- Open Access
A review of collaborative research practices with Indigenous Peoples in engineering, energy, and infrastructure development in Canada
Energy, Sustainability and Society volume 13, Article number: 3 (2023)
Indigenous Peoples in Canada have survived hundreds of years of colonization and systematic exploitation, including actions carried out in the pursuit of energy resources and infrastructure development in traditional Indigenous territories. Research has been a tool in this exploitation through its legacy of research ‘on’ rather than ‘with’ Indigenous Peoples. As societies grapple with reconciliation, including how to build partnerships for sustainable land and energy development, engineering and technical research must use respectful approaches that centre on Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Knowledge Systems.
This preliminary review aims to be a step to address the lack of literature on respectful research with Indigenous Peoples within the context of engineering, energy, and infrastructure. To this end, we: (a) summarize three key frameworks that have been used in technical research projects for carrying out research respectfully, as defined by Indigenous and Indigenist ways of knowing and doing (Research is Ceremony, Two-Eyed Seeing, and doing research in a “Good Way”) and derive from them overarching principles; (b) identify a sample of 13 engineering, energy and infrastructure research projects that report using an Indigenous-centred approach. These relate to five technical areas, whose relevance to Indigenous communities was verified through community partners: water, energy, housing, telecommunications, and food systems; (c) assess the extent to which these 13 projects applied the principles of respectful research when working with Indigenous communities. Among the 13 projects identified, it is evident that some researchers in the fields of engineering, energy, and infrastructure are struggling and striving to engage respectfully with Indigenous communities. However, few include full details of their relationships and interactions with Indigenous communities in their published work.
These findings suggest a lack of details on respectful collaboration with Indigenous communities in technical literature. Gaps include a scarcity of evidence that Indigenous communities were involved in high-level decision-making or provided post-project feedback. Further work is needed to embed respectful research principles into the training, processes, and institutions of technical fields. This is essential to ensure ethical partnerships between technical researchers and Indigenous communities.
Indigenous Peoples in Canada, like Indigenous Peoples globally, have endured centuries of colonization, assimilation and attempts to erase their unique cultures and ways of life . Colonization is defined as “the process of assuming control of someone else’s territory and applying one’s own systems of law, government, and religion .” Engineering, energy, and infrastructure development industries have been deeply connected to Canada’s colonial history and the ongoing process of Indigenous Peoples’ dispossession from their lands [3,4,5].
The Canadian Pacific Railway is one example of colonization through infrastructure [5, 6]. It enabled the mass settlement of Western Canada bringing additional housing, water, and energy infrastructure. However, it cut directly through reserve lands, separating families and close relations, encroached on the homes of already displaced Indigenous Peoples, altered traditional human and animal migration patterns, and changed traditional land use [5, 7]. Other infrastructure projects removed resources from Indigenous communities, such as the draining of Sumas Lake in Abbotsford, British Columbia. This deprived Sumas First Nation of their source of food, medicine, livelihood, and cultural heritage, and destroyed a hotspot of biological diversity [3, 8].
In other examples, for sustainable energy projects, Lac Seul First Nation was flooded without any prior notice in the 1920s, destroying entire community settlements and manomin (wild rice) fields . The James Bay hydroelectric project in Quebec has been connected to mercury poisoning in the James Bay Cree Peoples . Although these projects aimed to provide Canada with clean energy, they did not do so for the affected Indigenous communities, many of whom continue to rely on diesel generators .
Alongside these examples from industry, research has been used as both a justification and a means of colonization, often dissecting, extracting, appropriating and distributing Indigenous Knowledge without acknowledgement of, or benefit to, communities [11,12,13]. The result is that Indigenous Peoples may be rightfully distrustful of research and skeptical of any associated benefits . After contact with European settlers, Indigenous Peoples were often framed as the “other”, novelties to be studied as compared to the “normal” observer. This positioning can be found in research to this day [13,14,15]. Early research erroneously concluded that Indigenous Peoples were inferior to Europeans, which justified a paternalistic relationship between European “benefactors” and Indigenous Peoples [11, 14].
