Montreal Botanical Garden
Coming up in 2012: “One Thousand Days for the Planet Mission” starting June 22, with live links to the crew of the Sedna IV research vessel on its voyage examining the state of the planet’s biodiversity.
CIHR Team in Aboriginal Antidiabetic Medicines– access publications, photos, Cree translations of research summaries, media coverage and more on the work of a multidisciplinary team of scientists working with the Cree of Eeyou Istchee in Northern Quebec to evaluate the antidiabetic activity of medicinal plants used by traditional healers. See also: Learning from the Elders: Research Profile – CIHR
Global Initiatives in Traditional Medicines The World Medicines Situation 2011 - WHO
United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. See also the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Review article: Comprehensive Evidence-Based Assessment and Prioritization of Potential Antidiabetic Medicinal Plants: A Case Study from Canadian Eastern James Bay Cree Traditional Medicine.
Ecohealth and Aboriginal Health: A Review of Common Ground
A unique edition of LAKE: A Journal of Arts and Environment
Walk for knowledge: Dr. Stanley Vollant, the first Aboriginal surgeon in Quebec, is on a unique walk across the province of Quebec to meet with Elders to learn more about Quebec’s traditional medicines and to write a book for youth about traditional knowledge. He has started to accumulate samples of many of the herbs and barks that have been used traditionally in Aboriginal medicine.
Action plan for species at risk – In Quebec, the Lac St. Jean Model Forest is one example where surveys of traditional knowledge about medicinal plants are being carried out as part of an action plan for species at risk.
The Montreal Botanical Garden, a National Historical Site is recognized as one of the most important botanical gardens in the world. Now celebrating its 80th anniversary, it boasts 30 thematic and cultural gardens, a collection of some 23,000 plant species and cultivars, and state-of-the-art lab facilities supporting research. “The mission of the Montreal Botanical Garden is to reconnect people with nature,” said Mr. Gilles Vincent, a botanist and long-time director of the Garden. “At the heart of our education and research mission is the concept of interdependence. If you listen, very clearly there is much we can learn from First Nations about biodiversity and living sustainably with nature.”
That’s a message that is resonating internationally, with the recent opening in Europe of a First Nations Garden designed by the Montreal team. The Ohtehra Garden (“root” in the Hurdon-Wenat language), opened in 2010 at Moselle in France to much public interest, reflects Aboriginal people’s intimate relationships with nature.
“Elders and communities have longstanding knowledge about the relation of plants to everything from circulatory, gastric and intestinal problems to cancer,” said Dr. Alain Cuerrier, a botanist with the Garden’s Plant Biology Research Institute, associated with the biological science department at the University of Montreal. Dr. Cuerrier is also one of several principal investigators on the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Team in Aboriginal Antidiabetic Medicines (TAAM), which has for the past eight years seen university researchers and the Cree of Eeyou Istchee communities in northern Quebec work together in the fight against diabetes. The team has, to date, published more than 30 articles in peer-reviewed journals and closely examined 17 of the most promising plants identified by Cree Elders and communities. “First Nations and Inuit knowledge can shed light on treatment of some of leading diseases afflicting First Nations peoples and others, such as diabetes, and is helping to change how treatment can be delivered in culturally relevant ways,” said Dr. Cuerrier.
Mutually respectful partnerships are also changing how research is conducted in Canada. Cree communities and academic institutions on the diabetes research team, for instance, signed an unprecedented legal agreement, based on guidelines from the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, that protects Cree traditional knowledge while allowing scientists to shed light on effective compounds for treatment. The internationally recognized relationship is pointing the way to a meaningful convergence of modern science and traditional medicine, said Dr. Cuerrier.
The building of positive relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples has proved to be as significant as the botanical challenge in recreating landscapes, said cultural agent Sylvie Paré. “It’s not well known that there are more than 80,000 First Nations and Inuit people in Quebec in eleven First Nations and Inuit Nations, with more than 15,000 First Nations and Inuit people living in Montreal,” said Ms. Paré. “This is not just a tourist place,” she said. “ Here, we bring together Elders, researchers, artists, botanists and cultural ambassadors from all over Quebec who share their culture, their stories and knowledge with visitors – and in the process, often learn more about their own cultures themselves.”
Cultural sensitivity is also extending to researchers who are increasingly recognizing the need to step outside of their own scientific worldview to work more effectively with First Nations and Inuit communities.
As an ethnobotanist focused on the relationship between people and plants, Dr. Cuerrier sees First Nations and Inuit peoples are not only dealing with climate change implications in their territories, but also with growing commercial pressure on plant resources. The global push for pharmaceutical and naturopathic remedies along with the rapid loss of plant species is heightening the challenge to Indigenous peoples’ access to, and benefit from, knowledge of plants and natural resources. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently found that the $83 billion global market for traditional medicines is growing and that 70-95% of populations in the developing world rely on traditional medicines for primary care. WHO passed a resolution in 2009 to support inclusion of traditional medicine in health care systems, indicating further possible pressure on resources. Currently, Indigenous organizations from Canada and other countries are seeking to ensure the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity addresses these issues through the Nagoya Protocol focusing on “Access and Benefit-Sharing” regimes.
