Indigenous Research Ethics Board sets nationwide precedent

Notes lecture workshop meeting

This July will see the launch of the first wholly autonomous Indigenous Research Ethics Board (IREB) at York University – the first for a post-secondary institution in Canada.

The creation of the IREB was born of a need that arose from York’s ongoing efforts to decolonize research. While the University’s Human Participants Review Committee (HPRC) has aimed to ensure the safety and health of Indigenous research participants, Indigenous leaders throughout York identified a greater need for Indigenous-specific knowledges and leadership within research supports in order to ensure appropriate sensitivity to cultural and community rights, roles and responsibilities across any research projects.

Sean Hillier portrait
Sean Hillier

“There needs to be Indigenous voices and Indigenous Peoples who have a say and control over all aspects of the approval process and not just a consultative piece to it,” says Sean Hillier, a Mi’kmaw scholar, the co-chair of the Indigenous Council at York and Chair of the team that enabled the establishment of the IREB.

Among those who contributed were: Amy Desjarlais, former knowledge keeper at the Centre for Indigenous Student Services; Bonita Lawrence, professor in the Indigenous Studies Program; Deborah McGregor, associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Justice; Celia Haig-Brown, professor in the Faculty of Education; Ashley Day, assistant professor in the School of Kinesiology & Health Science; Alison Collins-Mrakas, director, Office of Research Ethics; Amir Asif professor and vice-president, research and innovation; Sheila Cote-Meek, vice-president, equity, people and culture; and Wendy Jokho in administrative support.

“Establishing a fully autonomous IREB reflects the kind of relationship Indigenous communities want with universities,” says Susan Dion, York’s associate vice-president, Indigenous initiatives. “Recognizing the rights of Indigenous communities to steward knowledge production, it places the responsibility for ethical knowledge creation in the minds and hearts of Indigenous communities, which is where it must be. It is a significant move in returning to Indigenous people agency, authority, and sovereignty in knowledge production on this land.”

Everyone’s collective efforts led to two new policies – one, a Senate policy; the other, a set of procedures – which were presented and approved by Senate earlier this year. The result is the creation the first fully autonomous Indigenous research ethics board at a post-secondary institution in the country.

“What makes this a fully autonomous Indigenous Research Ethics Board is that we don’t report to anybody except the Senate,” explains Hillier. The HPRC is a board, and the IREB is a board. They are constituted separately. That means that the IREB can fully review and approve all research ethics involving Indigenous Peoples from low to high risk and propose either approval modification or rejection.”

Hillier says the IREB intends to be more involved and proactive than some research oversight teams can be. “What makes the IREB different is we’re not meant to be somewhere where you just fill in an ethics application, send it in and it gets approved or denied,” he says. “This is meant to be a process that engages scholars from the moment that they start thinking of research, speaking to them about the ethics and the implications of the work.”

The IREB will be guided by the responsibility of ensuring researchers respect the safety, welfare, dignity, rights and diversity of human experience and participants in their research and treat them equally and fairly – never as a means to an end. By foregrounding the voices and needs of Indigenous communities within Indigenous research, the IREB intends to ensure appropriate sensitivity when reviewing research projects.

“The institution of an wholly autonomous Indigenous Research Ethics Board and development of an Indigenous-focused ethics process represents a significant, further step towards decolonizing research at York University,” says Collins-Mrakas, whose work in the Office of Research Ethics helped to inform the development of the IREB.

The IREB will be made up of a council that will include five University faculty members, one undergraduate and graduate students – all representative of a diversity of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples and gender identities. It will also include three external elders and/or knowledge keepers, as well as three non-University affiliated Indigenous community representatives. Hillier says calls will be put out in the coming months to fill the community and elder and/or knowledge keeper positions.

Compensation will be provided by the University itself, which was important to Hillier and the team. They accomplished by bringing forward a longterm funding proposal forward to the Institutional Budget Committee, which was approved. “Compensating recognizes that the knowledge of our elders and our community members has value in our institution, and we recognize that value,” says Hillier.

Even in the short time since the IREB was approved, it has already made a significant impact in one respect: inspirational precedent. Hillier says there’s been a significant amount of interest across the country in what the IREB is doing, and many have expressed interest in doing the same.

“Well done and anushiik to the team for your work that contributes to decolonizing the University system,” says Dion.

There is currently no site to promote the IREB’s work, but plans are underway to include further information on the York Research and Innovation page.