Memorial's new requirement for consent for Indigenous research

This FAQ is a living document and will be updated.


Memorial is undergoing consultations on a planned requirement for Indigenous consent on Indigenous research to start July 1, 2019. Campus-based and virtual consultation dates are outlined here. Specific academic units and any Indigenous group of any kind and size are also welcome to request additional consultations, and a west coast, southern Labrador, and northern Labrador community consultation are already planned for early in 2019. To learn more, please email avp.research@mun.ca.

Q: What are the main proposed components of the new requirement for Indigenous consent on Indigenous research?
The new requirement’s key feature is that consent from Indigenous Nations, governing bodies, and/or groups will be required at the proposal stage of research. This enables the ability for Indigenous groups to self-determine research topics, questions, and priorities, which is key to enacting sovereignty (see ITK 2018 as an example); the ability for Indigenous groups to articulate research protocols that are important to them; and is part of enacting the important role of universities and researchers in reconciliation for past and ongoing harms that have been caused by research to Indigenous groups (see Smith 2013 and Tuck & Yang 2014 for details).

The type of consent required is collective rather than individual. Consent is still required from individuals when research involves human subjects, which continues to be covered by Memorial's Interdisciplinary Committee on Ethics in Human Research (ICEHR). The new requirement focuses on collective consent from Indigenous Nations, governing bodies, and/or groups, depending on what group is appropriate for the research.

The scope of research that the proposal covers is ideally all research. Self-determination is not a concept that applies to some forms of research but not others. The requirement will certainly apply to all forms of primary (new) data collection. Consultations are attending to issues of capacity (for both Memorial and Indigenous groups), infrastructure, precedent, and existing conversations about consent and ethics from a range of Indigenous thinkers to understand whether and how this requirement will impact secondary data use, publicly available data, archival data, and other forms of research data, broadly defined.

Q: What is different about the new requirement compared to how we already do research? Don’t we already need consent and permissions?
Yes, many Indigenous governing bodies and groups, as well as Health Research Ethics Boards (HREBs) and other ethics boards already require collective consent for research. Moreover, in the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (Article 9.2) requires consultation and consent from Indigenous groups throughout the research process. Finally, many grants and researchers already follow best practices and acquire letters of support, which is a type of consent, from Indigenous groups when they submit proposals.

The main difference is that Memorial is requiring this collective consent of all researchers, that it is required at the proposal stage, and it may also impact types of data that does not currently fall under some of these existing areas.

Q: What dates does the consent requirement come into effect and how do they impact research-in-progress?
The date where Memorial University will require documentation of consent is July 1, 2019. On July 1, all new applications for grants, all new contracts, all grant renewals (if applicable), and all grant accounts set ups (for newly awarded grants) will require documentation of consent to proceed.

If you have already submitted a grant or contract before July 1 and it has been awarded and an account is already set up, Memorial will not require retroactive documentation. However, if that grants must be renewed or an account still has to be established on or after July 1, you will have to provide evidence of consent.

Q: What kind of documents can we get to show consent/permission for grant applications?
There are a variety of ways to show consent. These include:

  • A letter showing the project has successfully passed through the Indigenous government’s or Indigenous organization’s formal ethics process. There are some ethics processes that are Indigenous-lead that are not based in a government. These permissions are valid.
  • A letter on letterhead or email with an official signature stating that the Nation, governing body, or member of a defined group is aware of the application and supports it going forward at this stage. This can be in the form of a Letter of Support in Principle, or a less formal email that indicates the group is aware of the research and its terms and that it may proceed. Some governing bodies will not put researchers through their formal ethics process until a grant is acquired, so for these cases a pre-ethics process letter is fine. Other groups may not have an ethics board or formal process and an email or letter is the entire consent process.
  • A signature from an Indigenous governing body employee or group member acting in their official capacity as co-applicant, collaborator, or partner on a grant. Their signature can be part of the normal sign-off processes and/or in letter of support.
  • A contract or formal request for research that originates from an Indigenous Nation, governing body, or group.

When in doubt, contact your unit's grant facilitator and/or research officer.

