Research with Indigenous audiences – 5 Reflective Tips


With more of our team members working remotely over the last few years, we’ve found that some of the informal learning and exchange that used to happen around the office are less likely to take place on their own. In response, we’ve been dedicating time to in-house sessions where we share insights about our work and learn from each other’s experiences.

In one recent internal workshop, we heard from some Environics colleagues with extensive experience carrying out research and engagement projects with Indigenous people. Since the exchange proved so valuable to our team, we decided to share some of our key takeaways, hoping to help fellow researchers and clients.

1. Consider a literature review and/or pre-consultation phase.

Before engaging with participants, it’s worthwhile for the research team to do some preparatory work to understand the context and nuances of the research topic. This step is likely to improve the relevance and quality of the primary research, including by ensuring that the research design is culturally sensitive. Indigenous peoples have been the subjects of many (often disrespectful) research projects over time. Researchers should be mindful of this history. They should be sure not to repeat existing studies, and should avoid asking Indigenous participants to educate them on topics where existing resources are available.

One reason why a literature review is valuable is that Indigenous communities are extremely diverse. Researchers should work to understand how the experiences, perspectives, and challenges of participants and communities may vary according to geographic location, cultural background, and historical context.

It’s not only researchers themselves who should do some prep work. It’s good for clients to educate themselves about research with Indigenous participants; everyone connected with the work should be engaged and accountable. Environics doesn’t simply collect data on behalf of clients; we aim to act as a bridge, helping clients understand the research landscape and working to ensure that clients and participants alike are informed and comfortable throughout the process. Ultimately, the goal is for everyone – clients, participants, and the research team – to learn and benefit from the process.

2. Develop realistic timelines that don’t rush the process.

A literature review or pre-consultation phase is just one of several factors that may extend the length of a research project with Indigenous participants. It’s worthwhile to invest this time. A project that comes across as a hurried box-ticking exercise is likely to be of low quality and may also alienate Indigenous participants. Taking the time to prepare for the project is one of a number of practices that are important for building trust and therefore quality.

A few other practices we believe it’s wise to make time for:

  • Making process changes to accommodate participants’ preferences. Research teams should aim to be flexible and adaptable in their methodologies, offering alternative modes of participation and generally seeking to accommodate participants to ensure a positive experience.
  • Planning with an awareness of cultural practices – and calendars. Any meaningful and respectful research initiative takes ethical considerations seriously; when it comes to Indigenous communities, this means ensuring respect for cultural nuances, privacy, and the diversity of Indigenous audiences. Also, Indigenous communities may have specific times of the year, like hunting seasons, when many community members are difficult to reach. Adapting research schedules with an awareness of local priorities and practices can improve participation.
  • Identifying and using the best medium for communication. Some Indigenous communities are in remote areas and can be difficult to reach in extreme weather. This can mean logistical challenges and even rescheduling interviews, which can be costly. Online research is an option, but poor internet quality and bandwidth limitations in remote areas can present their own challenges. Audio-only connections may be the best way to go in some circumstances.
3. Advocate for qualitative research.

When it comes to Indigenous peoples and communities, qualitative research tends to be an appropriate practice for a couple of reasons. First, interviews and focus groups give participants greater latitude to share context and details of their experiences. Storytelling is central to many Indigenous cultures (as well as many non-Indigenous cultures), and an important element of day-to-day communication. So adopting research methods that can incorporate storytelling tends to allow participants to share their experiences and perspectives more fully, particularly when exploring significant events such as home buying or healthcare experiences. Second, qualitative research is often a more practical alternative to quantitative research with Indigenous peoples which is expensive and logistically challenging.

Third, when participants share their experiences in qualitative research settings, which tend to be relatively conversational and open-ended, difficult topics such as family challenges and harmful experiences (for example, of residential schools or traumatic encounters with institutions) can arise. Such topics can emerge even when the focus of the research is not directly related. It’s important to be ready to support participants by giving them the space and time they need to express themselves and having culturally appropriate supports on hand.

Depending on their cultural context and experiences, Indigenous participants may have distinct ways of expressing their perspectives. Researchers should pose questions in ways that are sensitive to cultural tendencies and taboos. For example, in some settings it may be seen as inappropriate to express a strong personal opinion. In these cases, researchers may learn more by asking about community opinions, enabling individual participants to share their thoughts more comfortably by describing group dynamics and perspectives.

4. Indigenous research partners can provide value, but they can’t make constraints disappear.

Building respectful, collaborative relationships with Indigenous research partners is central to the success of Indigenous research projects. The poor historical track record of harmful research with Indigenous people has caused great mistrust of white settler researchers in Indigenous communities, The solution to this is research done by Indigenous people, for Indigenous people.

That means considering Indigenous research companies as true partners, not simply as suppliers. Listen to their expertise about how to design a project that establishes trust, considers cultural nuances, and makes participants feel heard. On our part, in addition to building mutually agreeable arrangements for specific projects, Environics aims to help Indigenous research partners enhance their own enterprises, working with them to build capacity and extend their reach.

Keep in mind that Indigenous researchers are not miracle workers and can’t overcome challenges arising from a constrained budget or a too-tight schedule. They bring enormous value and insight to projects, but can only do so when the project is scoped in a realistic way. Some will make suggestions similar to those that surfaced in our in-house workshop: slow down and make a real commitment to understanding Indigenous perspectives through carefully designed, appropriately resourced research.

5. Respect above all.

Regardless of the particulars of your project, respect for Indigenous participants is fundamental. Everyone connected to the project (researchers and clients alike) should take steps to be informed about the unique experiences of Indigenous peoples and be prepared to approach the project with respect and cultural sensitivity.

While ethical standards and transparency are important in any research process, they’re especially vital when it comes to research with Indigenous audiences. Familiarize yourself with the principles of OCAP® (Ownership, Control, Access and Possession) for First Nations communities. Researchers should be totally transparent about their research goals and process: what they’re trying to learn, with whom, and for what reason. The outcomes of the research should also be made available to participants; those who shared their insights should have access to whatever reports and recommendations emerge from the process. Ideally, researchers should share them proactively, in whatever formats communities prefer, and be available to discuss them, answer questions and make any corrections where participants feel the results have been incorrectly interpreted. Taking these steps will help to ensure that Indigenous communities not only feel comfortable about participating in the research process but share fully in the benefits.

If you have any questions about our Indigenous research, please don’t hesitate to reach out

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