SSHRC will consider first-ever research proposal written in Cree language after initially rejecting it

Mark Lowey
April 6, 2022

The federal research granting agency implementing Ottawa’s Indigenous Research Strategic Plan has reversed course after initially rejecting a research proposal submitted entirely in nêhiyawewin, the most-commonly spoken Cree language.

The Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) now plans to evaluate the proposal, from a team at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Social Work, through a first-of-its-kind merit review by a committee of Cree-speaking experts knowledgeable about the proposed research topic.

“We’re going to use this as an opportunity to explore what it would mean if we start receiving applications in Indigenous languages,” Dominque Bérubé, vice-president, research at SSHRC, told Research Money.

“We’ll use that process for lessons learned, so that we can then try to see what it would mean for the future."

The UCalgary team submitted its application to SSHRC last year entirely in Cree language as a way to honour nêhiyawewin language holders and knowledge-keepers. The team is led by Leona Makokis, an Elder and member of the Kehewin Cree Nation, and Ralph Bodor, an associate professor in UCalgary’s Faculty of Social Work.

Bérubé said when the application was submitted to SSHRC, it arrived on the last day of the deadline for submitting applications and without any advance notice from UCalgary or the applicants.

The application was entirely in nêhiyawewin (pronounced “ne-hi-yew-we-win”) and no translation was provided, including for the title, she said. “We wouldn’t even know what exactly the application was about.”

Given the tight schedule to have research proposals evaluated by committees formed under SSHRC’s existing process, “everything about the merit review process was compromised” to ensure the UCalgary team’s proposal received the same quality of peer review as proposals in English and French, Bérubé said.

“In the end, we realized it was not possible with the kind of timeline that we had to process the application,” she said. So SSHRC deemed the application ineligible without appeal because appeals are possible only after a research proposal has been evaluated.

At the time, Makokis, former president of the First Nations-owned and operated University nuhelot’įne thaiyots’į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills near the town of St. Paul, about 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, publicly expressed disappointment at SSHRC’s decision.

“I don’t think they even recognized that there’s another worldview aside from the Western world view,” she said.

Had SSHRC gone through a review process, it would have been a learning opportunity and an opportunity to do some relationship building, Makokis said.

Undeterred, the UCalgary team submitted its application again this year with the support of the University of Calgary, including the Faculty of Social Work and the university’s Research Services Office.

SSHRC will pilot a first-of-its-kind evaluation process

Bérubé said part of the challenge is that a crucial part of SSHRC’s normal review process involves an expert committee discussing the merits of several applications and ranking them. However, that isn’t possible with only one application of its kind, she said.

Instead, the UCalgary team’s application — submitted under SSHRC's Insight Development Grant program — will be considered under a different SSHRC funding pool, the Strategic Initiatives Fund, which offers research grants that can’t be funded through the agency’s usual funding opportunities, Bérubé said.

SSHRC has started looking for Cree speakers who understand the teachings in the research proposal and are qualified to evaluate the application’s merits in nêhiyawewin, she said.

In addition, SSHRC will ask its long-standing Indigenous Advisory Circle, which includes both Indigenous and non-Indigenous members, for its advice about the challenges of evaluating the application and important aspects to respect in doing so, Bérubé said.

SSHRC also will analyze the pilot evaluation process and document the challenges so they can apply lessons learned to future applications in Indigenous languages, she said.

Given the unusual nature of the evaluation and the desire to learn from the process, the review could take up to six months, but hopefully sooner than that, Bérubé said.

Makokis and Bodor both said they’re feeling positive about SSHRC’s change of course.

“They’re very receptive, they’re just as excited as we are to move in that direction [of reviewing the research proposal in nêhiyawewin] and to involve us,” Makokis said.

“Our goal has always been to just have our proposal evaluated fairly culturally, on the same playing field as applications in English and French,” Bodor said. “It’s really to cut a bit of a path for Indigenous-written proposals.”

The research proposal, titled “Ceremony and Healing,” focuses on working with Indigenous Elders and knowledge-keepers to understand the importance and necessity of Indigenous language and ceremony in healing Indigenous children and their families, Bodor said.

Makokis, Bodor and other members of the UCalgary team have co-edited a book, ohpikinâwasowin/Growing a Child: Implementing Indigenous Ways of Knowing with Indigenous Families, that challenges the long-held, colonial relationship between iyiniw (Cree or nēhiyaw) peoples and the systems of child welfare in Canada.

The team’s goal is to create resources for child care agencies to enable them to understand the importance of ceremony and ways to access it, and support that for Indigenous children and families.


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