The Star – Jennifer Yang
When Anishinaabe scholar Hayden King surveys the Canadian think-tank landscape, he often sees the same names cited over and over again as experts on Indigenous issues.
These researchers have become go-to media pundits on everything from the Trans Mountain pipeline to crises on reserves, with impressive biographies listing studies, books and awards.
But rarely do they have the one feature that would make them particularly well suited to understanding the communities they study: being Indigenous.
“It’s basically a tradition in this country to go to a ‘white Indian expert’ for comment on Indigenous issues,” says King, an adviser to the dean of arts on Indigenous education at Ryerson University.
“When it comes to Indigenous issues, there has been a very long history of actually ignoring the people that government should be paying attention to when it comes to developing policy — and that’s Indigenous people themselves.”
If King has his way, however, that’s about to change. On Tuesday, the writer and educator is launching what he’s describing as Canada’s first Indigenous-led think tank: the Yellowhead Institute, which will be based at Ryerson. The institute will start with a new report providing an analysis of the federal government’s new legislation on Indigenous issues.
In the tradition of many high-profile think tanks, King named the institute after a leader he admires: Chief William Yellowhead, who belonged to the same community as King’s ancestors and whose traditional territory stretched from what’s now east Toronto to Muskoka. (The Muskoka township is believed to have been named after Yellowhead, whose Anishinaabe name is Misko Aki).
With one exception, Yellowhead’s seven-person advisory board is entirely Indigenous and its research director is Ryerson assistant professor Shiri Pasternak, a non-Indigenous ally who has worked extensively with First Nations communities for more than a decade. So far, the institute has tapped two researchers who identify as Indigenous, with plans of adding more.
King wants the institute to support First Nations as they move toward self-determination in addition to working with students and communities, educating the public, and mentoring the next generation of Indigenous thinkers.
He said Yellowhead’s work will hold elected leaders to account, including First Nations governments like the Assembly of First Nations, which has faced intense criticism for “failing to adequately respond to what communities are saying.
“I suspect we might be unpopular for those in power across the spectrum,” King said.
In this era of truth and reconciliation — and with the Trudeau government’s plan to create a new legal framework for Indigenous rights — the need to amplify Indigenous voices has never been more urgent, he added.
“This is the most active period of legislature on Indigenous issues in Canadian history since the turn of the last century. The federal government will determine things like what Aboriginal rights are in legislation,” he said.
“The stakes are high. (This moment) will set the trajectory for the next 100 years.”
The Yellowhead Institute is technically a new iteration of a previous research centre, which was founded at Ryerson several years ago but effectively went defunct after suffering from inadequate support.
King said the big difference now is that the institute has the full backing of Ryerson’s dean of arts, Pamela Sugiman, who is committing “several thousands” from her faculty budget. (The rest will be fundraised.)
“I really want to move beyond the rhetoric to do something meaningful and I don’t think people who are not Indigenous can do that. I think it needs to be led by Indigenous scholars,” Sugiman said. “We have to step back a little bit and provide some resources.”
But why do think tanks matter? While their roles and influence can be overstated or tricky to measure, they have potential to make enormous impacts, said Donald Abelson, a political science professor at Western University and expert on think tanks.
This is because they bridge two influential worlds: academia and policy, he said. Think tanks become go-to resources for journalists and when successful, they can drive the public conversation or even shape government policy.
“The idea is for them to inject ideas in such a way that government and citizens will take note of,” Abelson said.
Pasternak said the positioning of Yellowhead as a think tank was intentional. She’s tired of seeing the same researchers quoted over and over again in media outlets; she also suggests that think tanks like the Fraser Institute or Canada 2020 are funded by, or affiliated with, corporations and industries that sometimes work against First Nations’ interests. (Yellowhead wants to avoid taking money from government or industry.)
Both King and Pasternak say there is a dearth of Indigenous representation. The Star asked 13 leading think tanks in Canada whether they have “in-house” experts who identify as Indigenous. Five organizations — mostly centrist or left-leaning — identified 17 Indigenous researchers who they consider “fellows” or “associates,” some working on short-term contracts.
But non-Indigenous pundits tend to take up a disproportionate amount of airtime. A particularly controversial researcher is the Fraser Institute’s Tom Flanagan, a former Stephen Harper adviser who authored a book called First Nations? Second Thoughts and “has a very long history of racist and paternalistic policy prescriptions on First Nations issues,” according to King.
Flanagan told the Star that his current research is focused on the success of First Nations and he is “neither pro nor against Indigenous peoples as such,” but a scholar interested in the issues.
In the past decade, Flanagan was mentioned in 112 articles that contained the words “Indigenous,” “First Nations” or “Aboriginal” in Canada’s national newspapers, the Globe and Mail and National Post, and Toronto’s two major dailies, the Toronto Sun and Toronto Star. He also authored 32 articles, the vast majority in the Globe.
To compare, the Star searched those same newspapers’ archives for mentions of the 17 Indigenous researchers currently affiliated with major think tanks.
During the same time frame, only Cindy Blackstock — a prominent child welfare activist who joined the Broadbent Institute last year — was cited more frequently than Flanagan in stories that mention Indigenous, Aboriginal or First Nations people. The other 16 researchers were only collectively cited 82 times.
Meanwhile, only five of the Indigenous researchers had articles published by these newspapers, with the majority written by Joseph Quesnel, Flanagan’s colleague at the right-leaning Fraser Institute.
King believes that whenever policy or legislation is being developed that could impact Indigenous people, their voices and expertise should be consulted and prioritized — not researchers who are not involved in the day-to-day experiences of Indigenous people and communities.
“(We) hear the same tired lines every time there’s a crisis on a reserve. ‘Why don’t we just move them away’ — these totally decontextualized and often racist and parochial understandings and depictions of Indigenous people,” Pasternak said.
“We’re really tired of it and we feel like there are so many incredible thinkers and visionaries with important reconstructive ideas for changing the relationship with Canada.
“Those voices need to be foregrounded. That time is now.”