongst Anishinaabe, Minobimaatisiiwin (“the good life”) provides an evaluative lens through which how we live and how we affect the lives of others (biotic, abiotic, animate or inanimate) can be evaluated. The Seven Grandfather teachings (Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Truth, Honesty, and Humility) can provide wholistic culturally relevant metrics through which we can evaluate and enhance the capacity of science to serve society in the creation of a better life for all species. Reconciling not only our different ways of knowing but the different ways through which our ways of knowing have evolved are essential to building honest approaches to weaving or braiding knowledge systems. The equitable development of the future of the greater Canadian science ecosystem necessitates introspection by all knowledge systems for continuous self-evaluation to drive our ability to collaboratively build solutions to the increasingly complex problems faced on our planet.

The ethical standards and our current approach in Indigenous engagement in science, though designed with good intentions, often fails to align with the intricate web of Indigenous knowledge and values. It’s clear that the one-size-fits-all approach in research ethics doesn’t fit when it comes to Indigenous STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Indigenous partners and communities are seeking something more profound in this dialogue. They are waiting for a moment when western researchers will not just acknowledge but truly understand their values and beliefs. In doing so, they aspire to witness a transformation in thinking, ultimately leading to changes in actions.

Amidst the discourse on ethical space, a potential approach lies in restoring the open-minded curiosity that defines childhood as the mindset required to cultivate such a space. This analogy underscores the importance of opening not just our minds but also our hearts. By clearing our minds of structured thinking and opening our hearts, our minds become more receptive to new ideas and diverse viewpoints. This, in turn, can trigger a shift in our thinking, ultimately influencing our values and beliefs. The message is clear: to foster an ethical space, we must reconnect with the innate inquisitiveness of our youth and embrace a more open-hearted, open-minded approach, transcending traditional boundaries and fostering understanding in the process. Our path to reconciliation involves challenging our personal assumptions about what it means to ethically conduct science and embrace different epistemological systems. Wiping clean the slate of our minds is a first step towards unlearning what has been taught by western academics and ethicists and opening our spirit to learn new concepts and processes of ethical research conduct as defined by Indigenous peoples.