Empowering Indigenous communities to make their own decisions about the use of genetic tools at residential school burial sites
Hendrik Poinar, an evolutionary geneticist and professor of anthropology and biochemistry at McMaster, hopes the Future of Canada Project initiative that he is working on with his team of current and former students from the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre will empower Indigenous communities to make their own informed decisions while also countering the long erosion of trust between colonizers and Indigenous Peoples.
Through the project, “Bringing the children home: making the uses and misuses of DNA for identification clear to those who need it most”, the project team is creating tailored media content for Indigenous communities who want to learn more about the processes involved with DNA identification in the context of residential school burial sites.
We talked to some of the co-investigators on this project, Stephanie Marciniak, Marie-Hélène B-Hardy and Jess Hider, to learn more about the importance of working with Indigenous communities to create accessible informational resources that will inform Indigenous-led and Survivor-led decision-making processes.
Can you tell me more about this project and what informational resources you will be developing for interested Indigenous communities?
Jess Hider: Through this project, we are making accessible videos for Indigenous communities that outline the processes involved in linking children back to their communities using DNA.
We want the videos to clearly identify the limitations as well as the possibilities of DNA identification so that Indigenous communities can make informed decisions about whether or not to use this technology at residential school burial sites.
This technology has the ability to reconnect children to their families and their communities. However, it’s an arduous process, the complexities of which have often been oversold by private companies and other non-specialized laboratories. There is a lot to consider when making the decision to use this technology and some communities may decide that the processes involved are not something they want to go through.
Our team is not at this stage offering DNA identification services as part of this project—although we can help connect communities to groups doing this work if requested. Our job now with this project is to provide useful and respectful information regarding different options so that communities can make informed choices.
Stephanie Marciniak: The series of videos we are creating, which will be accessible via internet, or other formats for communities with limited internet access, will be organized by various topics.
Each video will answer various questions that community members may have about the use of DNA in the context of residential school investigations. For example, one video will focus on the ethics and challenges of interpreting DNA data. Another will focus on how you actually obtain DNA from living relatives and how to recover DNA from the children who are buried in unmarked graves.
We want to lay out the entirety of the process so if communities are thinking about potentially using DNA they have a full understanding of what the process will involve and can integrate this information as part of Indigenous-led and Survivor-led decision-making strategies. Ultimately, we want to provide these resources as well as make and hold space for communities.
Jess Hider: It’s really important to us that we are not coming into these communities and declaring that we know what people want to hear about and be educated on.
We are working with communities to ask them what their needs are and ask them if the videos we are creating are helpful and make sense. We are trying to involve Indigenous communities at every stage of the project.
How are you connecting with Indigenous communities?
Marie-Hélène B-Hardy: One of the co-investigators on this project, Joslyn Jamieson, is Indigenous and has provided us with connections to Indigenous communities throughout Ontario who we are sharing our ideas with. We are asking these communities if there are any concerns with what we plan on including in these videos or if they feel any information is missing.
These check-ins will happen throughout the course of the project.
Can you tell me about the importance of ensuring that this project is Survivor led?
Marie-Hélène B-Hardy: There has been so much harm inflicted within the Indigenous communities we will be working with as well as a history of colonialism in academia, so we are being extremely mindful as we move forward with this work.
It’s very important to us that we are not making decisions for these communities. We want this work to inform them to make their own decisions.
In the context of residential schools where children were forcibly removed from their families, it’s so important for us as colonizers and academics to rebuild trust with these groups.
This is obviously such a sensitive subject with so much emotion and trauma attached to it, we want to provide tools so that these communities are able to understand the whole process involved in DNA identification so they can decide whether or not they want to bring the bodies of these children home, if that’s what they want to do.
Jess Hider: Recently, there have been some overstatements by some, particularly private companies, about what DNA can do, but without mentioning the caveats and some of the potential harms or impacts that this process could involve, such as not being able to recover any DNA from a child’s remains or not having DNA from relatives available for family match comparisons.
Marie-Hélène B-Hardy: Yes, there are some commercial companies approaching Indigenous communities and giving a sales pitch that only includes the amazing things that DNA can do, without putting things into context or talking about the limitations and impacts of DNA ‘identification’.
With private companies, there are questions around where data is stored and what is done with this information later on.
