Remote Research Adventures with the Algonquins of Ontario: Gathering Indigenous Knowledge in a Pandemic

AOO Elder Paddles Ottawa with Great-Grandson

Algonquin Elder paddles the Ottawa River with her great-grandson in pre-pandemic times. Photo credit: SVS's Erin Knight

“In a time of self-isolation, I found the interview itself to be a welcomed opportunity to communicate with caring individuals. A situation where I could share the stories and learned teachings of my Elders. Even working within the restrictions of a computer-mediated get-together, I believe we were able to make a communicated connection which I found to be both healing and cathartic.” – John Potter, participant, Algonquin Knowledge and Land Use Study

How can we best address clients’ goals using remote tools?

Back in the days before COVID-19 changed everything about how we live and work, conducting in-person Indigenous Knowledge interviews was the hands-down highlight of our job as social researchers. We have had the privilege of sitting down with land users and knowledge holders in Indigenous Nations across Turtle Island to map their experiences on the lands and waters. Often, our study participants are Elders who share a lifetime’s worth of memories, stories, and cultural wisdom.

 

During the pandemic, it’s these same Elders we are trying to protect with social distancing, so in-person interviews are off the table. However, regulatory processes for development projects such as mines and power projects are marching on, and Indigenous Knowledge studies are key elements in protecting the rights and interests of Indigenous Nations. That has left many of us wondering how to continue our research in the age of social distancing – and if indeed it is possible at all. The larger question we have set out to answer over the past weeks is this: How can we best address the needs of our clients using remote tools?

 

How will shifting to a computer-mediated set-up affect the quantity and quality of interviews?

There are non-computer dependent remote tools we are exploring, such as mail-out surveys, but for this post we are focusing on the video conferencing approach. What follows is our journey thus far with remote interviewing. More specifically for Indigenous Knowledge research, we set out to explore how shifting to a computer-mediated set-up would affect the quantity and quality of interviews we conducted. The answer to that question of course directly influences how effective an Indigenous Knowledge study can be.

 

Algonquins of Ontario Experiment with Remote Research

Back in January, the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO) had just begun their very first Algonquin Knowledge and Land Use Study together with our research team. We had worked with two stellar community researchers, Jane Lagassie from the AOO and Taylor Ozawanimke from the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, to develop a plan to conduct mapping interviews and oral history interviews around environmental assessments for two specific development projects. We had a list of willing participants waiting to be interviewed when the pandemic hit.

 

The two major elements we had to consider when coming up with a remote interviewing strategy were the technical and the human: what would be the best platform to collect the data, and how would the participants best interact with it?

 

Now, after much research into various options, we are two weeks into our first round of remote interviewing. Here’s what we’ve learned thus far (spoiler alert: the process is working!).

 

Technological considerations

Our team settled on Microsoft Teams as the video conferencing software to use to connect with participants of the AOO study, in conjunction with ArcGIS Online and Survey123 for the mapping component of interviews. Teams doesn’t suffer from the security issues Zoom has been grappling with; ensuring the confidentiality of data is a huge concern with Indigenous Knowledge research. We also put together a checklist of the things that participants would need to set up prior to the interview, like an in-computer camera and microphone, and have worked with each individual to set that up before the interview.

 

Once everyone has joined the meeting, we can see and hear each other on the screen. The researcher shares their screen with the participant so everyone is looking at the map together. When mapping land use locations, the interviewer can give control of the screen to the participant so they can pinpoint exactly where they wish to map a feature with their cursor. When the interview is complete, the recorded audio and video is automatically saved to a secured drive. Along with the map and survey data, the interview is complete, and Bob’s your uncle! Well, not quite…

 

Snags and fixes:

Access to technology

When Jane and Taylor began contacting participants to schedule interviews, they reported that only a portion of people had access to the technology they needed. Some people on the list had neither the computer, nor the familiarity with the technology to participate. This major barrier will bias the study towards the more computer savvy participants. We are exploring alternatives to reaching those without the technology before the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

 

Connecting can be a slow process

Getting connected with participants can sometimes take half an hour of trouble-shooting before the interview actually starts. We’ve learned that sending detailed instructions that include screen shots of buttons and controls in advance, as well as having participants attempt to join the call a good fifteen minutes before the interview is scheduled to start really helps.

 

Getting a participant on the phone to walk them through connecting also works. And sometimes, even with everything looking okay, something still doesn’t work. For example, one interviewee discovered their computer’s microphone wasn’t functioning and we had to reschedule.

 

So far the internet connections have been stable, but it’s only a matter of time before we do an interview during which the call will drop – particularly for more rural and remote participants. Preparing people for what to do when that happens will make it less jarring when it does!

 

Questions to consider in choosing technology:

  • How many participants will have the required hardware - computer, microphone and ideally a camera?
  • How easy is the software to install and run?
  • How secure is the technology from hackers during the interview?
  • How will you store and back up the data?
  • Will the internet connection be strong enough?
  • Do you have back-up tech support you can call on to trouble-shoot?
Human considerations

Overall, it has been a good experience working with participants over video conferencing, and wonderful to meet everyone. However, as anyone working remotely has discovered, while video conferencing is better than nothing, it’s exhausting, and just not the same as meeting in person. Lots of research is being done on how disturbing it can be when there’s a delay in someone’s response, or there’s an echo, or you forget to unmute your microphone. All of these factors can come into play during our interviews.