These few examples of a deeply problematic history highlight the need to re-examine the way researchers value and build partnerships with Indigenous communities in pursuit of sustainable land and energy use. The terms “collaborative research” and “collaborative technical research” are used interchangeably in this paper to refer to technical research projects that involve work between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous researchers. From the researchers’ point of view, they perceive the community as collaborators [16, 17]. In contrast, the term “respectful research” prioritizes community perception of the partnership. In respectful research, the community considers the work to be collaborative , supportive of their struggle for nationhood, self-governance and self-determination , and relevant to their community needs .
Indigenous scholars and allies emphasize that a requirement for respectful research is commitment to understanding the historical and social contexts in which such action takes place . Many of the challenges faced by Indigenous communities today can be linked directly and/or indirectly to the legacy and ongoing impact of exploitative practices [1, 20]. Moreover, Indigenous communities have considerable research expertise. Indigenous Knowledge Systems, methods, ways of knowing and doing, and traditions stand alongside and even surpass Western empirical methods for generating knowledge . There is a need to frame research in ways that celebrate ongoing Indigenous resilience, resistance and survival instead of solely emphasizing challenges [11, 18].
This paper aims to be a step towards respectful research with Indigenous Peoples by seeking to bridge the work of Indigenous scholars with those who strive to implement respectful principles in the fields of engineering, energy, and infrastructure. More specifically, we: (a) review three perspectives on respectful research that have been used in technical research with Indigenous communities (Research is Ceremony , Two-Eyed Seeing , doing research in a “Good Way" ) and derive from them overarching principles for respectful research; (b) identify 13 examples of technical projects in which these frameworks were applied to research collaborations in the areas of: water, energy, housing, telecommunications, and food systems; (c) assess the extent to which these 13 projects implemented the respectful research principles. We conclude this paper with suggestions of future research and action to further support respectful technical research with Indigenous communities.
Theoretical framework and key terms
Prior to the methods and results of this review, it is necessary to briefly discuss two related areas of literature that informed our analyses: decolonizing and Indigenous research, and ethical guidelines for working with Indigenous Peoples. The first, decolonizing and Indigenous research, is a complex topic on which Indigenous scholars have written in much more nuanced detail than we are able [11, 23, 24]. In her seminal work Decolonizing Methodologies, Linda Tuhiwai Smith calls attention to the ongoing ways in which researchers and research institutions perpetuate and reinforce colonial viewpoints and power structures (e.g., through researcher-determined rather than Indigenous community-determined priorities for funding and study) . She describes research as “a significant site of struggle between the interests and ways of knowing of the West and the interests and ways of resisting of the Other .” Decolonizing research demands critical consideration of how power imbalances are embedded in research institutions and seeks to promote Indigenous ways of knowing and doing. More recently, McGregor  argues that by pushing against academic systems and privileges, decolonizing research opened a space in which Indigenous research could grow. Rather than reacting to colonial research methods, Indigenous research uses as its starting point Indigenous worldviews, ethics, and values.
A focus on Indigenous worldviews, ethics, and values is fundamental to a second body of literature that informed this review: the growing literature on ethical guidelines for research with Indigenous Peoples. In 2021, Hayward et al.  found a total of 20 different research ethics protocols for research with Indigenous communities in Canada. Some of this guidance was published by organizations, such as the Government of Canada , but a number were developed by Indigenous communities themselves. These community-led guidelines highlight the diversity between Indigenous communities in Canada and the importance of being aware and respectful of local contexts and traditions. For example, locally developed guidelines for culturally appropriate research with First Nations in the Manitoulin area are structured in accordance to the seven interconnected Grandfather teachings important to an Anishinaabe way of life: respect, wisdom, love, honesty, humility, bravery, and truth .
