Canada: Political scientist finds common ground between indigenous rights and global resource sector

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Working with indigenous groups around the world has led Roberta Rice not only to some novel findings, but also to some of the most meaningful connections of her academic career.

“I’ve never felt more relevant as I have doing cross-regional analysis,” says Rice, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science. “Before, I was getting information from these people, these communities, but had nothing to offer. Now, I can show them my studies, how things are working well elsewhere.”

Most recently, with the support of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Knowledge Synthesis Grant, Rice has been leading a team of graduate and undergraduate students in a review of existing literature on Aboriginal Peoples and the extractive industry in Canada and also in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

What they’ve found is that the same Canadian resource companies that can be exemplars of corporate citizenship on home turf are not always upholding those same standards in their operations in other countries — in particular in their dealings with indigenous peoples — and voluntary corporate responsibility measures are not proving sufficient to bridge that gap.

“The only success cases we found were in the Global North — in Canada, Australia, Alaska,” says Rice. “In those places, there are examples of formal agreements, deals for employment training, and instances where companies don’t just consult and accommodate, but rather seek consent of indigenous groups.”

'Voluntary standards are not enough'

Rice was interested in looking at the picture internationally because Canadian companies don’t just operate in Canada. In fact, Rice says, Canadian companies spend more on exploration in Latin America than they do in Canada. And there, instead of formal agreements, companies more typically make one-off infrastructure investments, agree to build a road, a school, or to make a payment.

“What we found is voluntary standards are not enough,” Rice says. “The implementation of a regime of Free, Prior and Informed Consent — with the power to veto projects — is essential to foster true partnerships. We found the presence of veto power more frequently results in a company securing a stronger social licence to operate than a conventional consultation process might achieve.”

Fluent in Spanish, Rice found she could translate her findings back and forth between Ecuador, for instance, and Nunavut.

Information sharing in both directions

“In Latin America, where they were fighting with companies, they wanted to know how this was done successfully in the Yukon,” Rice says. And the information went both ways, with Rice sharing her findings on the strong indigenous government in Bolivia with officials in Nunavut looking to “Inuitize” the government.

The Knowledge Synthesis Grants are specifically designed to support just that kind of scoping review that contributes to the use of synthesized evidence in decision-making and practice.

“SSHRC provides vital support for our scholars,” says John Reynolds, acting vice-president (research). “With these Knowledge Synthesis Grants, scholars like Roberta Rice broaden our expertise here at the University of Calgary and then share what they are learning with communities, businesses and governments here and around the world who use the new knowledge to innovate and improve people’s lives.”

A passion for Latin America

What Rice particularly likes about the International Indigenous Studies Program at the University of Calgary is its uniquely global focus.

She began her academic career as an undergraduate in environmental studies, but the turning point came when she read the famous biography about Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatamalan indigenous rights activist.

“It really opened my eyes; I became a Latin Americanist after that,” she says.

The SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grants (KSG) fund innovative researchers who connect existing academic knowledge on key challenges facing Canada. The program also focuses on ensuring findings are shared across communities for better decision-making. Twenty-one Knowledge Synthesis Grants were awarded across Canada in November 2015 to respond to the future challenge area within SSHRC’s Imagining Canada’s Future initiative on What effects will the quest for energy and natural resources have on our society and our position on the world stage? Read more about Rice's and other KSG holders’ findings on the Federation for Humanities and Social Sciences website.