 

“The technology platform which we used can by no means replace the advantages of seeing and communicating face to face,” comments John Potter, one of our first remote interviewees. “But it did enable four people separated by distance to chat informally in the comfort of our own homes. This technology is an excellent resource that can be used to  bring our global community together.”

 

Considering emotional and spiritual supports

Jane has been particularly worried about what might happen if a participant were to get lost in their memories with no one with them to support them emotionally. “It would be heartbreaking not to be there to help them come back,” Jane comments. The solution she has used thus far is to set the stage with a traditional prayer and a smudge. “My intention is to use the prayer to remind the participant that the strength of the ancestors will carry them through,” she observes.

 

So far, this strategy has been well received. “I found the Interview process to be a very enjoyable process overall,” John comments.  “I have to admit that I was a little nervous at the beginning but I soon felt at ease thanks to the kindness of my three hosts. After introductions, It was nice and somewhat humbling to be offered a prayer and smudge prior to the interview.”

 

Jane’s concern over the wellbeing of participants is not unique to remote interviews. In past studies, the community researcher has made a point of calling participants a couple of days after their interview to check in on them and make sure they are okay.

 

A message of strength, resilience and care

One interesting pro to conducting this style of interview is that, because we need to connect via email before and after the interview, participants are able to send along stories or points that didn’t come to them during the interview.

 

For example, here’s the beautiful message John in an email after his interview:

 

“During the pandemic and while self-quarantined the Algonquin people must stick to our teachings and remain strong. We must safely connect and look after our elders. While isolated we can re-connect with stories and music, our traditional language, and talk of hunting stories and legends. This is a great time to promote our artistic crafts and teach our young about pottery, weaving, wood working, and beading. Learn and educate ourselves in global and local issues. Read and learn about land use and proposals. We all will be touched by this pandemic and we all must come and work together to get through it.”  

We’re sure John’s community will be glad to hear his words. And it goes to show that the benefits of Indigenous Knowledge studies often far exceed their main objectives!

 

Summary of human factors to consider:

  • How can we address the inevitable technical hiccups in the process to help make participants comfortable sharing?
  • What, if anything, can we do to help make participants feel comfortable sharing their knowledge through a computer with people they’ve never met?
  • What factors need to be in place for participants to feel confident in the confidentiality of their data?
  • How can participants be emotionally supported if the interview reminds them of difficult memories?
Oral history interviews can work great remotely

These “semi-structured” interviews flow more like a conversation between the researcher and the participant – no mapping involved. Last week, SVS’s Jess Steiner conducted an oral history interview via Microsoft Teams with one of our clients as part of a separate study. Both Jess and the participant found the process to be easy and quite successful. “Despite being miles and miles away, we were able to collect more data that we needed for a report that we are midway through, without having to wait for this pandemic to be over,” says Jess.

 

Overall Pros and Cons of Remote Research

Here’s a summary of the pros and cons we’ve experienced so far. Watch this space over the coming weeks as we update our learning. We would also of course love to hear what you’ve been experimenting with! We are here if you’d like to brainstorm your options or approaches – don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’re all in this together.

 

Pros:

  • We can keep doing Indigenous Knowledge interviews remotely , which means that rights and interests can continue to be protected and advanced as part of the regulatory process in this way
  • Participants can be very precise with mapping locations as they can physically point to the location with their own mouse.
  • Interviews can still be face-to-face in a different way.
  • The interviews can all be audio and video recorded and stored safely in one location.
  • If participants do not wish to be audio or video recorded, this is okay too. We can simply record the map.
  • There are fewer separate files – less data back-up time.
  • The participant does not need to download any software.

Cons:

  • The process described in this blog requires that the interview participant has access to a computer and the internet. Poor internet connections in communities could make this challenging and could also reduce audio/video quality.
  • The process does require some experience with technology and computer literacy, which limits the pool of participants.
  • If the participant’s internet connection isn’t great, the program may work slowly and this could be frustrating for participants.

 

So far we’ve found that these pros outweigh the cons, but we are still exploring other ways to collect Indigenous Knowledge to overcome these challenges. If you have ideas or have had other experiences doing remote research, please share them too!     

 

Blog Series: Indigenous Knowledge Matters

Welcome to our blog series that explores ways Indigenous nations have used Indigenous Knowledge Studies (also called Traditional Knowledge or Land Use and Occupancy Studies) to assert jurisdiction, leverage influence in regulatory processes and Impact Benefit Agreement (IBA) negotiations, further stewardship and cultural revitalization efforts, and to build capacity.

This series is a celebration of the extraordinary nations and visionary leaders we have had the privilege of working with on Indigenous Knowledge studies from coast, to coast, to coast - with some resources and ideas for you to use in your own journeys. We hope you join us for the rest of the ride.  And please get in touch if there’s a topic you’d like us to explore.

 

Read other posts in this series:

Looking for help with an Indigenous Knowledge study?

If you know you need help with any aspect of your study, or are trying to figure out how to get started, do give us a shout. We’d be happy to discuss your options and help you weigh the pros and cons of your approach. We’re a team of social researchers who love to talk about this stuff, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.

 

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About Us: Shared Value Solutions

We are a Canadian B Corp, and we assist Indigenous communities with support throughout regulatory processes surrounding major development projects like mines, hydroelectric facilities, transmission lines, highway expansions, oil and gas pipelines, natural resource transport applications and nuclear power. 

 

We have deep context and experience behind the recommendations we provide, having worked for our clients on almost every major project in Canada over the last 10 years. For us, it’s all about building long-term relationships with our clients. We want to get to know you and what you want to do so we can help you move your plans forward. 

 

 

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