Documenting opikihawasowin with the community

Equity, diversity and inclusion
Research and innovation
Awards and recognition

By University of Ottawa

Office of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation, OVPRI

Mariette Niquay and Eva Ottawa sitting on a log in the woods
Eva Ottawa, a winner of the More Inclusion, Better Research: Inspiring Stories Competition organized by the Office of the Vice-President, Research, wants to give voice to Indigenous communities by encouraging them to actively participate in research that concerns them.

“In 2017, shortly after the Quebec government adopted Bill 113 that recognized in law customary Indigenous adoption, I decided to empirically document the practice of opikihawasowin within the Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok nation of Manawan,” explains Eva Ottawa, who hails from this community and who is also a professor in the Civil Law Section at the University of Ottawa. “I wanted to meet people who had personally experienced opikihawasowin, which is the customary practice of adopting a child to guide and take care of them, bringing them to adulthood. I wanted to meet those who had experienced this either as a child, as a birth parent, or as an adoptive parent.”

Indigenous customary adoption is different than full adoption. In general, the process is natural and consensual: the child is confided to relatives who want to care for the child, and ties with the birth family are maintained. “With the help of testimony from participants and consultations with kokoms and other Elders to better understand the data, and by taking into account kaskeritamowin, the nehirowisiw knowledge, I decided to describe their traditional legal system by drawing on an analytical framework developed by the Canada Research Chair in Legal Diversity and Indigenous Peoples. My goal was to support the authority of Manawan with respect to opikihawasowin. Today, this research and the framework that was used could serve as a guide for other communities or First Nations,” says Ottawa, who was also the first woman elected Grand Chief of the Atikamekw Nation (from 2006 to 2013) and president of the Council of the Atikamekw Nation.

Discover the story of Eva Ottawa, one of the winners of the University of Ottawa’s More Inclusion, Better Research: Inspiring Stories Competition.Transcript

Pursuing decolonization

Before meeting with members of her community, Eva Ottawa had created an interview chart, based on the Civil Code and on western concepts of consent and the interests of the child, that would still allow people to freely express themselves. But when it came time to analyze the data, she realized that she couldn’t use her chart. “It was a rude awakening,” she says. “The Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok have another way of looking at the world. We don’t use the same terms, the same concepts. As a result, to interpret my data and to build an analytical framework, I had to decolonize myself by ridding myself of my baggage as a legal scholar and instead position myself as atikamekw nehiriwiskwew nehapiskak itekera, a woman belonging to the Atikamekw family territory.”

In her recently submitted master’s thesis, which was very well received, Eva Ottawa describes the Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok as a nomadic people with an oral tradition whose language does not include a term equivalent to “law”. “No institution has the right to dictate laws,” she writes. “For generations, the oral traditions have passed down the values, philosophies, and rules that govern life in the community.”

Thinking in Atikamekw Nehiromowin

All the interviews, except for one, were conducted in Atikamekw Nehiromowin. In Manawan, 94% of the population still speaks the mother tongue. This is partly thanks to Eva Ottawa’s parents, who together translated Quebec’s school program into Atikamekw Nehiromowin during the 1990s. “Speaking to the research participants in their mother tongue allowed me to have more natural conversations with them. From my perspective, I was able to continue to think in Atikamekw and draw out the concepts in this language.”

This laborious translation from one language to another – from French to Atikamekw Nehiromowin and back again – also served to bridge the gap between the two legal traditions. “My approach aims to ensure that messages conveyed by the Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok are heard and correctly translated, which will help preserve their feelings of belonging to their community and express the need to protect their knowledge. It’s a real step towards preserving the dignity of Indigenous peoples.”