Canada’s Federal Interdepartmental Indigenous STEM Cluster – A Force for Cooperation, Empowerment, and Reconciliation

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Ingenium – Canada's Museums of Science and Innovation


Diverse perspectives in science, technology, engineering and math are crucial to supporting innovation and building trust between the research community and the public. This requires us to look outside of our organizations and think about how we can best support the innovation potential of other communities within Canada and ensure our work is reflective of multiple worldviews. 

Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit, have been major innovators since time immemorial. However, systemic action taken by the federal government and other institutions have placed barriers to the transfer of knowledge, and the development of these vibrant research communities. Knowledge theft, the banning of cultural practices, prohibiting access to education and allowing for an exploitative research relationship between Indigenous communities and the federal government are just a few of the reasons why we need to do better. 

Building, or in some cases rebuilding, trust and relationships takes time. However, there are a group of dedicated individuals looking to guide federal science in the right direction.

As a result of:

1) The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s reports;

2) The passing of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the Declaration’s very relevant Article 31; and,

3) Directives to federal government ministers in their Mandate Letters to move faster along the path of reconciliation, the federal government instructed ministers and their departments to play a role in helping to advance self-determination, to close socio-economic gaps, and to eliminate systemic barriers facing First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples.

These instructions were given with accompanying focus on clean growth and the use of the best available science and evidence for what lies ahead. To achieve these goals, it was recommended at the Deputy Minister level that departments involved in similar areas work in “clusters” to co-develop solutions with Indigenous partners beyond individual organizational mandates. This resulted in the formation in December 2019 of the Interdepartmental Indigenous STEM Cluster, or I-STEM Cluster, led by Emily McAuley, a biologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and the I-STEM Cluster includes 13 federal departments and organizations whose work falls in the STEM category. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is the I-STEM Cluster’s host department and Emily is the Acting Director of both AAFC’s Indigenous Science Liaison Office and the Interdepartmental Indigenous STEM Cluster.

For its part, Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation has embraced the Report’s Calls to Action that are within its purview. First, Ingenium recognizes and acknowledges that its three museums and Ingenium Centre are situated on the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin-Anishnabeg people. Ingenium staff and visitors to our sites appreciate being able to work and learn in this environment. Ingenium further recognizes that knowledge has been generated by Indigenous Peoples relationships with the lands, airs, and waterways in what is now known as Canada since time immemorial. Ingenium is committed to working with Indigenous Peoples in Canada to uphold genuine and respectful representation of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation cultures and ways of knowing through further development of its national science and technology artifact and archive collections, and through its programming, and services. Over the next five years, the Ingenium team will open conversations and enhance relationships with Indigenous communities from coast to coast to coast, including through I-STEM, to collaborate on the co-creation of content which reflects the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action.

Ingenium had the opportunity to speak with Emily about her role as A/Director, Indigenous Science Liaison Office and Interdepartmental Indigenous STEM Cluster.

Who is Emily McAuley, PhD?

Ingenium: Hello Emily. It’s great to meet you. Thank you for your time today. I am looking forward to our conversation and learning from you.

Emily McAuley: It’s great meeting you, too, David.

Ingenium: Let’s begin. How did you come to be working at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and then as Acting Director of the Indigenous Science Liaison Office and I-STEM Cluster?

E.M.: It was it was a bit of a surprise, to be honest. I have always been really interested in biology, always wanted to work with animals. So I went into life sciences pretty early on, right out of high school. It was quite a winding path and now I have an undergraduate degree, a master's, and a PhD in biology. But I never really saw Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC) as a potential future career opportunity. As an ecologist, I didn't see the connection, but now that I've been working in the department for seven years, I really now see the connection between biology and AAFC.

To give you a bit more background, I'm the daughter of a Sixties Scoop survivor.1 I'm a member of Lake Manitoba First Nation, as is my mother. But she was adopted out to a non-Indigenous family here in Algonquin Territory in Ottawa. So I was born and raised here away from my traditional territory. And as an Indigenous graduate student, there came a point in my in my life where I was looking to transition from being a graduate student into my career.

