Ethical Protocols

The ethics of writing about, or recording, traditional knowledge, including traditional environmental knowledge, is a major subject of discussion within many local, national and international forums.  Some local Aboriginal communities have designed their own written protocols, which assist them in engaging in consultation or other research and development endeavours.  Other local Aboriginal communities rely on oral traditions and customary laws for protocol observance.  Over the past several years, significant progress has been made in arriving at guides acceptable to Indigenous communities around the world, including Aboriginal communities in Canada.

Ethical research activity involving Aboriginal traditional knowledge requires observance of community protocols, just as ethical academic institutional research protocols are mandatory for researchers.  Aboriginal protocols required to access traditional knowledge vary from community to community and are generally learned by building relationships within Aboriginal communities over a period of time.  Breeching community protocols regarding traditional knowledge can result in permanent breakdown of relationships.

Diversity of Protocols

Protocols are based on particular knowledge systems, ways of knowing, systems of accessing knowledge and community value systems.  Diverse Aboriginal communities have diverse protocols. In research, the recognition of Aboriginal worldviews, knowledge and realities is seen as essential to Aboriginal communities.  In the same way, researchers need to acknowledge social, historical and political contexts which share Aboriginal cultures.  Aboriginal communities call for the privileging of Aboriginal voices, experiences and lives in research initiatives that they identify as important.

Research in Métis Communities

In 2010, the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO) brought Métis researchers, students and organizations together to explore concepts of research within Métis communities.  The group came up with a series of six guiding Principles that should be taken into account when planning Métis-specific research.  In summary, the Principles include:

  • ensuring the development of reciprocal relationships between researcher and community;
  • respect for Métis autonomy and collectiveness, local community protocols, confidentiality, and personal Métis identity;
  • provision of safe and inclusive environments for the research;
  • consideration for the diversity of Métis perspectives;
  • researcher responsibilities of ensuring research benefits and relevancy to Métis communities, accuracy of outcomes, accountability, acknowledgement of participants and protection of cultural knowledge; and
  • familiarity of the researcher with Métis cultural and historical contexts. (National Aboriginal Health Organization, n.d.)

The Principles of Métis research laid out by NAHO are consistent with other contemporary guides for ethical research, but also provide researchers with the advantage of knowing they can expect a broad spectrum of responses to questions, including contradictory responses and information which is considered a normal part of the holistic worldview of many Aboriginal communities.  It should be noted that there are significant cultural and legal issues associated with the collection of traditional knowledge.  It is equally important for researchers and Métis People to have a broad understanding of these issues in order to avoid misunderstandings and to ensure appropriate use of traditional knowledge according to Métis culture and rights.

Duty to Consult

The Constitution Act, 1982  “includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada” as the “aboriginal peoples of Canada” (Department of Justice Canada, 1982) with existing Aboriginal and treaty rights.  Federal guidelines have been established to assist federal employees with consultation efforts.  These guidelines are based in Supreme Court of Canada  decisions that set out that “the duty stems from the Honour of the Crown and the Crown’s unique relationship with Aboriginal peoples” (Minister of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 2011, p. para 1).  The Duty to Consult is a constitutional duty and the guidelines established are intended to take into consideration “evolving case law and engagement with Aboriginal organizations and communities, provinces and territories and industry representatives.” (pp. para 3-4).  Hundreds of federal employees have received training on consultation and accommodation.   Aboriginal communities need to be able to develop the appropriate capacity and long-term processes to engage in consultation processes on such things as species at risk.

The following lists and links provide access to some of the significant documents that can assist with insight into how to think about working with traditional knowledge and traditional knowledge holders.  This is, of course, in addition to traditional protocols which constitute the foundation of relationships with particular Aboriginal communities.  The scope of these documents is extensive; however, individuals engaging in the collection or provision of traditional knowledge should have access to information about these issues in order to be able to understand what is required for informed consent for research.

Federal Government

Aboriginal Consultation and Accommodation: Updated Guidelines for Federal Officials to Fulfill the Duty to Consult:

Research in Canada

Tri-Council Policy Statement:  Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans

Species at Risk Act Polices draft document:

COSEWIC ATK Process and Protocols Guidelines:

National Aboriginal Health Organization

International Standards

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: 

Akwé: Kon Voluntary guidelines for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessments regarding developments proposed to take place on, or which are likely to impact on, sacred sites and on lands and waters traditionally occupied or used by indigenous and local communities

Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity:

Addis Ababa Principles and Guidelines for the Sustainable Use of Biodiversity (and the foundation of work on customary sustainable use of biodiversity by Indigenous peoples)

The Tkarihwaié:ri Code of Ethical Conduct to Ensure Respect for the Cultural and Intellectual Heritage of Indigenous and Local Communities:

The World Intellectual Property Organizations:

  • is currently working with world governments to develop a regime governing the collection and use of Indigenous traditional knowledge

The United Framework Convention on Climate Change:

  • has not successfully adopted any guidance on traditional knowledge, but Indigenous peoples participating in those forums have called for UNFCCC to adopt exemplary practices from the Convention on Biological Diversity

Issues concerning the collection of traditional knowledge are complex, including attempting to define the meaning of traditional knowledge.   It is advisable that Aboriginal communities develop the capacity to become familiar with these processes as a means of determining whether or not they wish to grant access to traditional knowledge.  Often, with good ethical practices in place, relationships with researchers or government officials can flourish and limitations for the use of some traditional knowledge can be established.   Currently, the federal government and other governing authorities are collecting IK under ad hoc processes that ultimately take traditional knowledge out of the hands of the knowledge holders and will ultimately end up in the public domain for anyone’s use and exploitation.



Department of Justice Canada. (1982). Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982. Retrieved Mar 13, 2012, from Department of Justice Canada:

Minister of Justice. (2011 October). Consolidation Species at Risk Act. Retrieved 2012 12-Mar from Government of Canada: Justice Canada:

Minister of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. (2011 йил March). Aboriginal Consultation and Accommodation – Updated Guidelines for Federal Officials to Fulfill the Duty to Consult – March 2011. Retrieved 2012 16-Feb from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada:

National Aboriginal Health Organization. (n.d.). Principles of Ethical Métis Research. Retrieved 2011 26-Sept from National Aboriginal Health Organization:

United Nations Environment Programme. (n.d.). Environment for Development. Retrieved 2012 12-Mar from United Nations Environment Programm: