Stanley George, newly elected Chief of Whapmagoostui, a small Cree community of 850 souls in northern Quebec, did not hesitate when he put his signature at the bottom of a 40-page research agreement last September. “I remembered a phone call our community received a few years ago from a guy who said he worked with a pharmaceutical company. He was trying to get the names of the plants our healers use to treat diabetes and other ailments,” he recalls, his tone tinged with anger. “Now, with this agreement, our knowledge stands a better chance of being respected.”
The agreement ensures his community and three other Cree bands retain intellectual property rights over any findings from a team of Quebec university researchers who are investigating medicinal plants used to treat diabetes. Under the pact, the indigenous people retain 51 percent of the rights to the research, which in effect gives them veto power over scientific publications.
“I do not believe that any other legal document has gone as far as this one,” says Elizabeth Patterson, the lawyer who drafted the deal for the communities entering into the agreement (Waskaganish, Nemeska, Mistissini, and Wapmagootsui, all in Northern Quebec).
Chief George’s main concern is the protection of his culture, but the agreement also has the potential to bring a lot of wealth to his community one day. Perhaps as important, it sets a precedent for a way to do research on Native lands with the support of the local community.
“The spirit behind it is to protect the knowledge, to make sure the communities are fully involved and, if anything comes out of the research, that there’s appropriate profit sharing,” says Ms. Patterson.
The idea for a binding partnership with indigenous peoples came from a team of diabetes researchers from the University of Ottawa, McGill University and Université de Montréal, led by Pierre Haddad, professor of pharmacology at Université de Montreal.
“Of course we could have done our research on our own, without asking Native communities for permission, as other research teams do,” says Dr. Haddad. “But our partnership with the indigenous peoples makes our findings so much more interesting and rich. They have helped us identify some plants which we think might work to treat some of the symptoms of diabetes.”
The CIHR Team in Aboriginal Antidiabetic Medicines was established in 2003 with funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Its goal is to find effective compounds in traditional plants to treat Type II diabetes, caused by dysfunctional insulin production, and its precursor, obesity. Often called the “sugar disease,” diabetes plagues more than 20 percent of Canada’s Native population; some sufferers have a hard time following Western treatments which involve taking drugs regularly in the form of pills or injections.
“It does not agree with our traditional way of life on reserves, where we are not so concerned with time and schedules,” explains Kathleen Wootton, deputy chief of Mistissini. “Back in the ’90s, when we realized that diabetes was becoming such a problem for us, our band council recommended that the Cree Health Board find ways to bring back our traditional medicine – which is based on natural plants – to complement, not replace, the current treatments,” she says.
Nonetheless, when the scientists first visited the various Cree reserves to ask elders and healers for their guidance and advice, they were greeted with suspicion and fears that they were fronting for a pharmaceutical firm. Their experience wasn’t unusual, says Timothy Johns, former director of McGill’s Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, who had tried and failed several times in the past to instigate research on reserves.
But after the Mistissini elders agreed to meet with Dr. Haddad and his team, the community started to realize that the scientists might be what they were looking for, recalls Ms. Wootton. In Dr. Haddad’s words, the diabetes research team was offering to “translate the Native people’s knowledge into scientific language with evidence-based research.”
Over a seven-year period, 17 students took part in various research projects that led to 21 published papers. The approval process took twice as long as normal for a scientific paper. Then, each one was summarized in plain language and translated into Eeyou, the Cree language. The papers then had to be presented orally to community healers and elders. There were snags at every stage of approval, but so far not a single paper has been vetoed or significantly changed.
It took five years before all parties agreed to sign the deal initiated by the researchers, but drafted by Cree community lawyers. Ms. Patterson, the Crees’ lawyer, says McGill University “was the hardest to convince.” Michael Stern, who works in the technology transfer office at McGill, explains that there was no precedent on which the signatory universities could base their decision.
Perhaps this agreement will now serve as just such a precedent. Kelly Bannister, an ethnobotanist based in British Columbia, says she wishes she had some kind of guidelines when she did her doctoral research in the late 1990s, as part of a team of ethnobotanists trying to identify medicinal plants in the province based on traditional lore. Deeply distressed by the thought that she might be cheating the very people she enjoyed sharing knowledge and conversing with because the findings had the potential to attract interest from pharmaceutical companies, she decided to refocus her research instead.
A few years later, Dr. Bannister worked with CIHR, helping develop guidelines that were established in 2007. These guidelines are not legally binding but must be followed in any health research on Native peoples funded by CIHR. For instance, they state that the purpose of the research must be clearly explained to the community and understood before the project receives approval for funding.
As for the members of the diabetes team, nine of their research findings are being evaluated for their potential for patents and marketing, with a treatment that could be better adapted to indigenous people’s traditional way of life.
“In any event,” says Dr. Haddad, “our primary goal is not to put products on the market, but to enable the integration of traditional medicine into health care.”