Working towards the coproduction of knowledge: a research partnership involving Aboriginal people

CUNNINGHAM, Julie; CLOUTHIER, Edith; LEVESQUE, Carole (2009)

In this article, Carole Lévesque, professor at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (Montréal) and DIALOG director, Édith Cloutier, president of the Regroupement des centres d’amitié autochtones du Québec and Julie Cunningham, DIALOG network coordinator explain the experience of a research partnership involving Aboriginal people in Québec cities, Canada.

The public launching of the Community‐University Research Alliance (CURA) ODENA: Aboriginal People in Québec Cities was held on September 18, 2009. Granted funding for five years (2009‐2014) from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, this research alliance brings together the Québec Native Friendship Centre movement, the DIALOG network and university partners such as Institut national de la recherche scientifique in order to develop knowledge useful to urban Aboriginal communities in Québec. The main objectives of this undertaking are twofold: 1‐to broaden and renew the current understanding of the social, economic, political and material context in which the urban Aboriginal population in Québec is evolving; and 2‐to point the way towards the future development of public policies that are more closely adapted to the challenges and problems experienced by urban Aboriginal people. For the initiators of ODENA, this article is a much appreciated opportunity to share the origins, success stories, challenges and anticipated future developments of their very unique community‐university partnership with readers of the Global University Network for Innovation newsletter.

 
The DIALOG network: setting the stage for ODENA
 
Although the ODENA research alliance has recently received funding, it should be pointed out that the partnership between the Québec Native Friendship Centre movement and DIALOG has a much longer history. Indeed, the Regroupement des centres d’amitié autochtones du Québec (RCAAQ), the provincial association of Native friendship centres and the main political voice of Aboriginal people living in Québec urban areas, has been a DIALOG partner since 2004. The DIALOG‐Research and Knowledge Network Relating to Aboriginal Peoples, was itself created in 2001 after discussions were held between a number of representatives of Aboriginal peoples and academics. This conversation produced a consensus on the need to establish a mediating structure in Québec between Aboriginal institutions and researchers. In particular, there was clear agreement in both milieus on the need: 1) to transform Aboriginal‐academic relations, 2) to support and conduct research in a manner that is meaningful and useful to Aboriginal people, and 3) to ensure that the latter’s worldviews are integrated into the development of research methodologies and analytical frameworks. Therefore, right from the start, DIALOG members and Aboriginal partners considered, negotiated and experienced the different facets of the tensions between knowledge and power, specifically in the context of interdisciplinary and community‐university teamwork. Together, they innovated by finding ways to conceptualize and frame issues relating to Aboriginal peoples by systematically including the literature produced by Aboriginal peoples and by looking at the various ethical and epistemological challenges of community‐based research through Aboriginal eyes. In short, it was through collective efforts deployed to fulfill DIALOG’s mandate regarding the coproduction of knowledge and by fostering joint initiatives contributing to the development of shared research agendas that the idea arose to design a community‐university research alliance meeting the particular aspirations and needs of Aboriginal people in Québec cities. Today, sixteen academic disciplines (geography, sociology, psycho‐education, anthropology, political science, criminology, law, biology, social work) from five Québec universities and representatives of seven Native friendship centres (Val‐d’Or, Senneterre, Chibougamau, Sept‐Iles, Lanaudière, Montréal, La Tuque) and the RCAAQ belong to ODENA, which means “the city” in the Algonquin language.
 
ODENA research themes, characteristics and principles
 
Consultations on the selection and application of the CURA’s various research components began back in 2007 at the stage of the letter of intent. Four cross‐disciplinary research themes were very quickly identified: identity, mobility, quality of life and governance. More specifically, this means that issues linked but not limited to poverty, health, racism, self‐determination, security, housing access, child development, criminality, educational attainment, territorial development and management will at one time or another be a topic of research over the next five years. Closely corresponding to the CURA program objectives, it was clear from the outset that the decision to pool expertise, knowledge and experience had one ultimate goal: “improving Aboriginal people’s quality of life by better targeting services and programs and supporting the social, cultural, political and economic development initiatives implemented by leaders and practitioners.” One of the main tasks of the co‐directors and coordinators is now to nurture the sense that researchers and practitioners from the friendship centres are both part of a collective undertaking working to achieve this very specific goal. This point needs to be stressed repeatedly not only internally but also externally: it is crucial to clarify for as many people as possible what is at stake in ODENA and which directions and approaches are being highlighted to address the issues.
 