As someone who was born and raised in Ottawa, I started looking for jobs with the government. Through networking, I just happened to end up talking to our former Assistant Deputy Minister, Brian Gray, who at the time was launching an Indigenous Student Recruitment Initiative. He needed Indigenous scientists to be a part of that initiative and that’s how I came to be where I am.

Evolution of the I-STEM Cluster

Ingenium: How did your role with the Cluster come about?

E.M.: I continued working with Brian Gray on the Indigenous Student Recruitment Initiative and as we went along we continued to scale up activities as we established them. In 2016, we started the Indigenous Student Recruitment Initiative which was very successful and within a year we realized that we needed a team to support this initiative. So in 2017 we set up an Indigenous Support and Awareness Office to support the entire Agriculture and Agri-Food department in Indigenous student recruitment, retention, and employee advancement, as well as cultural awareness training for the whole department. But then, as a science-based department, we realized that we also needed a liaison function with potential Indigenous research  partners. So at the same time, we also created a senior Indigenous Science Liaison Officer position. Then in 2020, we expanded that role into an entire office. So I'm now the Director of the Indigenous Science Liaison Office, which has regional officers in it to support our researchers in developing partnerships with Indigenous research partners.

We always knew it, but it became very clear that Indigenous research priorities are quite holistic. They don't fall squarely into, say, the agriculture sector or the fisheries or environmental sector. So to bring people together from across these different federal departments, we launched the Indigenous STEM Cluster. STEM, of course, stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. So the I-STEM Cluster brings departments together to address overlapping research priorities in a more holistic way. Perhaps most importantly, this reduces consultation fatigue with Indigenous research partners.

As an example of how consultation fatigue can arise, just think of Indigenous food systems where AAFC is responsible for land-based plant and domestic animal production. But then Environment Canada is responsible for migratory animals and wild-harvested foods, unless they grow in the forest, in which case they may be considered non-timber forest products and fall under the mandate of Natural Resources Canada. And then the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is responsible for fish up until they’re made into a food product, at which point AAFC becomes responsible again. So, it just makes more sense to all be working together in a cluster and, in our case, the Indigenous STEM Cluster that I now head up

Ingenium: What are you most hopeful about for the Cluster?

E.M.: What I am most hopeful for is the bigger picture results for Indigenous Peoples and their communities. Over the past few decades there’s been an increase in post-secondary education, especially for Indigenous women. And for Indigenous people in general, including me, we often want to pursue an education or a career where we feel we can make an impact by giving back to our communities. For that reason, many Indigenous post-graduate students go into the social sciences or law. But what I think Indigenous people are starting to realize is that science, whether it is western or Indigenous, can also be a tool to empower us to make our own decisions and contribute to our own self-determination. So having that knowledge and having those Indigenous researchers who are able to understand both the Western science as well as Indigenous science is how we can really make a lot of impact and start to advance Indigenous rights in terms of self-determination and governance of our own lands and peoples. I think inspiring more Indigenous people to go into either Western science or to pursue more traditional knowledge will benefit Indigenous peoples and communities in terms of environmental sustainability, cultural revitalization, and socioeconomic development.

Ingenium: There is a memorandum of understanding now in place between the I-STEM Cluster and Ingenium. For it to be successful, what do you see as being each side’s unique advantages?

E.M.: From the I-STEM Cluster perspective, we have a number of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars and policy folks working together who have a lot of experience and expertise. They can really provide a lot of feedback, guidance, and advice based on our own experience and training. That’s something we certainly have to offer to all members of the Cluster. As far as Ingenium is concerned, in terms of working towards equitable knowledge sharing between Indigenous knowledge systems and Western science, the I-STEM Cluster is all about inspiring people to see the vision of what STEM can provide and how exciting STEM is. As a Western scientist who is Indigenous, I'm excited both about Western science and about Indigenous science and I think Ingenium has the tools and the experience to amplify the message that Indigenous knowledge systems and Western science can be equitably shared in really exciting and engaging ways.