These distinct but inter-related bodies of literature influenced this review in two ways. Firstly, they called into question whether the typical approaches of technical research are appropriate when working with Indigenous communities and led the authors to ask whether more Indigenous-informed approaches to technical research were currently in use. Thus, this theoretical grounding motivated the current topic of study. Secondly, these literatures ask us, as researchers, to think critically about our social positions in relation to our work. In her paper, Situated Knowledges, Haraway argues that what we can see and interpret of the world is necessarily partial and influenced by our social positions . Acknowledging only a situated, partial view of the world is also an opportunity to increase understanding by connecting with others who bring their positional views to bear. Our own positionality in relation to this work is considered in the Methods section later in this paper.
We use several key terms throughout this manuscript, each of which is defined briefly below. “Indigenous Peoples”, in this paper, refers to the “Aboriginal Peoples” recognized in Canada’s Constitution Act of 1982, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit . We acknowledge the significant diversity of nations, languages, histories, and identities within the collective term “Indigenous”. While we recognize this heterogeneity, there is nonetheless the shared experience of Indigenous Peoples surviving and resisting within a settler-colonial state . For the purposes of this review, no limitations were placed on the types of Indigenous communities who may have engaged with researchers. This may include, for example, First Nations on reserve as well as Inuit and Métis communities. The one exception is that this review did not focus on the many Indigenous Peoples who live in urban centres today . This decision was made to prioritize communities in which Indigenous Peoples were in leadership and the majority of the community population. This made it easier to identify examples of collaboration with Indigenous communities, and it seemed more likely that researchers would strive for Indigenous-informed approaches when working with Indigenous leadership and majority populations.
The term “Western empirical” refers to methods of knowledge creation that seek to explain natural phenomena through observation, measurement, theory and empirical testing [11, 30]. Among the pervasive colonial knowledge systems and ways of doing, Western empirical methods are often used in technical research. By positioning the Western observer as the objective normal, Western empiricism often claims superiority , dismisses or discredits sources of knowledge built on worldviews and methods different from its own, and/or justifies their extraction and examination by colonial researchers . These tendencies can alienate and stigmatize Indigenous ways of knowing, which often prioritize interconnectedness, subjective knowledge, and oral traditions [21, 22].
Traditional Knowledge, sometimes referred to as Indigenous Knowledge or Traditional Ecological Knowledge, represents the “collective knowledge of traditions used by Indigenous groups to sustain and adapt themselves to their environment over time. This information is passed on from one generation to the next within the Indigenous group .” Elders and trusted and gifted people within a community are the stewards of Traditional Knowledge. Traditional knowledge is often passed on in the local Indigenous language through stories and land-based activities .
In this paper, we use the term “respectful research principles” to refer to the overarching concepts the authors derived from the three Indigenous and Indigenist research approaches reviewed (Research is Ceremony , Two-Eyed Seeing , doing research in a “Good Way" ). These research approaches include those developed by Indigenous scholars and rooted in Indigenous worldviews (Indigenous approaches) as well as those that are consistent with Indigenous worldviews and may be used by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers (Indigenist approaches). Wilson explains the inclusive term Indigenist by comparing it to the way in which a person can be a feminist without identifying as a woman .
Following from this background and theoretical underpinning, this review aims to identify and summarize respectful research principles from engagement frameworks that have been applied in collaborative technical research projects. This was not intended to be a systematic review, but rather a preliminary assessment of the field to lay the groundwork for a detailed scoping review at a later date.
From the spring of 2019 to summer of 2021, SS and PD gathered engineering and technical research publications that included explicit mention of research collaboration with Indigenous communities. Searches were conducted using LibrarySearch in the University of Toronto’s online library system, which draws on the databases Summon and ExLibris. This was supplemented by searches using Google to identify grey literature. A broad definition of grey literature was used that was inclusive of reports as well as non-peer reviewed articles and institutional webpages on research in progress or interim findings. Keywords included “engineering” and “Indigenous” or “First Nation” combined with each of the key topic areas (“water”, “energy”, “housing”, “telecommunications”, “food systems”). The relevance of these areas of focus was verified with Indigenous partners in the authors’ network. These initial searches uncovered 120 articles.
