Decolonizing research through documentary film: Indigenous environmental justice and community-engagement in Canada - lessons from the field
Written by a University-based post-doctoral researcher, this case example discusses some of the ethical dilemmas faced while completing PhD fieldwork based in one of Canada’s First Nation territories. In Canada there are over 600 First Nations communities. Some live on reserve lands due to their treaty rights which pre-date Canadian confederation in 1867. Others live on land allocated to them by the federal government through patchwork policy decisions. This land is often marginalized. It is important to note that no reserve or First Nations community is alike across the country. In 1982, the amended Canadian Constitution recognized and affirmed Aboriginal rights. The term Aboriginal encompasses First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. Rather than use of the legal term “Aboriginal”, many communities, activists and scholars prefer the term “Indigenous”. As such, this case example uses this term in reference to these communities, their struggles for justice and the ongoing legacy of Canadian colonialism affecting Indigenous bodies, homes and lands today.
Guided by my intuition and passion for social justice, as a doctoral candidate, during the Winter of 2011, I relocated from Ottawa – Canada’s capital – to Aamjiwnaang, an Indigenous territory encircled by a noxious zone known as ’Chemical Valley’. This relocation coincided with my involvement on a collaborative research project focused on youth leadership and environmental awareness between the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Health and Environment Committee and York University, based in Toronto. As a Research Assistant on this project, working alongside academic researchers and community-members, I began build relationships within the community. Thus, I relocated and continued to support youth leadership on a voluntary basis while commencing my own research on environmental and reproductive justice.
With a background in Political Science, my intention was to move beyond the formal institutional realm of politics in an attempt to come to grips with the lived realities for Indigenous citizens fighting for environmental and reproductive justice with their bodies on the frontlines of repeated pollution exposure. Surrounded by industry, this community confronts contamination on all fronts: in the air, soil and water, ultimately, impacting their home and penetrating their bodies. In 2005, a team of collaborative researchers produced a study revealing that the number of male births drastically decreased. I soon learned that the skewed birth ratio was but one concern in Aamjiwnaang among many. Cancer, asthma and cardiovascular illnesses affect nearly each family and home, coupled by fear of the everyday landscape. With the repeated sounds of chemical alert sirens, felt vibrations from neighbouring smokestacks and bittersweet smell of unknown substances, which one can almost taste when driving south from the City of Sarnia along Vidal Road onto the Aamjiwnaang reserve, this is a deeply affective atmosphere.
Working with/in Indigenous communities requires recognition that these communities are some of the most ‘researched’ in the world. Drawing upon principles of respect, reciprocity and relationship-building, which are central to the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s vision of decolonizing methodologies, I worked closely with a team of advisors including an Elder and maintained ongoing accountability to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Health and Environment Committee. As such, my research design involved community-situated experts throughout all phases including the proposal, development of recruitment materials, operations and dissemination of findings. While living in Aamjiwnaang territory, I too connected to municipal emergency alert systems via cellphone and internet notifications, also heard the incessant sirens wail and shared real-time news updates through social media. During my year-long period of field immersion, I joined community activists with public speaking engagements and co-authored Letters to the Editor for the local paper. From this participatory-action approach, my intention was to share my privilege, voice and authority with the community to the best of my ability. Trying to move beyond an extractive form of knowledge production, I sought to work with and alongside the community with the shared pursuit of seeking justice and sharing knowledge.
During the final phase of my fieldwork, as I was gearing up to relocate, youth leaders in the community approached me with the request to work on a cross-cultural collaborative project together. After a series of brainstorming meetings including representatives from several youth groups based in the community, we came up with the collective vision of co-producing a documentary film. The Kiijig Collective was born and I stayed longer than initially anticipated. The cross-cultural collective brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth with the aim of using creative means to speak up and out about injustices, stereotypes and environmental concerns. Our goal was to screen the film at the local high school attended by the involved youth the following Spring. Our group met at least weekly to discuss roles and responsibilities, schedule interviews and secure funding. As a researcher familiar with how to leverage various funding sources, the collective nominated me to take on the role of ‘Executive Producer’. In this role, I oversaw the film’s financing, and also assumed the role of ‘Line Producer’ and saw to it that our collective made it to scheduled meetings and interviews. Upon reflection, there are several ethical dilemmas that emerged out of this grassroots, youth-based and community-driven undertaking: the challenges of consensus-based decision-making, ownership and sustainability.
As mentioned, the Kiijig Collective formed out of a youth-led initiative to share knowledge about Indigenous values and beliefs with a non-Indigenous audience. We began with weekly meetings, inclusive to any Indigenous youth from Aamjiwnaang as well as non-Indigenous youth from the high school. Given the reality that young people have multiple priorities and interests competing for attention, we had about three to five members show up to meetings on a regular basis. Thus, this group became the de facto decision-makers. At times, when other members turned up, feelings of exclusion emerged and as a result, we repeatedly revisited our agenda, objectives and governing structure. This was one difficulty with consensus-based decision-making.
Second, the technical issue of ‘ownership’ made output a challenge. As a collaborative collective, we all agreed that no one member ‘owned’ the film. While we reached our goal of screening the film the following Spring at the local high school, as well as at a few local conferences and one national festival, I felt that it would be inappropriate to speak as a hierarchical ‘Executive Producer’ on behalf of the film and stepped aside. Without consensus amongst the youth on the future vision for the film, I felt that it would be inappropriate for me to assume a key role as spokesperson for this project, although I was and continue to be very invested in the initiative. Since then, I have only shown the film (publicly available on YouTube) in an academic setting as a teaching tool for students and scholars; it will not likely move forward into a film festival circuit. At the time of my physical departure from the community, the youth were undecided on the film’s next steps. As such, I’ve opted to respect their leadership and await direction.
Third and finally, given the transition from PhD Candidate to academic employment, I’ve since relocated from the field, which raises the issue of project sustainability. My presence was a double-edged sword in many respects. On the one hand, it provided continuity to the project; on the other, it perhaps cramped out the capacity for the youth to speak out and shine themselves. Thus, issues of consensus, ownership and sustainability remain open questions, leaving the future of the film in limbo.
All said and done, working collaboratively in this setting proved to be an enriching and eye-opening initiative. Since leaving the field, I’ve kept in contact with community-members and plan to return to the community next summer to participate in a youth-led canoe journey with the intention of cultivating ecological knowledge and integrating documentary film. Despite the aforementioned challenges, I’m ever so grateful to the community for the numerous laughs and lessons learned. While I might do some things differently next time, I’m looking forward to working with this community and others on future innovative cross-cultural and media based projects down the road. Thank-you. Merci. Miigwetch.
Sarah Marie Wiebe, PhD (UOttawa), Institute for Studies and Innovation in Community-University Engagement & Department of Political Science, University of Victoria firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Marie Wiebe teaches Political Science at the University of Victoria and holds a Post-Doctoral Fellowship with the Institute for Studies and Innovation in Community-University Engagement. Her dissertation Anatomy of Place: Ecological Citizenship in Canada’s Chemical Valley examined struggles for environmental and reproductive justice and the impact of pollution on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. She has several forthcoming publications on the politics of reproductive justice and ecologies of Indigenous citizenship. At the nexus of citizenship, biopolitics and environmental politics, her research interests focus on the role of the body in citizen protest, mobilization and struggles for knowledge. As a collaborative researcher, she assisted Indigenous youth with the production of a documentary film, “Indian Givers”, which is publicly available online.