I mentioned at the beginning that I'm a member of Lake Manitoba First Nation, however as the daughter of a Sixties Scoop survivor, I was raised from childhood in Algonquin Territory in the Ottawa area, which meant going to the museums and that is a huge reason why I got into STEM. So, I think inspiring that next generation of youth and Indigenous scientists is where we really can make a huge impact. That's certainly what Ingenium does at its three museums and that’s where all of us as Cluster organizations are really going to make the biggest difference.

Ingenium: I don't know if you've been to the Canada Science and Technology Museum since it was completely renovated inside and out in 2017, but you will see that we are now bringing more Indigenous knowledge, elements, and artifacts into our exhibitions and programming. It’s very exciting for us to put Indigenous knowledge and science side by side with Western science.

EM.: That is very exciting! I do have to say, and please make sure you include this point in this interview, that the Canada Science and Technology Museum is my favourite museum of all time and I am so glad that it is open again. But no, I haven't been in there yet. And I'm so excited to hear that there's an incorporation of Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous technologies.

Emerging Synergies

Ingenium: Do you see any synergies emerging from our cooperation that will lead to results that are larger than the simple sum of inputs?

E.M.: Yes, absolutely. I do see that occurring because of the relationships that are being formed within the Cluster. We, as Indigenous scholars and our allies, are really starting to understand what we can do together with our partner departments and organizations such as Ingenium. Within the Cluster we’ll start to share approaches and exchange knowledge on both sides that will enhance our abilities to either individually do our work or do it collectively. To state it more directly, what I am saying is that there are things that by working together we can achieve that we would not be able to do if we were working separately. Establishing relationships within the Cluster will allow us to do that.

Managing the Change

Ingenium: Taking a step back and looking at the Cluster from a wider perspective, what I see is that you are involved in a huge undertaking of change management. You’re trying to effect change across many government departments, including how individuals and groups approach projects and solve problems, the processes they use, and perhaps even the perspectives and biases that people bring to their jobs and decision-making. Using a change management model that includes the four principles of understanding the change, planning the change, implementing it, and then communicating it, which change management principle has been the hardest one to tackle and which has turned out to be the easiest?

E.M.: I thought about this question a lot and, for me personally, it’s planning the change that is the hardest. I think everybody understands why we need to change what we're doing. I think everybody agrees on that. And you can communicate the why and what of we are doing, say, by showing by example what others are doing. As for implementing change, it can be done by “learning by doing.” For example, starting with a pilot approach if you’re trying something new or experimental, learning as you go, and then sharing the lessons learned. So, implementing is not the most difficult, either. Planning is, I think the most difficult part of managing change, especially when you have 13 departments and agencies working together that share priorities but that are all working on different timelines. That is the hardest part – orchestrating all the moving parts and conceiving of what is reasonable and possible to achieve.

Ingenium: Were there any unexpected challenges that you came across? That made you say to yourself: Oh, I wasn't expecting that!

E.M.: Definitely. As I just said, I think the willingness is there, and everybody across the Cluster understands why we want to do this and we all want to work towards this together. What was unexpected, honestly, was the amount of interest in the Cluster, which is phenomenal. It's grown so fast, faster than we expected. We have many more federal departments, agencies, and organizations in the Cluster than at the beginning, which is excellent. At first, we were hoping to engage with land-based natural science departments and agencies – departments and agencies that have an obvious connection to land-based knowledge production, like Indigenous knowledge systems. And so we thought that would be a cluster of maybe four or five departments. But more than a dozen we now have is a lot more than we were expecting. But, you know, it's totally and completely inspiring. Sure, it's a much larger group to coordinate and so it just it takes that much more effort to bring us together in a coordinated way, but the potential is also so much greater!

Hopeful for the Future

Ingenium: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada produced its Calls to Action Report with almost one hundred recommendations for action. Emily, what are you most hopeful about for achieving some or many of the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? What will it take from all quarters? 

E.M: Yes, there were 94 calls to action, if I remember correctly. One of the first ones we always talk about is number 57, which is that all levels of government need to provide education to public servants in terms of the histories and cultures of Indigenous nations in Canada and some of the impacts of course of residential schools and other government interventions.2  And so within Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, but also within the Cluster, one of our main priorities is to deliver not only science-specific training, but to also deliver training on being aware of the truth of government interventions and the truth of extractive research practices of past history. Today, federal researchers need to be mindful that Indigenous partners or potential Indigenous partners might be very wary of anyone who is a researcher due to that past history of extractive research, whether it was government driven or not. It is also important for science teams to know how to engage with and co-develop research projects with Indigenous partners. So, call to action 57 is a really important one. But there are some others that I think we will address, such as closing the employment gap, for example. By that I mean we are putting a great deal of emphasis on hiring Indigenous STEM students and employees. By explicitly focusing on these two calls to action right now we will be indirectly contributing to a lot of the other calls to action.

Resources for Gaining More Understanding

Ingenium: Emily, based on who you are and on your lived experiences, what recommendations do you have for those reading this article and interview so they themselves can participate and support one of the main conclusions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada? Basically, it says that all Canadians must now demonstrate the same level of courage and determination in their commitment to the reconciliation, to establish a new and respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians so that we will restore what must be restored, repair what must be repaired, and return what must be returned.3

E.M.: That’s such a wonderful question. Thanks for asking it. There are so many phenomenal resources out there such as books, audio books, and web resources such as free, online courses for people to learn more. I know it's overwhelming at first, but we really do encourage people to take that learning into their own hands. And so I would really encourage people to look for resources or even get involved in groups where they can learn with others about Indigenous cultures and histories, and especially the lands that they currently live on. Do all of our readers know whose traditional territories they live on? It’s so important to know and to acknowledge that those lands have been stewarded by Indigenous Peoples since time immemorial. I am going to ask our readers directly to ask yourselves: do you know, and what does it mean as a Canadian for you to be able to live and raise your family or live your life because we have these wonderful resources and places to live? What does that mean for you?

The other thing I would say is that I always, always, always encourage people to be active allies. By ally I mean non-Indigenous people who increase their own understanding of Indigenous issues and start to advocate for Indigenous issues in their day-to-day lives. You will sometimes hear that people should not label themselves as allies, but to me as an Indigenous person, it’s that learning and advocacy that makes someone an ally. And then I, as an Indigenous person, I might start to say, you know, this person is an ally. I think there are a lot of ways that people can amplify what Indigenous voices are already saying. I think a lot of the time in Western society we feel like we need to make an impact across the entire population to effect change. But we don’t really need to. So, I really encourage allies of Indigenous peoples and causes – especially the cause of reconciliation – to speak to other potential allies and tell them how important reconciliation is and what it entails. Share resources with them so that they, too, can learn. And I especially encourage allies to guide other potential allies through that journey because it's a really emotional one. And as an Indigenous person, I have no experience in that journey towards becoming an Indigenous ally. And so, I have tried to guide and in the past provide that emotional support. But that's not a job for me. So, I encourage other allies to do that work.

Ingenium: I am sure after reading this interview, many more allies will be encouraged to step forward to increase their own understanding of Indigenous issues and to start advocating for Indigenous concerns in their day-to-day lives. Emily, thank you for your time telling us about the success of the I-STEM Cluster and Ingenium’s role in it.

E.M.: You’re welcome. Thank you for the opportunity.


1. The Sixties Scoop was a period in which a series of policies were enacted in Canada that enabled child welfare authorities to take, or "scoop up," Indigenous children from their families and communities for placement in foster homes, from which they would be adopted by white families. Despite its name referencing the 1960s, the Sixties Scoop began in the mid-to-late 1950s and persisted into the 1980s.

It is estimated that a total of 20,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and fostered or adopted out primarily to white middle-class families as part of the Sixties Scoop.
Source: Wikipedia  / 

2. Call to Action 57: Professional Development and Training for Public Servants. We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to provide education to public servants on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.
Source: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada; Truth and Reconciliation Commission Reports:  Calls to Action, page 7;

3. “What We Have Learned” report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, that is: All Canadians must now demonstrate the same level of courage and determination, as we commit to an ongoing process of reconciliation. By establishing a new and respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians, we will restore what must be restored, repair what must be repaired, and return what must be returned.
Source: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada; Truth and Reconciliation Commission Reports:  What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation, page 1;

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David Sutin