We have entered the era of big data, masses of “typically loosely structured data that is often incomplete and inaccessible."
Big data has long been the norm for data on indigenous people and communities. First, there is a lot—whether Indian Registry System records, information collected as a condition of program funding, health records, or myriad other administrative data held by indigenous and other governments. Second, the data are usually loosely structured. Often held in incompatible management systems, they are rife with gaps and duplications. Too often, the data are inaccessible—to other departments and levels of government but, most important, to the indigenous citizens and communities they concern.
In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples found long-standing methods in gathering and using indigenous data to be a relic of the past:
The gathering of information and its subsequent use are inherently political. In the past, Aboriginal people have not been consulted about what information should be collected, who should gather that information, who should maintain it, and who should have access to it. The information gathered may or may not have been relevant to the questions, priorities and concerns of Aboriginal peoples. Because data gathering has frequently been imposed by outside authorities, it has met with resistance in many quarters.
At the same time, the report—along with First Nation and tribal council officials interviewed for this project—stressed that Aboriginal governments will require high quality data and information to govern well.
Thus, it’s a question of moving from big to better data: timely, relevant, high quality data that support indigenous community governance and improve Crown/ indigenous relationships.
Indigenous approaches to data governance
What data and information on indigenous peoples should be collected? Who should collect it and how? Who should use it, and to what ends? In answering such questions, indigenous groups have asserted new approaches to governing indigenous data as part of their broader push toward self-determination.
The most explicit assertion involves survey and research data, but it holds implications for data and information collected by governments as well. The First Nations principles of OCAP (Ownership, Control, Access and Possession) arose through development of the First Nations Regional Health Survey, a First Nation-led survey conducted in three cycles since 1997.
The OCAP principles assert:
Other indigenous peoples have developed comparable protocols. In the North, Inuit have developed guides to developing respectful research partnerships with their communities. In the USA, the First Archivists’ Protocols for Native American Archival Materials (2007) recognize the “sovereign governments and associated rights of Native American communities.” In Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protocols for Libraries, Archives, and Information Services (1995) assert indigenous ownership of archival information, and restricted access to knowledge of “a secret or sacred nature.”
A further document of significance is the 2010 Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. Although not itself an indigenous protocol, Chapter 9 on research with Aboriginal peoples acknowledges the "role of community in shaping the conduct of research that affects First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities." The statement guides the research activity of Canada’s three federal research granting councils.
Improved information governance relationships
Indigenous research protocols have always entailed a strong governance dimension: they insist on governance, by the affected indigenous community, of data and information concerning its members. Yet they have also proven their potential to guide respectful, mutually beneficial data sharing relationships with other governments.
The past fifteen years have seen a host of new initiatives in the governance of indigenous data and information. The initiatives feature diverse, often creative, uses of indigenous approaches in ways that also accommodate government partners.
In Canada, the longest-standing example is the First Nations-led First Nations Regional Health Survey (RHS). The First Nations Information Governance Centre has had a licence-to-use agreement with Health Canada for that Department’s access and use of national-level RHS data since 1997. Ownership, control, access, and possession of community-level RHS data remain with the participating First Nations themselves. Governance of the data involved in the new First Nations Regional Early Childhood, Education and Employment Survey (FNREES) manifests the same respect for OCAP principles.
Beyond surveys, new health data linkage projects provide much more complete information on the health status of First Nation citizens. One such project is the Unama’ki Client Registry. First developed in 2010, it links health data held by eight participating Cape Breton First Nations and the Province of Nova Scotia with data from the federal Indian Registry. Each party retains control of data it contributes. A joint First Nations/provincial committee reviews all data requests for purposes that go beyond those set out in the negotiated agreement.
Eight further new indigenous data governance and sharing initiatives can be found in the longer article, as well as in a 6-page research brief prepared by Stratéjuste.
From big to better data
Initiatives like those described above are by no means the norm. The norm remains for the federal or provincial Crown to own, control and possess the dispersed data and information they collect on indigenous people and communities.
Significant institutional, legal and capacity hurdles remain to incorporating indigenous approaches to the governance of information. As the First Nation Information Governance Centre reminds, federal (and most provincial) legislation does not recognize First Nations, much less their regional support organizations, as governments with which they can share data. Privacy and information access laws do not allow for indigenous control of access to information by external parties.
At present, incorporating indigenous data governance approaches into data sharing relationships requires extraordinary commitment on all sides. But the potential rewards are great: enhanced capacity on the indigenous side, greater understanding on the Crown side, an improved overall relationship, and better, more accessible data.
How to transform big data into better, more relevant data on indigenous people and communities? The path may well begin with governments systematically incorporating indigenous protocols into new information relationships.
So what's the strategy to start down that path?
Posts in the Series
Indigenous women to the barricades: a book review
Indigenous rights are human rights: a reminder from Argentina
On surfing and strawberry tea: how your spring break could promote reconciliation
The right guy at the right time: Gord Downie's contribution to reconciliation
Encore une Commission...
Munich, 1933: The good bureaucrat, Josef Hartinger
Addressing the language of the Aboriginal/settler relationship
From big to better data through indigenous data governance
Toast to those who showed courage in public life
Excellence is everywhere: Blueprint 2020 and the future of the public service
Time to investigate options for resource revenue sharing
Speaking of accountability: examining the relationship of First Nation voters to their governments
About the Author
Jodi Bruhn (PhD, Notre Dame) is a published policy researcher, author and facilitator who specializes in governance and indigenous/Crown relations. She is director of Stratéjuste Canada.