Working Better Together – An Australian Perspective

By Jane Azzam

I had the opportunity this past February to spend the month with members of the IPinCH team, and also participate in the “Working Better Together” conference held in Vancouver.


My travel from the University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth to IPinCH headquarters at Simon Fraser University was made possible through a Fay Gale Fellowship that I was fortunate to receive. Fay Gale was UWA’s first female Vice-Chancellor and a passionate advocate for Aboriginal people.  

The motivation for my application was to gain insight into Indigenous research collaborations, and the legal issues that would arise in such collaborations. More specifically, I am interested in exploring the question: how is the ownership of intellectual property dealt with in collaborations with Indigenous groups?

As the Research Contracts Lawyer at UWA, I had noticed an increase in the number of these collaborations and I felt it necessary to increase my awareness of the issues and interests to both parties. I also felt it was necessary to understand how these issues and interests were dealt with outside the narrow focus of legal contracts.

My research on these topics was facilitated by in-person discussions with IPinCH team members, especially George Nicholas, Brian Egan and Kristen Dobbin, as well as members of SFU’s Office of Research Ethics and Office of Research Services.

I was also fortunate to attend the Working Better Together Conference on Indigenous Research Ethics. This conference covered a range of subject matter, from a range of perspectives, but all informing the same whole. I had scheduled my visit to Canada to coincide with this event, and to also be able to attend two of the presentations in the President’s Dream Colloquium lecture series on “Protecting Indigenous Cultural Heritage.”

Learning more about collaborative research, and about Northwest Coast peoples, was enlightening. Two concepts articulated in the Nuu-chah-nulth language capture essential elements of what I’ve learned:

Hishuk-ish Tsawaak— “Everything is one and interconnected

I have come to understand that a seemingly simple question of intellectual property is not only a legal question, but also an ethical question.

I realized that I had been so focused on answering my question at the expense of another important detail: every issue must be considered as a whole, and from each perspective—piecemeal does not work.

Quu’us—“We are all real, live, human beings”

The Working Better Together gathering had a wonderful sense of community that I had not felt so strongly in other conferences.  This sense of community made me realise the importance of relationships.

While Canada and Australia share similar though distinct histories, there are some shared concerns relating to the research process: our Indigenous peoples are not given the rights or respect that they deserve.

More than ever, and without oversimplifying the issues, it seems to me that the relationship between researchers—Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike—should remain paramount. I truly believe it is the respect for and equality of one another’s input and expertise that will cultivate a meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship.

I am now approaching my work with a new awareness of how I can better provide legal advice that is informed by this fuller understanding of the importance of relationships.

Photos: Jane Azzam at University of Western Australia, and ice fishing in Whistler during her time in Canada.


Jane Azzam is Research Contracts Lawyer at the University of Western Australia, and an IPinCH Associate.