This sample of articles was reviewed manually by the first author three times in consultation with SS. During the first pass, articles were excluded if they described research carried out in a country other than Canada and, due to our language abilities, were not written in English. Research that described itself as Indigenous-led was also excluded since the scope of this review is focused on collaborations between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous researchers. Inclusion criteria were applied to verify if the reports: (1) were a collaboration with Indigenous communities and that enough information was presented to allow for further assessment; (2) described a technical project related to one of the five areas of focus (water, energy, housing, telecommunications, food systems); and (3) cited and reported on frameworks for respectful research with Indigenous communities, with a focus on frameworks that were created by/or with Indigenous scholars and/or communities.
The result of this initial review was a sample of 13 collaborative technical reports. Of these, 10 focused on one discrete technical area (water n = 4, housing n = 3, food systems n = 2, telecommunications n = 1). The remaining three articles reported research related to more than one technical area at a time (housing & food n = 2, energy & food n = 1). In a second review, we noted which respectful research principles were implemented and described details of their implementation. A final review was then conducted to ensure that all respectful research principles reported had been captured and to verify the details of their implementation. Comparison between studies was carried out throughout to ensure assessment consistency, as was communication between PD, SS, and AB.
All authors of this review identify as non-Indigenous researchers striving to learn from, and engage respectfully with, Indigenous communities. We come from diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences. One of us (AB) has carried out collaborative work with Indigenous Peoples globally, while another (TG) has worked for years as a settler scholar and ally with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities in northern Canada. The remaining authors either have some experience working with Indigenous communities in Canada (PD, SS) or are new to such work (AC, HG). Among us, we bring disciplinary training and backgrounds in engineering (PD, SS, AC, AB), population health (HG), and anthropology (TG).
Our representation of the issues in this paper are filtered through our training, social positions, and privileges. For example, while we can read about Indigenous worldviews, we have not grown up with them, lived them, and connected with others and the land with these worldviews as our guide. In addition, although we have strived to include sources from Indigenous Peoples in this work, we feel the pull of our training and norms within academic structures that prioritize peer-reviewed, published knowledge over that which has been lived and known for generation upon generation within Indigenous communities. These limitations of our positionalities bring to the fore a related issue. That is, whether non-Indigenous researchers should engage in research with or about Indigenous communities. For advice on this issue, we look to Latulippe  who suggests that such cross-cultural work is possible and may, at times, be beneficial. However, she stresses that researcher preparation and commitment to being reflective and transparent about differing worldviews are essential.
In the following results, we first identify and describe principles of respectful research found in our review. We follow this with details and an assessment of the 13 technical research projects that applied the principles of respectful research when working with Indigenous communities.
Three perspectives on respectful research
From the literature, we identified three perspectives on respectful research that have been used in technical research with Indigenous communities (Research is Ceremony , Two-Eyed Seeing , doing research in a “Good Way" ). Below, we provide a brief review of the key tenets of each approach.
Perspective 1: research is ceremony
The phrase “Research is Ceremony” summarizes Shawn Wilson  and other Indigenous scholars’ explorations of what Indigenist research could be. Through a sacred ceremonial process rooted in Indigenous worldviews, a new collective understanding is created between researcher and participant, dissolving the distinction between these roles. The phrase, “All our relations”, succinctly summarizes the idea of relationality, and is used at the start and end of ceremonies. It acknowledges relationships between the living (people, plants and animals), the non-living, past and future generations . Relationality also acknowledges a plurality of interconnected realities and knowledge systems, each uniquely tied to the local culture, language, and land of their respective Peoples and to each person’s lived experience . Indigenous knowledges include empirical, traditional, and spiritual knowledges [21, 24].