Stephanie Marciniak: Previously in our discipline, outside researchers have gone into communities to take DNA samples without establishing any kind of long-term, collaborative relationship. They take the DNA, do the work but then don’t come back to the communities to have conversations about each stage of the project or to listen to concerns, questions and feedback from the community.
We want to use this opportunity to course-correct how this kind of work has been done and ensure that this project is Survivor led.
Why may some communities choose to not use DNA technology at residential school burial sites?
Stephanie Marciniak: Residential school burial sites are incredibly sensitive sites for communities. Deciding to go ahead with DNA analysis will involve disturbing the remains of the children who are buried there, as well as disrupting traditions and practices surrounding care and respect for Ancestors.
Some communities may decide to leave the children where they are and commemorate the site in a different way without moving or interfering with the remains of the children.
Working with DNA involves exhuming a child’s remains as best as possible and extracting perhaps a tooth or bone that will undergo a process in a lab for testing.
This process is invasive, traumatic and may cause significant additional distress for communities considering the use of DNA and may understandably result in decisions to not move forward with it.
In the videos we are creating that explain what this process entails, we illustrate elements of the lab work process because seeing a video that uses actual human remains may be highly traumatizing to view.
The process of recovering DNA also involves taking a child’s tooth or bone away from the community to a lab that may not be accessible to community members. Community members may not be able to visit that location or hold ceremonies there, and this may be part of the reasons why a community may decide not to move forward with this process. However, as part of doing this work in a culturally sensitive and respectful way, it would be important to co-create space near a laboratory for relatives and community members to carry out ceremonies, prior to or alongside any laboratory work.
Marie-Hélène B-Hardy: There is a history of scientists and academics keeping human remains for long periods of times for studies. Some communities may feel distrust towards academia and may not want to give the remains of these children over to scientists in a way where they feel they are not in control of the process.
Another element of this work is that DNA needs to be extracted from living relatives through something like a cheek swab. Their DNA will then be held in a database in order to confirm matches.
When partnering with an organization to do this work, it will be important for communities to ask questions such as: who owns this database, what will the data be used for, what is the risk of a data breach etc.?
Jess Hider: There is also a risk that if communities decide to go ahead with this process, it might not work.
There is a chance that scientists are not able to extract enough DNA from the remains of buried children. Or perhaps the DNA collected from a living person may not result in a strong match with a child.
It’s important for communities to know this is a risk, so if they decide to go through this very challenging and potentially traumatizing experience, they may not be able to get the information they were initially hoping for.
How might this project contribute to furthering reconciliation?
Stephanie Marciniak: This project directly responds to #71-76 “Missing Children and Burial Information” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action.
Our work recognizes the historic and ongoing impacts of colonization in Canada while working towards reconciliation in part by facing the devastating impacts of residential schools.
By supporting communities in leading the decision-making process about residential school burial sites, we hope that this will bring communities together that were harmed, fragmented and traumatized by the residential school system. And in some cases where the decision is made to go ahead with using DNA, the hope is that some families may be reconnected with their lost loved ones.
Jess Hider: This project is a collaboration between both academic and Indigenous knowledge that hopefully results in a positive and trust-building experience for the Indigenous community members involved.
We hope this work will contribute to a growing understanding in this country of the devastating impact of residential schools and the trauma that is still very much being felt in affected communities.
Through the multimedia resources and prioritizing long-term relationship-building with communities, we aim to take action-oriented steps towards reconciliation – recognizing the historic and ongoing impacts of colonization in Canada – and focusing on rebuilding the long erosion of trust between settlers and Indigenous Peoples.
How is your project reflective of the changes in anthropology and academia as of late?
Stephanie Marciniak: There has been a much needed (belated) shift towards decentering the outside researcher and centering community members at the outset of projects. There is also a movement to include community in project design as well as to share information and seek feedback from community members at all stages of the research process—we’re flipping the focus to communities and asking them what is of need, interest and concern to them.
This kind of capacity-building approach is something that this project is certainly embracing.
Marie-Hélène B-Hardy: In the anthropology community there have been discussions for years about the importance of community-led projects and now these discussions are being put into action.
Through this project we are asking, how can we help with our knowledge and capacity?
While this kind of community-centered approach isn’t happening in every anthropology department in every university, there is a movement toward adopting this approach, which is really great to see.Future of Canada Project News