Q: When do I get permission from an Indigenous Nation versus a governing body versus a group?
When natural, social, cultural, and health research is done on/within formalized Indigenous land, such as reserves, land claims, or traditional use territories that are governed by an Indigenous governing body (Nation, tribe, band, etc.), then ordinarily you must get consent from that governing body, some of which will be Nations. Some of these governing bodies have their own research ethics boards. If you are not sure if some land, people, or cultural objects are governed or considered part of a traditional territory (such as if there isn’t a land claim or treaty or if samples or artifacts have been removed), contact the Indigenous governing body—researchers and the University do not have the ability to determine whether or not Indigenous governing bodies have jurisdiction.

When research is conducted with or on a group or that is not governed or represented by an Indigenous governing body, including but not limited to urban groups, multicultural Indigenous groups, or groups that do not identify with or have ties to a particular Nation or governing body, then collective consent can be obtained from that group. Through consultations, we are working on a process for this kind of consent.

Q: What do I do for groups or bodies that cannot give permission or consent, such as the Beothuk?
We are working on this. Some possibilities are adhering to best practices, creating an Elder/Indigenous review committee at Memorial, or seeking out additional forms of peer review for these applications. Discussions about these possibilities are being carried out during consultation processes (see dates for consultations here).

Q: Do I need consent if I write that I want to engage with Indigenous people on a grant?
Yes. Naming a potential partnership or beneficiary in a project is a way to add value to that project, to try to get the grant or obtain positive peer review. One of the many purposes of consent is that Indigenous groups get a say in whether they can be used as cultural capital in other people’s projects and goals.

In short, if there is mention of Indigenous groups in your grant or project, you need consent.

Q: I am a natural scientist and I don’t work with or on Indigenous people, and I’m not interested in Indigenous issues, but I’m working within a Land claim area, a potential Land claim area, or an area customarily used by an Indigenous group. Do I need consent?
Yes. You require permission to get any kind of data or samples from Indigenous land, even if it gathered by drones or photography or other light touch methods.

Q: Do I need consent if I’m working with samples gathered from a colleague at another university?
Yes. Since consent is part of tri-council and many other research codes of conduct, ethics and best practices, your colleague should have already gotten consent and documentation of that consent is valid. If there is no documentation, then it would have to be obtained.

Q: I’m working with an existing dataset that includes self-identified Indigenous people. Do I need consent for this work?
If the data is not public, then yes. Just as you need Interdisciplinary Committee on Ethics in Human Research (ICEHR) or Health Research Ethics Board (HREB) ethics for secondary use of non-public data, you also need Indigenous consent for the same. See the question above on “When do I get permission from an Indigenous Nation versus a governing body versus a group?” based on the type of Indigenous people represented in the data.

If the data is public, such as the census, we have not yet decided. Consultations are attending to issues of capacity (for both Memorial and Indigenous groups), infrastructure, precedent, and existing conversations about consent and ethics from a range of Indigenous thinkers to understand whether and how this requirement will impact secondary data use, publicly available data, archival data, and other forms of research data, broadly defined (see dates for consultations here).

Q: If I get consent from an Indigenous governing body or ethics board, do I also still need to get individual consent for research involving human subjects and vis versa?
Yes. Researchers still need individual consent (via ICEHR) even if you have community consent, and you still need collective consent from the Indigenous governing body or group. Both requirements are outlined in the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS 2), where it explains that consent is required from individuals as well as community bodies where appropriate.

Q: Does the requirement bear on consent at later stages of research, such as research design, knowledge translation, or engagement?
While it is a best practice to ensure consent is ongoing, and Chapter 9 of the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS 2) specifically requires ongoing engagement and consultation throughout the research project, at this time the new Memorial consent requirement only pertains to documenting consent at the start of research. It is a necessary but insufficient step to ensuring good Indigenous-university relations in research. Over time, we hope to expand the type of support and infrastructure we can offer to this endeavour.

Q: Do I need consent for conducting research to education myself or my students on Indigenous topics?
No. We’re very happy that you’re pursuing this. If you are not producing new knowledge, then the activity does not fall under the research consent requirement.

Q: Do I need consent if an Indigenous group doesn’t have a Land claim?
Absolutely. Many groups do not have land claims, but that does not mean they are not Indigenous groups with rights, including the right of consent and sovereignty. Land claims are only one form of recognition given to Indigenous groups from the settler state and is not based in self-determination. For the purposes of research consent at Memorial University, we use customary land use, self-determination, and self-identification as guides for permissions and consent.

