Old White Mountain, Yukon/Photo by Jeff Few Old White Mountain, Yukon/Photo by Jeff Few

This is the second in an eight-part series on The Gordon Foundation's Jane Glassco Fellowship Program.

Every year, many of the world’s best and brightest scientific researchers work in the Yukon. Meagan Grabowski is one of them.

Born in Dawson City and raised in Whitehorse, Grabowski is at home working in both natural and social sciences. And before becoming a Jane Glassco Northern Fellow in 2015, she worked on ecological, climate change, engagement and policy research for Northern organizations like Yukon College, the Council of Yukon First Nations, Yukon Government and Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.

Grabowski used her two-year stint as a Glassco Fellow to examine the relationship between scientists working in the Yukon and First Nations governments.

Because while roughly 80 research permits are granted every year in the in the 40,000-person Territory, the existing legislation – the Scientists and Explorers Act, which governs how scientific research is conducted in the region – does not account for modern government-to-government relationships between First Nations governments and the Territorial government.

Opening the 'black box'

Grabowski believes this law should be updated to encourage closer relationships between scientists and First Nations.

Her policy paper, “Recommendations for Modernizing the Yukon Scientists and Explorers Act,” considers four concrete proposals for the regulatory processes governing scientific research. It’s an examination of the root causes of barriers that exist between governments and research institutions.

Throughout the paper, Grabowski interviews numerous reviewers and researchers who describe the current permitting process as a “black box,” on in which academics and First Nations investing valuable time and resources to complete complex licensing applications receive next to no feedback in return.

“This is leading to distrust between governments and institutions,” Grabowski writes, “resulting in conflict, changes in scope and in some cases legal intervention.” Many researchers want to be more active in the Territory, she notes, but don’t always hear back from governments when they reach out. Governments, meanwhile, are severely under-resourced.

“There are communities that feel completely disconnected from the research done in their backyard,” the report states.

To address this, Grabowski recommends developing a nimble co-management board for the purpose of overseeing any new research applications. This board would incorporate stakeholders from the territorial government, First Nations governments and the scientific community and could ultimately replace the existing regulatory process and licensing regiment.

Establishing a co-management board would be a proactive step. The current permitting process faces challenges including: accountability and transparency issues, a lack of collaborative decision making, redundancy and overlap with other permit process and, finally, a lack of staff and regulatory resources.

Assuming control of the permitting process

Some First Nation governments are already assuming greater power over permit applications on their traditional territories. Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, located 400 kilometers north of Dawson City, have reasserted authority over the terms, limits and benefits of research taking place on their traditional territory.

First Nation initiated research agreements and permitting processes can also help ensure that any scientific research conducted will directly benefit local communities.

“There are communities that feel completely disconnected from the research done in their backyard,” the report states.

However, it can also risk creating overlapping permitting processes by establishing dual, potentially conflicting regulatory bodies. It also assumes that First Nations governments have the resources, capacity and time to undertake this kind of regulatory review.

The type of co-management board that Grabowski envisions and recommends would face these challenges head on, granting licenses based on close consultations and consensus with affected First Nations. Territorial governments, meanwhile, would administer the board to minimize redundancies and to ensure stable funding.

“Permitting should [not] become a barrier to research,” she writes. “It should facilitate transparency and collaboration by design.”

To read Meagan Grabowski’s policy paper – including all 4 of her proposals to strengthen the Scientist and Explorers Act – as well as other policy work from the Jane Glassco Northern Fellows, please visit The Gordon Foundation's website.

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