SSHRC: International Collaboration?

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada has just released a report warmly praising itself for its achievements in fostering “international collaboration.” SSHRC states at the outset:

Now as globalization heightens its importance, collaboration is crucial to sustaining excellence in Canadian research and training. It secures access to the world pool of knowledge, helps us address critical national and global issues, and provides training opportunities that prepare Canadian students to thrive in an increasingly interdependent world.

SSHRC also refers specifically to its International Opportunities Fund (IOF) — a monster of an application process that can suck up a year’s worth of non-teaching time and can span several hundred pages by the time it is complete (who reads all of this material is largely a mystery).

In practice, what SSHRC actually requires is that half or more of the participants in an “international” working group must be Canadian citizens. Given that a working group could consist of anything from one to two dozen persons, and given the limitations of a small pool of local scholars who have not blanketed the world, it means that certain research topics are certain to not be funded since most of the experts will be “foreign” thus diminishing the “distinctive Canadian contribution.” This is a tremendous pity, and ultimately a shortcoming of blinkered nationalism, which SSHRC of course does not admit to in its glowing self-assessment. The result is that if the research has no distinctively Canadian basis to begin with, and does not involve Canadian researchers in substantial numbers, international collaboration is rendered largely off limits. This is the “Canadian content” reflex that one finds in the Canadian media and other spheres of Canadian public life. (I don’t mean to diminish the benefits…I grow up with melancholic TV documentaries on the habits of the Woodchuck, priceless stuff.)

A similar problem is in place with respect to SSHRC’s Aboriginal research awards, which are currently under review. Aboriginal has been effectively treated in SSHRC’s practice as Aboriginal in Canada only, meaning that any comparative work on indigenous populations elsewhere in the world cannot be funded by this program (someone in that program wrote to me to ask why I was not submitting any grant applications to them since I have research interests in “aboriginal issues”–when I indicated Caribbean aboriginals were at the centre of my research, the discussion ended in silence). The effect of this, contra globalization propaganda, and contra the reality of indigenous communities and organizations linking up in various transnational fora, and discovering very important commonalities, is that SSHRC confines and constrains aboriginality to a remote, local isolate.

In a sense then, government-funded research agendas are meant to mirror government-directed aboriginal policy, which historically has been designed to splinter, fragment, and divide aboriginal nations into tiny local pockets, and to keep “Canadian” issues of aboriginality far removed from international currents.

Canada voted against the passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples last September, one of four neo-colonial settler states to do so (the others being the United States, Australia, and New Zealand). The government, via SSHRC, is interested in ‘globalization’ only until Aboriginal issues come into play, when, all of a sudden, “Aboriginal” is treated as an exclusively Canadian notion.

These problems need to be discussed openly, and not through the usual quiet Canadian routes of silence here, and a nod there, and a glossy magazine filled with smiling officials.