For more on why land claims and other forms of settler state recognition are insufficient for strong partnerships and reconciliation, see Coulthard, G. (2014). Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Politics of Colonial Recognition. Minnesota Press.

For more on the difference between consent from Nations and governing bodies (who may or may not have land claims) and other Indigenous groups (who will likely not), see the question “When do I get permission from an Indigenous Nation versus a governing body versus a group?”

Q: I have an Indigenous person on the grant. Does that count as consent?
Having Indigenous people in decision-making positions on grants and projects is an excellent best practice. It is particularly important to avoid tokenism, where an Indigenous person is placed on a project or grant to ‘check a box’ but has no authority or autonomy in the project, cannot influence or change the course of the project, or if you only have one person who is supposed to address all Indigenous issues, methods, ethics, and relationships. While having an Indigenous person working on a project implies individual consent on the part of the collaborator, it does not grant the type of collective consent we’re talking about here, which must come from governments, governing bodies, or groups.

The exception is if your team member is an official or leader in an Indigenous governing body or group and is acting in that capacity in the project. They must still sign or otherwise communicate the collective consent they are representing.

Q: How does the consent requirement affect Indigenous student applications for funding, or research carried out by Indigenous students, faculty, or staff?
It doesn’t. This requirement is for gaining consent from an Indigenous group at outset of designing a research project involving Indigenous topics. It does not matter whether the researchers or their students are Indigenous or not. If the student (Indigenous or otherwise) is proposing a research project on an Indigenous topic as part of an application, then they need consent. If the application is for funding for an Indigenous student no matter what they work on, then it does not require consent.

Q: I’m an Indigenous researcher. Do I need to get consent?
Yes. This is the case if you are working within your own Nation or community, or even with your own family, as well as if you are working elsewhere.

Note that Memorial’s Interdisciplinary Committee on Ethics in Human Research (ICEHR) is attuned to reviewing human ethics applicants when Indigenous researchers are working within their own territories and thus likely interacting with their own families or kin networks.

Q: I got rejected from the permission/consent process! Now what?
Many rejections detail the reasons for the decision not to accept your research request. Sometimes the government just doesn’t know you (there is one ethics review council in the United States where researchers have to be known to the Nation for three years before they will consent to a research relationship, for example). Perhaps your questions do not meet priorities, or are already being worked on by Indigenous researchers. Regardless of the reason, it is important to accept the rejection. We cannot emphasize this enough. A central tenant of colonialism is settler entitlement to Indigenous Land, people, time, ideas, etc. Whether researchers are Indigenous or settler, we cannot assume nor act on an entitlement to Indigenous topics.

You can try again later, work on the reasons for rejection, work with a different group, or change your research project so it doesn’t involve Indigenous research.

Q: This seems like a lot of barriers to doing Indigenous research.
It is! Just as human ethics review is a barrier to interviewing, animal care clearances are barriers to doing research with animals, consent to conduct research with/on/for Indigenous groups is a barrier to reduce harm that comes from research. While we know most of Memorial’s researchers act in a good way, the consent process formally provides room for Indigenous groups to be part of the research process in a meaningful way, allow researchers to ensure they have the knowledge and relationships in place to do research ethically.

Q: Paperwork and permits seem colonial. Isn’t it better to get more Indigenous styles of consent, like verbal agreement?
Getting Indigenous styles of consent appropriate to the group you’re working with is excellent, and can be paired with the paperwork for consent. There are many types of colonialism, but at their core the different types are about a system of dominant that grants settler access to Indigenous Land, concepts, knowledge, and peoples for settler goals.[1] This means that paperwork, bureaucratic portals, and letterhead can be used in anti-colonial ways, ensure that access to Indigenous Land, concepts, knowledge, and peoples is for Indigenous goals.

At the same time, Memorial wishes to respect Indigenous self-determination when it comes to forms of consent. If you are working with an Indigenous group where a request comes from them (not from the researcher) for different forms of consent, Research Grant and Contract Services (RGCS) and other university groups are able to work with that.

For more on varieties and manifestations of colonialism, see: Veracini, L. (2010). Settler colonialism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] This definition is adapted from Coulthard, G. (2014). Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Politics of Colonial Recognition. Minnesota Press

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