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Vol 39  No 2
Aug. 31, 2006


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Building better relationships with aboriginal groups

by Leslie Vryenhoek

Dr. David Natcher’s research is helping build better relationships between indigenous groups and other governments and organizations.

Dr. David Natcher, Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies, has been named the co-director of a large research network that will examine the impact of economic development in Canada’s north. Like so many other projects in which Dr. Natcher is involved, this one aims to ensure the interests and values of aboriginal people play a pivotal role in decision-making.

The Social Economy Research Network for Northern Canada, as the project is known, is one of five such network nodes across the country that the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) is funding.

This three-year, $1.75 million northern network project will support social-economy research from Labrador across the continent to the Yukon. In addition to Dr. Natcher and his co-director, Dr. Chris Southcott of Lakehead University, three research centres are involved: Northern Research Institute at Yukon College; Northern Research Institute at Aurora College in Inuvik and Nunavut Research Institute in Iqualuit.

Dr. Natcher will work with colleagues and communities across Canada’s north to examine the interdependent relationship between social needs and sustainable economies.

“For my part, I’ll be looking at how aboriginal communities are responding to social, economic and ecological change, and how they can become more resilient in the face of such change,” said Dr. Natcher, who is also an assistant professor of anthropology. “For example, we will address how the impacts of major industries such as mining can be minimized, and how better to involve aboriginal communities in decision-making.”

One of the project’s other tasks is to shed light on how existing co-management boards ­ which typically involve provincial/territorial and federal officials, scientists, economists, industry representative, indigenous leaders and local groups ­ can most effectively work together.

“These cross-cultural boards now manage significant lands and resources, but there are profound differences, culturally, between the way indigenous people relate to the land and the way western governments do,” he explained. Issues such as language, terminology and whose knowledge is considered most relevant to the management process often becomes a formidable barrier to building trust.

“However, when aboriginal governments secure more control and gain genuine input, management and development have proven far less disruptive to aboriginal communities.”

Dr. Natcher is also the principal investigator on a multi-year project, funded by the Sustainable Forest Management Network (SFMN), to consider how forest tenure practices could better take into account the needs and values of aboriginal peoples, who he says are often left out of the equation when forest policy is established.

Since the project began in 2005, Dr. Natcher has worked directly with the Innu Nation in Labrador and two tribal councils in the Yukon and BC. “They’re all facing very similar challenges as well as working without the settlement of land claims, so these First Nations are working together to explore new ways of shaping Canadian forest policy.” Two doctoral students, Damian Castro and Carolina Tytelman, both received four years of graduate funding from the SFMN to work with Dr. Natcher on this project.

More recently, Dr. Natcher, along with Dr. Larry Felt, Sociology Department, entered into an agreement that creates a true partnership with the Nunatsiavut Government in Labrador.

The project, called From the Memories of Elders to the Policies of Government, will examine how the local knowledge of Inuit elders and land users can be incorporated most effectively in Nunatsiavut’s land management policies.

“Because of their deep attachment to the land and sea, the Inuit are acutely attuned to changes in their local environment,” Dr. Natcher explained, adding that generational knowledge is invaluable to the understanding of things like trends in wildlife populations. “Are the changes that we’re seeing in some wildlife species out of the ordinary, or are they something the Inuit have identified in the past?” Inuit elders can bring a much-needed historical perspective that western science cannot offer.

Drs. Natcher and Felt will lend their research expertise in helping gather and synthesize the traditional knowledge, while the Inuit will offer reciprocal expertise. For example, Dr. Natcher said elders or other experts on Inuit knowledge will serve as true partners in the research. This will include co-authorship of publications and serving on graduate committees. “It doesn’t make sense to have a graduate student present a thesis or dissertation on traditional knowledge without having an Inuit expert in the room who can say if the student got it right.”

While the Inuit, recognizing the importance of not working in isolation, initiated the partnership, Dr. Natcher says the benefits to Memorial are enormous. “This project builds capacity not just in Inuit communities, but here as well. As researchers, it will benefit us tremendously, and help us learn how to work better with indigenous people through research.”

This project also involves a doctoral student, Andrea Procter, who recently received a $35,000 grant from SSHRC.

All of Dr. Natcher’s disparate projects have a common aim: to work with indigenous groups to ensure their social and economic interests, as well as their values, are represented in decisions and policies. “At the end of the day, it’s about more equitable and effective working relationships between indigenous groups and other governments and organizations.”


Dr. David Natcher, Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies, simply has to open the side door in his Inco Innovation Centre office to show off the newly refurbished Centre for Aboriginal Research.

The space was recently completed, and will offer senior researchers, graduate students and visiting scholars from across the country a place to work and to share ideas and knowledge.

With funding from the university, the province and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, (CFI) the centre has several fully-equipped work areas. There is also a common room which can facilitate meetings and group project work. As well, in the coming year the room will offer a brown bag lunch lecture series that will explore aboriginal issues.

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