Meanwhile, in Quebec, Elders from northern Cree communities were becoming interested in promoting the use of Cree traditional medicine to complement medical treatment of diabetes, considered an epidemic among First Nations in Canada. A person newly diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, for instance, will typically be prescribed up to five different drugs, requiring treatment regimes of pills, injections and schedules that can be culturally foreign to some community members. There is, as yet, little scientific evidence concerning the interactions of prescription drugs and natural remedies.
When the Cree Board of Health and Social Services, spearheaded by the community of Mistissini, began to consider work with Western scientists nearly a decade ago, there was a degree of wariness and mistrust about use and control of traditional knowledge, and about the role of pharmaceutical interests, explained Dr. Cuerrier. In Canada, intellectual property law is not suited to ensuring aboriginal people maintain control over the non-consensual use of traditional knowledge. As a result, Cree communities of Eeyou Istchee and university researchers on the Canadian Institutes for Health Research Team in Aboriginal Antidiabetic Medicines developed an unprecedented and legally binding agreement that laid the foundation for how the Cree and researchers might work together. It took five years to reach agreement but in 2009, the Mistissini and Whapmagoostui First Nations were later joined by the Nemaska, Waskaganish, Wemindji and Oujé-Bougoumou in signing the document, along with the Cree Board of the Health, the University of Montreal, the University of Ottawa, McGill University, and the Research Centre of the University of Montreal Hospital Centre.
Fundamental to the agreement was the recognition that communities would retain control about how their traditional knowledge would be used, as researchers sought to identify plants and analyze extracts that could treat diabetes symptoms. The agreement protected the free, prior and informed consent of communities and Elders at all stages of the project, from the collection and use of knowledge, through to the review and publication of scientific articles to the possible commercialization of intellectual property.
Along the way, researchers and communities adapted to each other’s needs and concerns, said Dr. Cuerrier, whose role on the team was as a principal investigator of the project’s ethnobotanical studies while Dr. Pierre Haddad, a pharmacology professor at the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Medicine, served as leader of the multidisciplinary team. Protocols helped govern how plants and data were collected, and scientists agreed to present results without divulging the names of plants – using codes instead to ensure that findings would not be used inappropriately. Elders reviewed lay summaries of publications translated into Cree, and gave their comments interpreting the results on the understanding that traditional knowledge could be removed before publication if necessary. Information was shared on a regular basis and in a variety of ways, in community meetings, on radio, and through longstanding relationships built on trust. And instead of using placebos to determine the effects of various medicinal plants, which Cree healers felt violated their duty to treat all patients, the team modified its plans and instead incorporated unprecedented observational clinical studies where Cree diabetics were followed by both a Cree Healer and by health care professionals at a local clinic.
The exchange of scientific knowledge helped the community achieve greater research equity, while the translation of traditional knowledge into scientific language helped ensure Cree knowledge would be accepted and communicated to medical practitioners. “It’s a model that can be adapted to other Aboriginal realities worldwide,” said Dr. Cuerrier. The research team has now looked at some 40 species of plants related to diabetes and anti-oxidant capacity, and with the wrap-up of CIHR funding in 2011, is finishing ongoing work over the next year. “There are many Indigenous medicinal plants in Quebec, and few have been heavily studied,” said Dr. Cuerrier. “There is rich work to be done.” Intangible benefits in education and research
In the public education role of the Montreal Botanical Garden, it’s the authentic nature of the exchange between First Nations representatives and the public that is helping to strengthen bonds of friendship, as executive director Gilles Vincent has found. “I can remember the meetings we had with First Nations people, in the mid-1990’s, when we were establishing the garden. We have had a history of conflict and colonization, and at the beginning, there was mistrust. Now, we are working together in a spirit of rapprochement and exchange,” he said.
And as much as scientific research can shed light on the chemical properties of plant compounds or interactions with prescription drugs, it’s the intangible benefits of research partnerships that can also play a role in healing, said Dr. Cuerrier. On a recent visit to Nain, in northern Labrador, for instance, he saw new relationships formed among Elders and youth during a field trip that sparked revitalized interest in traditional knowledge and the natural environment. “We were not sure how it would go. But on the land, it’s fun,” he said. “Answers lie not only in creating a new drug that will ‘cure’ cancer or the symptoms of diabetes. We also need to look at ‘curing’ the environment – and at the healing process across generations and within communities.”
Note: This story was informed by the following in-press manuscript:
"Aboriginal antidiabetic plant project with the James Bay Cree of Québec: an insightful collaboration," by Alain Cuerrier, Université de Montréal/Institut de Recherche en Biologie Végétale, Jardin botanique de Montréal, Montréal, Canada; Ashleigh Downing, Université de Montréal/Institut de Recherche en Biologie Végétale, Jardin botanique de Montréal, Montréal, Canada; Elisabeth Patterson, Law firm Dionne Schulze, Montréal, Canada; Pierre S. Haddad, Université de Montréal, Montréal, Canada, in Journal of Enterprising Communities: People and Places in the Global Economy.