Relational accountability says that a researcher must be held accountable for the work that is completed and how the research may impact ‘all our relations’, including the community, the environment, and beyond. Researchers cannot be, nor is it desirable to be, objective, as they are intertwined with the research subject and participants .
Wilson allows that “Research is Ceremony” may be used by non-Indigenous researchers, but its components must be well-articulated and honored. The use of “one or two (or 10) talking circles as research tools” does not make a research project Indigenist . As Wilson reiterates, the researcher cannot be separated from their work, “Our own relationships with our environment, families, ancestors, ideas, and the cosmos around us shape who we are and how we will conduct our research. Good Indigenist research begins by describing and building on these relationships .”
Perspective 2: Two-Eyed Seeing
Two-Eyed Seeing, advanced by Mi’kwaw Elder Albert Marshall, involves Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars “learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and to using both these eyes together, for the benefit of all [22, 34].” Since its inception, the term has been adopted by many scholars and organizations in various contexts [35,36,37]. It is well-aligned with integrative and transdisciplinary approaches and it “does not fit into any particular …discipline” but is “a guiding principle that covers all aspects of our lives .”
Two-Eyed Seeing recognizes that both Indigenous and Western empirical worldviews are valuable in research. Like Wilson  previously, Bartlett et al.  recognize that Indigenous and Western empirical worldviews are different from one another and that Indigenous ways of knowing and doing have often been marginalized. Two-Eyed Seeing emphasizes the importance of Traditional Knowledge and the involvement of Elders in education and research. Understanding that every individual can only speak from their experience and knowledge, Two-Eyed Seeing requires the involvement of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars in a co-learning journey. The approach requires acknowledgement that “we need each other”, as well as deep self-reflection on the part of all partners to understand their own and one another’s values, motivations, knowledges, and actions . Two-Eyed Seeing also emphasizes action rather than just talking, and warns against choosing aspects of Indigenous methods, token inclusion of Indigenous partners, and attempts to absorb Indigenous knowledges into the Western empirical worldview. One must not just engage with Indigenous methods and partners but value them. Token inclusion appended to Western empirical approaches is not only disrespectful but fails to embrace the co-learning journey emphasized by Two-Eyed Seeing and risks rushing the process according to Western timelines .
Perspective 3: research done in a ‘Good Way’
Doing research in a ‘Good Way’ is Western empirical research done in a culturally and ethically appropriate way that is in accordance with the four R’s of Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, and Responsibility [18, 39]. Respect involves acknowledging Indigenous worldviews, the community, and their self-determination. Relevance highlights that research should be relevant to the community and peoples’ lived experiences. Reciprocity refers to the understanding that both researchers and participants are positioned as learners and will benefit from the research process. Responsibility reminds researchers that knowledge production is not neutral, and it is the researcher’s responsibility to work with the community to avoid negative impacts [18, 24, 39].
To work towards these values, researchers must engage with the community as full, authentic collaborators, in the spirit of “Nothing About Us Without Us” . The community should be involved in all aspects, including initial research design, data collection, analysis, and reporting. Where the scope does not necessarily align with community interests, researchers should consider how project activities can be modified to include relevant community initiatives [18, 40].
An established research approach that complements respectful research principles is Participatory Action Research (PAR) [41,42,43]. PAR emphasizes that an important outcome of research is to create positive social change for the participants . Another way to practise respectful research is to select methods that are aligned with an Indigenous worldview. For example, methods that allow for individual storytelling and collective sharing that are consistent with Indigenist research methodologies [32, 43, 44].
Like with Two-Eyed Seeing, researchers should reflect on their identities, perspectives, and motives. Communities should expect clear communication of researcher motivations and values. Honesty and self-understanding are paramount in establishing trust, recognizing internal biases and limitations of the research. This can be done by becoming the “learner” instead of the “expert” in a collaboration . However, communities sometimes ask researchers to step into the role of expert to advocate on behalf of the community. Ultimately, researchers must remain flexible to community needs .
