Indigenous data sovereignty concerns raised as harm from residential schools continues

Wednesday, January 25th, 2023 6:22pm



“Ultimately, data sovereignty is an aspect of self-determination, the preservation and development of identity and culture.” — Aaron Franks, senior research manager with First Nations Information Governance Centre
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Ground-penetrating radar work continues at Indian residential school sites across the country and more undocumented graves are being uncovered.

“Undocumented” means the search is on for records that government and churches created, and in some cases destroyed, and are kept in a variety of archives and depositories and controlled by federal and provincial privacy laws.

“Today we ask ourselves ‘how do we get the data back?” said Kimberly Murray, independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites associated with Indian residential schools.

Last week, Murray’s office hosted a three-day conference in Vancouver to talk about Indigenous data sovereignty (IDS).

“(Data) is more than records. It is knowledge. It is truth. It is history. Data is information and more. It can be the pulse of a revolution,” said Murray.

But that data collection provides for “some significant challenges,” she added, highlighting the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the legacy of Indian residential schools.

The TRC found that school records, accident records, and health records were regularly destroyed. Principals’ reports included the number of children who died, but not their names. Many of the deaths were not reported to either the federal government or provincial vital statistics, although they may have been recorded in church records.

Murray said in collecting the data to find the missing children and the burials, Indigenous communities must ask themselves: Who owns the data? Who controls it? Who has access to it? Who possesses it?

“Indigenous data sovereignty means that Indigenous people need to be the decision makers on how data about them is utilized,” she said. “Indigenous governance is key in ensuring that Indigenous values, rights, interest, guide decision making about how the data is collected, accessed, stored, utilized.”

Most Indigenous communities have been forced to work within a colonial system which has seen residential school records and data about Indigenous people “mostly remain out of reach,” said Kristin Kozar, interim executive director, Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.

Kozar said these colonial frameworks and policies need to be changed.

“Significant changes at the federal and provincial level need to happen,” she said. “Legislation pertaining to Indigenous records and data needs to be deconstructed and rebuilt rather than having a band-aid approach.”

That means the sovereign rights of Indigenous people are incorporated and “have an equal footing” with the other levels of government, she said.

Kozar noted that there is a growing number of Indigenous communities that are establishing their own archives and traditional archival institutions. This way, she said, they are accountable to their own citizens in the use and management of community information.

Raymond Frogner, head of archives at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) located at the University of Manitoba, said that before records requested by survivors or their families can be released, the records must be vetted through the Manitoba Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPP).

The way the NCTR Act was written puts those confines on the centre. That needs to be changed, he said, with Indigenous values brought into the management of the records. Until that happens, said Frogner, the NCTR will have a difficult time making records fully available to communities.

Right now, he added, the only way the NCTR can be released from FOIPP is through individual memorandums of agreement for data sharing, which are time consuming and difficult to develop.

“We’re now entering a period in the colonial relationship between Indigenous peoples and settler communities when we are building mechanisms to address the issues of data sovereignty on terms written by Indigenous communities. For the principle of (Indigenous data sovereignty) to succeed, there must be more processes and capacities to enable communities to implement control over this data,” said Frogner.

“We know that the information associated with recovering our missing children will take many forms and it is going to be in many places. And first peoples have the right to reclaim and care for all of it regardless of where it is,” said Aaron Franks, senior research manager with First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC).

FNIGC was incorporated in 2010 as a technical organization with a mandate from the Assembly of First Nations and is guided by a cultural framework developed by First Nations.

That framework is based on the principles captured by OCAP—ownership, control, access, and possession of data.

“It’s a framework for thinking through, asserting sovereignty and reclaiming control over that data,” said Franks.

He added that colonial research and governance regimes have been imposed on Indigenous peoples which “requires acknowledgement and correction.” The processes must be rebuilt and that work needs to be led by Indigenous peoples.

“Ultimately, data sovereignty is an aspect of self-determination, the preservation and development of identity and culture,” said Franks.

He also noted that there is no pan-Indigenous principles to Indigenous data sovereignty and that Métis and Inuit have their own protocols. He said data sovereignty had to be viewed through a distinctions-based lens.

Franks said FNIGC would be producing analysis on the federal Privacy Act and related legislation. He said Canada’s main legislative platforms around privacy created “deep, deep barriers” to data sovereignty as it does not recognize or protect collective privacy.

“The repetition of harm through the lack of access to our data and information about our lost children and relations is perpetuating a crime,” said Franks.

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.