IPinCH PROFILE — Anthropologist Michael Asch

As an ethnomusicologist, jazz pianist, and nationally acclaimed anthropologist, Michael Asch is in a unique position to help find harmony in the relationships between First Nations and Canada.


Michael, a University of Victoria anthropology professor and IPinCH team member, is embarking on a project case study that seeks to understand resource sharing resolutions that may be present in historical documents surrounding Canada’s treaties. Though absent in the treaties themselves, a framework to resolve current and future intellectual property issues may be found in the negotiations and verbal agreements that led to the written treaties, Michael says.

“I can say now without fear of contradiction, that the written versions of treaties don’t comply with what was negotiated,” he says.

Michael and his research team, including a post-doctoral fellow and several graduate and undergraduate students, will delve into historical documents surrounding three important treaties: Treaty 4, with the Cree and Salteaux of Southern Saskatchewan, western Manitoba, and southeastern Alberta (1874); Treaty 6, with the Cree of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba (1876); and Treaty 11 with many groups in the Northwest Territories (1921). A document describing Treaty 11 negotiations confirms inconsistencies recalled by an elder who signed it:

“They were promised no difference to their way of life,” says Michael. The research team will look at elders’ statements, including those given at court cases and inquiries, the notes of commissioners and their staffs, and other documents, searching not just for inconsistencies between negotiations and written treaties, but commonalities in how agreements were reached.

“I hope this project transcends boundaries,” says Michael of the research, though he notes it is too early to know whether the study will lead to improved relations and better mechanisms to negotiate intellectual property issues worldwide.

A former University of Alberta professor and Anthropology Department chair, Michael has had a long and prominent career working with and for Canada’s Indigenous communities. After receiving his B.A. in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. from Columbia University, he worked for the Dene as an advisor during the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry in the 1970s, and in their negotiations with the Federal Government in the 1980s. Michael served as an anthropologist advisor with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the 1990s. His interest in his current research grew out of his early career, when he worked with the Dene in Pehdzeh Ki (then Wrigley, NWT).

In 2002 Michael was awarded what is considered the country’s most prestigious academic accolade, when he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in recognition of his work improving economic and political relations between First Nations and Canada. The previous year, he received the Canadian Anthropological Society’s Weaver-Tremblay Award for applied anthropology. Michael’s main interest in the IPinCH project is the opportunity it provides to “work with people who are working on how to improve relations with First Nations.” He hopes IPinCH’s impact is seen not just in public policy, but also with the public itself. “I see the possibility of reaching a wider audience and communicating the issues and needs,” he says.

This profile first appeared in the IPinCH Newsletter Vol 1.2 (November 2009)

* Photograph courtesy of Michael Asch.