Common elements in respectful research practices
Table 1 generalizes and summarizes the respectful research principles identified from the literature cited in this section. Five high-level principles are used to group the collaborative practices: (1) researcher cultural competency and awareness of historical context, (2) researcher critical self-reflexivity, (3) community involvement, (4) community benefits, and (5) Two-Eyed Seeing.
Additional considerations and challenges in respectful research
In addition to the three main perspectives for respectful research described above, this review identified four additional key considerations and challenges. Each of these is discussed briefly below.
Resources required for respectful research
Respectful research requires dedicated resources and an extended research timeline to form relationships, build trust, and collaboratively conceptualize, design, and enact the research [18, 40]. Research projects with remote communities will require additional resources for highly recommended in-person meetings. Access may vary by season, with air or ice road sometimes being the only options in the winter . Ritchie et al.  identify the proximity paradox: remote communities that may benefit the most from collaborative research, are also the most difficult to collaborate with due to logistical and resource constraints. These authors urge researchers to continue to undertake important work with remote communities and to plan carefully to build in sufficient resources for such engagement (e.g., by building a larger collaborative team with access to a sustained pool of funding).
Data ownership and protection
Given the extractive nature of past research, extra care should be taken with respect to data ownership and protection. Findings may be valuable to the community but may have negative consequences if made public. Elders may wish to pass knowledge onto community youth but be wary of outside appropriation and commercialization, such as happened with the commodification of St. John’s Wort, a traditional medicine . The First Nations Principles of Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession (OCAP) , provide guidance to ensure that First Nations communities have full control over their data. Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) or research agreements can be co-developed at the start of a research project to document shared understanding between researcher and communities about: research project aims, respective responsibilities, data protection, and ownership .
In Canada, the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Research Involving Humans—Chapter 9: Research Involving the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples of Canada , is one example of an attempt to embed respectful research practices into institutional requirements. However, there are examples where rigid institutional ethics requirements are at odds with the needs of Indigenous communities. Research participants are typically anonymized to protect confidentiality. In Indigenous contexts, specific knowledges must be directly attributed to the source to protect ownership, therefore participants may wish to be named [14, 18]. Written consent for individual research participants may be incompatible with the oral traditions of Indigenous Peoples as well as specific traditions around how to ask Elders for guidance and knowledge (e.g., offering tobacco ties where culturally appropriate) [51,52,53].
Community capacity can be defined as the resources a community can provide for a research project. It can be measured in time, money, level of education, and/or experience with the research topic [11, 46]. Community leadership often work on competing issues. Researchers need to work with communities to successfully balance the benefits of research with the time and resource costs of collaboration from the start, either through a MOU  or a verbal equivalent, thoroughly discussing and answering the questions of community leaders and Elders before research begins .
Collaborative research examples in infrastructure and engineering
As described in Methods, the respectful research principles identified above were applied to a search of research reports in five technical areas: water, energy, housing, telecommunications, and food systems. The aims were to: (a) gain a preliminary perspective on whether these principles are being applied in technical research; and (b) to better understand how the respectful research principles are being implemented in practice.
Tables 2, 3 and 4 present a summary of the information extracted from the 13 collaborative research reports identified in this review. The results show that only four of the 13 reports provide information to support that they at least partially addressed all five general respectful research principles. Two articles [54, 55] stood out for striving to address all five respectful research principles through a variety of activities to foster robust collaboration directly with Indigenous communities.
For example, in a report related to energy and food systems , the researchers situate their work in historical context and discuss their cultural competency and learning. The researchers also partnered with local Indigenous organizations, sought input from the community on research design, trained local community members as part of the research efforts, and acknowledge both Indigenous and Western empirical worldviews.
Figure 1 provides an overview of how many of the 13 projects showed evidence of implementing each respectful research principle based on our qualitative assessment. Figure 1 also provides detail most relevant to the analysis of this paper on how, within each respectful research principle, collaborations were carried out. The 13 studies were selected because they showed technical collaboration with Indigenous communities; this contributed to the small sample size. Sample size limitation is discussed later in this manuscript. Some observations, however, can still be made.