Accordingly, it was agreed that the partnership was to be based on seven core principles. Firstly, the principle of equality structures the functioning of every dimension of our alliance: starting with the governance structure, along with every committee set up to achieve research, training or knowledge mobilization objectives, equal representation/participation of community‐university partners is encouraged. Aboriginal partners are no longer objects of research in our project; rather, they are equal stakeholders and will be conducting research and interpreting the data as much as researchers will. Secondly, mutual recognition of each other’s knowledge and knowhow is at the heart of our partnership. Ensuing from this statement is the idea that academics are not the sole holders of relevant expertise and that fieldwork intelligence is essential to an accurate understanding of the issues and to defining adequate interventions. Thirdly and fourthly, accessibility and sharing are principles linked to the partners’ commitment to set up the tools (liaison updates, briefs, memos, data banks, reports, research summaries, policy recommendations, interactive maps, CD‐ROMs, etc.) and the appropriate conditions to ensure the circulation and sharing of information benefiting all ODENA members. Fifthly, evaluation is also considered a pillar of our partnership in the sense that a reflective process will be set up for every meeting between researchers and Aboriginal collaborators in order to maximize the alliance’s epistemological and methodological contributions. Sixthly, consensus orients the decision‐making process: opinions regarding matters to be decided will be shared openly and all perspectives flowing from this exchange shall enlighten final choices. Finally, the last principle grounding the alliance is a holistic vision, which informs our research questions, methodologies, analytical frameworks, interpretations, and so on. This principle stems from the fact that the Native friendship centres’ practices are based on this approach, which refers to the importance of taking into account the multiplicity of factors influencing an individual or collective situation in order to determine the appropriate course of action. To summarize, seven principles mirror our collective understanding of what ODENA should be. In the very near future, a charter more concretely explaining what these principles mean in specific situations will be drafted as a way to de‐personalize decision‐making and to formalize the commitment to our main objectives.
 
Challenges and future works and activities
 
We are also at the stage of preparing a plan of action that will outline in great detail every ODENA research, training and knowledge mobilization activity over the next five years, which is quite exciting. Now, no matter how much we trust each other, the act of working collaboratively is bound to go through ups and downs. One of the challenges we face relates to the creation of a common language that will enable us to communicate more straightforwardly, with a relative certainty that meaning gets through multilaterally. Creating this language is important because not everyone in our team has equal experience in working collaboratively across disciplines, institutions and milieus, and getting to know each others’ backgrounds, opinions, interests, and constraints takes a tremendous amount of time. It is a fact that not everyone associates the same meaning with words, not to mention concepts! In this respect, the presence of effective and experienced facilitators is highly valuable, and helps to keep the crew of the boat going in the same direction, as it were, and focusing on constructive dialogue. It is also true that, on the individual level, some people are more patient and better listeners than others, and these are crucial qualities to develop through every stage of the project. Furthermore, people do not have identical ways of learning. This might seem obvious but this acknowledgement needs to translate into actions that take us in and out of our comfort zones: working collectively should involve the use of as many vehicles as possible to transmit knowledge, information and ideas as a way to ensure that the project remains as inclusive as possible.
 
Nevertheless, ODENA members can draw inspiration to meet these challenges from their experience in DIALOG, for instance within the context of DIALOG’s Nomadic University. Beyond the fact that this university’s sessions are held in various places (Mexico in 2008, Montréal and Val‐d’Or in 2009, Brest and Edmonton in 2010), it is designed to bring Aboriginal partners, scholars, students, policy‐makers, government representatives and the general public together around one or many related issues, for a specific purpose: to create the time‐space for collective learning through continuous interactions and frank discussions about meaning, power relations, knowledge, practice and relationships in the context of issues relating to Aboriginal peoples. Our past experiences have demonstrated how rich in learning this experience can be. The future definitely holds out promises for ODENA and the people who are part of it.
 

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

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