Iqaluit meeting explores how intellectual property can include Indigenous knowledge, expression

“It requires a new mindset”

Inuit Circumpolar Council–Canada President Monica Ell-Kanayuk chairs the first day of the World Intellectual Property Organization meeting in Iqaluit on May 14. (Photo courtesy of ICC)

By Sarah Rogers

When an Inuk artist carves a sculpture from stone, it’s usually clear who the creator is.

The Igloo tag, a trademark managed by the Inuit Art Foundation, officially certifies Inuit-made art.

But what about the design of the carving itself—was it original? Where did the soapstone used to make the sculpture come from, and how was it acquired?

Laws governing intellectual property, or IP, offer protection to inventors and artists of the rights to use their creations, through tools like patents and copyright.

In recent years, Indigenous groups have raised questions about whether these protections should be extended to traditional knowledge and other forms of cultural expression.

That brought the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to Iqaluit last week for a three-day meeting on May 14–16, hosted by the federal government and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., and attended by a number of circumpolar Indigenous groups.

WIPO, a self-funded agency under the United Nations, serves as a policy forum for intellectual property around the world.

The meeting was one of the first gatherings of its kind in Canada’s North, designed to identify gaps where intellectual property law has neglected to include creative expression and traditional knowledge that comes from Arctic and Indigenous regions.

Ottawa launches IP strategy, which aims to support Indigenous groups

In 2018, the federal government launched a national intellectual property strategy to help Canadian innovators and businesses to better understand and protect IP.

Part of that strategy recognizes that IP hasn’t always served Indigenous groups as well as it could.

“Knowing that we were pursuing issues related to the intellectual property regime, we thought that it would be an honour for Canada to host,” said Mark Schaan, director of marketplace framework policy at Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.

“And it was very timely to have it in Iqaluit because we knew it’s a place where there are a lot of these discussions happening.”

“One aspect of that is a pillar around the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the intellectual property regime,” Schaan said. “Because that’s an area that has a lot of negative history but also a lot of opportunity for figuring out how we can work on that together.”

The $85-million strategy also comes with funding specifically targeting Indigenous groups to help build their own IP capacity. While the Assembly of First Nation and Métis National Council have received some of the money, the department is now in discussions with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami on how Inuit groups could benefit.

The Igloo tag, which certifies physical Inuit art forms, has been very successful, said Marie Belleau, counsel for Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

But the WIPO meeting participants have raised a number of current or hypothetical situations that IP is not equipped to respond to, she said.

“We’re seeing how the intellectual property system has not necessarily been developed with Indigenous peoples in mind,” Belleau said. “There are different barriers or challenges as Indigenous peoples in terms of wanting to protect our IP that don’t fit into the current system, so we’re seeing what’s being done creatively to work around that.”

“We mainly want respect”

The very concept of intellectual property is very individualistic, Belleau said, whereas Inuit or Indigenous societies are more collective in nature.

“Inuit culture and traditional knowledge are sort of collectively known and have been shared over generations,” she said.

“Our cultures have been in existence since time immemorial. You cannot trace back who first invented throat singing or some of our tools or designs, so that’s a clear clash with the IP system, which is almost always tied back to the originator.

“And it’s a personal observation, but with intellectual property, there’s an element of capitalism in it,” Belleau said. “Whereas as Indigenous peoples, we don’t necessarily see our culture as an asset or something to be exploited or for monetary gain.

“We live and breathe who we are. We mainly want respect and we want those things to be acknowledged and protected, more so than seeing those things in a dollar sign.”

The Saami have their own certification trademark

Similar to the Igloo tag, the Saami have their own certification trademark for protecting traditional handicrafts.

But Anni-Helena Ruotsala, who is environmental secretary for the Saami parliament in Finland, said the Saami have also looked to other United Nations instruments, like the UN’s convention on biological diversity, to acknowledge its cultural expression and traditional knowledge “in a more holistic way.”

In Finland, for example, Ruotsala explained that reindeer herding is not protected. Saami have looked at trying to implement geographical indication—a form of certification based on the original version of a given thing—to recognize that practice, as well as the provision of reindeer meat.

“It’s to create a marketing niche for us and, in that way, protect our traditional knowledge,” Ruotsala said.

“It requires a new mindset. We are not used to thinking of the benefits of such,” she said. “So this has been a really insightful few days.”

WIPO will publish a report based on feedback it gathered at the Iqaluit meetings.

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(3) Comments:

  1. Posted by Fake Plastic Tree on

    It will be interesting to see how IP is eventually applied to cultural expression. What would qualify as an expression of culture and how could it be rightfully protected (or, could it)? To some extent this seems to touch on the appropriation debate, though the lines around this are not an altogether clear, as is pointed out in the article. “Inuit culture and traditional knowledge are sort of collectively known and have been shared over generations.” Interesting how this notion has changed, where in the current debate over throat singing for example, grievances seem more closely tied to western concepts than traditional ones.

    • Posted by At each other’s throats on

      Literally, at each other’s throats… or it’s ok for one ethnicity to do that – culturally appropriate as they say. The last time I heard someone having sex, I wanted to tell them that’s it not okay because those sounds are very similar to a certain Inuk artist’s “throat-singing.” Isn’t culture meant to be shared, embraced, and accepted or is that inappropriate to suggest as well?

      • Posted by Fake Plastic Tree on

        I don’t think we can rightfully say culture was “meant to” do anything beyond facilitate adaptation, survival and the expression of group identity and the collective mythos through time. Given this we can say that identity and culture are socially constructed, and that they do serve a purpose in this way. It’s also true that as circumstances and environment change so does culture, and cultural change is part of adaptation and social evolution. Cultures are fluid, they are always in some form of flux, be that minute or rapid. Given all this the idea that one can monopolize a cultural practice is odd indeed. There’s nothing about crying appropriation over throat singing that either protects throat singing itself or Inuit culture. This is a red herring in my opinion and has yet to be fully confronted in this debate. Though it begs the question, what is really motivating those seeking to restrict what they are claiming to be their exclusive cultural practices? Another discussion altogether I suppose.

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