First, there is generally little demonstration of critical self-reflexivity, such as researchers’ backgrounds and motivations. Second, all 13 projects report some degree of community involvement, but there was less evidence of shared power in high-level decision-making. For example, only three studies report using an MOU or research agreement to clarify community-researcher expectations, and only one discusses receiving research guidance from a community advisory group. Finally, while all projects report that they met local needs they did not all include information to support that Indigenous communities themselves perceived local benefits. This may be because researchers did not provide a feedback/post-project evaluation process that Indigenous communities could use if they wished to do so and had the time and resources to commit to such a process.
In a preliminary way, this review has highlighted that relatively few projects in the technical literature describe collaborative work with Indigenous communities and report how they met the respectful research principles laid out by Indigenous scholars. Engineering, in general, is a technical and results-oriented discipline. There is a disciplinary expectation for engineering researchers to focus on the technical details and results in research dissemination. These expectations are perhaps exemplified by the lack of detail on relationship-building and respectful research implementation in the publications reviewed in this study. Such a focus on research as a product rather than a process, however, runs several risks when undertaking work with Indigenous communities. At best, it risks withholding valuable information that could be shared as researchers seek to respectfully engage and learn from Indigenous communities. At worst, it risks reinforcing the colonial legacy of research and doing harm to Indigenous communities.
It is difficult to determine which of these risks are at play without full details of collaborations in research reports. Of the collaborative projects identified in this review, most reported only limited and/or vague information about the research process itself. It is possible that, in some of these cases, the collaborative process was more involved than what the researchers reported. Three possible explanations for the lack of reporting on the collaborations are: a) a results-oriented focus when reporting in a technical field; b) inadequate procedures to allow communities to provide post-research feedback at their available community capacity; c) a desire to keep the specifics of relationship-building between academics and communities private to those involved. Indigenous and academic communities must discuss how to balance these concerns with the need for greater transparency in disseminating project results so that researchers can hold each other to high ethical standards when collaborating with Indigenous communities.
To help avoid the risks at stake when non-Indigenous technical researchers collaborate with Indigenous communities, processes and structures must be adopted that require researchers who engage with Indigenous communities to demonstrate that they have done so in an ethical and respectful manner. Examples of such processes and structures include: best practices and training for technical teams who wish to do research with Indigenous communities; the inclusion of Indigenous scholars on research ethics boards for proposed work with Indigenous communities; and required reporting on respectful collaboration methods in technical journals when publishing work about projects with Indigenous communities.
Indigenous and Indigenist scholars have highlighted the shortcomings of existing Western empirical research approaches and have provided clear expectations for technical researchers when collaborating with Indigenous communities. Three that are focussed on in this paper include: Research is Ceremony, Two-Eyed-Seeing and research done in a ‘Good Way’ [14, 18, 22]. Technical researchers should first review this existing information then, according to the guidance of their Indigenous partners, co-develop a plan for respectful engagement.
A related issue, and one which both organizations  and scholars have started to examine , is that of decolonizing and Indigenizing engineering education and curricula. Though this complex topic is outside our current scope, we feel that such efforts will train a future engineering workforce equipped to engage in respectful partnerships with Indigenous communities both within and outside of academia. This in turn may help engineering evolve away from identifying as an objective and solely technical discipline. Engineers have much social good to offer with their skills and expertise. To carry out respectful work with Indigenous communities, the discipline needs to examine itself, and value and train in relational and subjective approaches. This is fundamental to working with Indigenous communities in an ethical and reciprocal manner.
