Bill 100 and the Challenges for Indigenous Health Research

Debbie Martin argues that Section 12 of Bill 100 stifles academic freedom and potentially threatens her Indigenous health research.

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On April 22, 2015, without consultation with the affected parties (such as university faculty and students), Nova Scotia’s Liberal Government introduced Bill 100, the Universities Sustainability and Accountability Act. The purpose of the Bill is to introduce legislation to improve financial accountability for universities.

Bill 100 immediately drew criticism for its blatant attack on workers’ rights and academic freedom. Section 12 of this Bill is deeply problematic. This section stipulates that a University’s revitalization plan must include “goals and objectives for contributing to social and economic development and growth in the Province…turning research into business opportunities, fostering a skilled, entrepreneurial and innovative workforce” and “a plan for the effective exchange of knowledge and innovation with the private sector, including excellent collaboration between university and industry”. These requirements are antithetical to the research I do.

Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. Photo Credit: Angel Petropanagos

Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. Photo Credit: Angel Petropanagos

I am an Assistant Professor and Indigenous health researcher, housed in the Faculty of Health Professions at Dalhousie University. I am an Inuk woman and member of NunatuKavut. I work with communities on topics that range from substance use and social policy, to oral health and food security within Indigenous communities throughout Atlantic Canada, including Mi’kmaq communities in Nova Scotia.

The research I pursue is difficult for many reasons including the fact that researchers (of all stripes) are often unwelcome guests in Indigenous communities – and for very good reason. As Maori Scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith explains, in many Indigenous communities ‘research is a dirty word’, since it is research that has contributed to ignoring, undermining and otherwise marginalizing Indigenous peoples within the Canadian context.

Researchers are not just unwelcome guests, but we also work in research environments where health crises and social conditions abound – the likes of which would (and should) shock any ‘average’ Canadian. Canada’s Indigenous peoples generally, and Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq communities specifically, face health inequities that far exceed those experienced by other Canadians. Within Canada, infant mortality for on-reserve children is double the national average; suicide rates among youth are up to eleven times the national average; approximately 21% of Indigenous off-reserve households are food insecure versus 7% of the rest of Canadian households. These are just some of the shocking statistics that should serve as a wake-up call to federal, provincial and territorial governments with respect to their treatment of Indigenous peoples. Another alarming fact is that 21% of children in provincial care in Nova Scotia are Indigenous, and yet they only make up 3% of the Nova Scotia population.

Dr. Thomas Dignan, chair of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeon’s Aboriginal Health Advisory Committee argues, “the state of Aboriginal health is a national embarrassment and leadership is needed now more than ever.” This leadership comes in many forms. It comes in the form of research. And it comes in the form of policy. And what the research is telling us again and again and again is that the best way forward for Indigenous communities is for them to have a say in the decisions – whether those be policies, programs, or research processes —that directly affect them.

For researchers, that means that our way forward MUST involve working with communities from the ground up to develop a relationship of trust, to identify research priorities that are of direct relevance, and finally, to act on those research priorities in ways that are respectful of community protocols and procedures. This is called community-based research. It is premised on the idea that addressing the deep health inequities experienced by Indigenous communities requires their active engagement and participation in the research enterprise.

Now back to Section 12 of Bill 100. What Section 12 suggests is that researchers, such as myself, who want to address the health inequities experienced by Indigenous peoples in Nova Scotia must embrace the goal of “turning research into business opportunities” and have “a plan for the effective exchange of knowledge and innovation with the private sector”. This flies directly in the face of the community-based work that I do.

What private industry is going to fund research to address substance use issues on-reserve, or to fund research that aims to identify and address the abysmal rates of oral disease among Indigenous children? And, if against all odds I was to secure a partnership with the private sector – what First Nations community would partner with me if my funding was from a private sector company that has been directly involved in destroying the very lands and resources (thus compromising health) on which the community depends?

The current wording of Section 12 is exceedingly problematic, not just because it writ large, stifles academic freedom, but because it also smacks of the paternalism with which Indigenous communities are already all too familiar.

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Debbie Martin is an Assistant Professor of Health Promotion at Dalhousie University and a Research Associate with Atlantic Health Promotion Research Centre @DalhousieDebbie.

One comment

  1. Malcolm King · · Reply

    Well said, Professor Martin.

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