This review was intended to be a step in a process of first identifying whether and how technical researchers are employing respectful research principles identified by Indigenous scholars, and then seeking to bridge gaps between these communities through further research and action. We summarized, in our own words, three well-established respectful, Indigenous research frameworks. Other frameworks that are similar or are less well-known have been omitted [21, 25, 30], including potential guidance from Indigenous communities that is not publicly available. Our review was limited to projects between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous technical researchers in publicly available reports and journal publications. Indigenous-led projects on topics around energy [75, 76] and housing , were discovered, but excluded as outside the scope of this review. Our assessment was conducted only based on the information contained in these reports, which were primarily written by the non-Indigenous collaborators and did not include any reports written in Indigenous languages. Therefore, what is framed as “collaborative” by the authors may not be collaborative from the perspectives of the Indigenous communities . Ultimately, only Indigenous communities themselves can evaluate how respectful a given collaboration was. The lack of reporting on the relationship between researcher and community in studies reviewed made it difficult to determine how researchers viewed Nations . Re-examining projects in the literature to consider how researchers support Indigenous Nationhood could be an important topic for future research.
Finally, we acknowledge and recognize the limitations of our positions as non-Indigenous scholars in writing about this topic. Conducting this review caused us to re-examine the underlying methodological assumptions used when carrying out engineering research, such as approaching Indigenous communities with a pre-formed line-of-inquiry instead of developing the research project with the community from the outset. In future work, we will endeavour to embed shared-decision-making into project timelines and structures from the beginning, through advisory groups and MOUs.
This review highlights a gap between the clear expectations from Indigenous scholars on how to do research with Indigenous communities, and reporting on how those expectations were met within literature on technical collaborations with Indigenous communities. We show that the number of technical reports that seek to implement a respectful research approach with Indigenous communities is relatively small, and that among these, the specifics of the partnerships and steps taken to foster respectful collaboration are sometimes reported only minimally. While these researchers are endeavouring to engage respectfully with Indigenous People, the reporting limits the ability of others to assess the extent to which this research was carried out in an ethical manner as well as to learn from their efforts.
The results of this review raise implications for engineering and other technical disciplines in the context of reconciliation efforts with Indigenous Peoples and future projects that seek strong partnerships for sustainable land and energy use. We suggest that it may be time for engineering researchers themselves, as well as the institutions that train and support them, to look inward and consider what changes to perspectives and approaches may be needed if work is to be carried out with Indigenous communities. Engineering’s historical identity as a technical and objective discipline should be expanded to recognize and value subjectivity and relationality. This is essential to be able to listen to Indigenous communities and work together in an ethical and respectful manner. At an individual and team level, this may begin with becoming familiar with literature on how to collaborate respectfully. Institutional-level structures may help to support these efforts, such as ethics review that includes Indigenous scholars, integration of respectful research principles into training programmes, and space to report on research process in addition to results in technical academic journals.
Additional research is also required to further explore issues that this preliminary review identified to provide insight into why some of the respectful research practices appear to be under-utilized or under-reported by technical researchers. The outcomes of such research may help identify how to bring Indigenous scholarship more fully into technical research fields and to tailor this guidance in such a way as to be taken up by more technical researchers. Such aims are especially important as we strive for reconciliation and ethical engagement with Indigenous Peoples alongside technical research that seeks sustainable water, energy, and infrastructure development.
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The authors would like to thank Ahmed Mahmoud, Roxanna Dehghan, Leslie Walkus and Norman Charlie-Galis for their input during the course of this project and/or review of the manuscript. We also thank the peer reviewers for their valuable feedback to help strengthen this work.
This research was carried out as part of the Reconciliation Through Engineering Initiative, Centre for Global Engineering, University of Toronto. Funding for the Reconciliation Through Engineering Initiative is provided by the Dean’s Strategic Fund, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, University of Toronto, and the National Research Council Canada’s Ocean Program.
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Dimayuga, P., Sur, S., Choi, A. et al. A review of collaborative research practices with Indigenous Peoples in engineering, energy, and infrastructure development in Canada. Energ Sustain Soc 13, 3 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13705-023-00382-8
- Two-Eyed Seeing
- Infrastructure development
- Sustainable land use
- Sustainable energy development
- Technical research
- Research ethics