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Indigenous Knowledge and Environmental Assessments

Photo Credit: Taylor Milne Photo Credit: Taylor Milne

June 4, 2019

Since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have held unique cultural, social, and economic identities that are embedded in the ecological and natural resources that are found throughout their lands. Historically, Indigenous peoples’ daily life cycles relied on the natural environment and the exploitation of its natural resources, which was undertaken in accordance with Indigenous cultural understandings. Indigenous hunting, fishing, and resource exploitation were all done in accordance with cultural values, which were commonly established with the goal of protection, sustainability of resources, and the importance of the ecological integrity of the environment.1


This unique relationship to the natural world also existed for the Mi’kmaq, who are Indigenous peoples of the area we know today as Eastern Canada. The Mi’kmaq also relied on the natural world for all elements of their daily life, ranging from sustenance to cultural practices, to entertainment, housing, and spirituality. There was virtually very little in the pre-contact Mi’kmaw world that did not consist of an element of the natural world in some capacity, and the Mi’kmaq saw themselves as merely one life being within a natural world of many. This Mi’kmaw spiritual belief of the natural world around them is referred to as the Mi’kmaw “World View” concept, where Mi’kmaq understood the interdependence of themselves with all aspects of the natural world.2


Mikmaq People lived and died within the constraints of the natural world as they found it. They made no attempt to change the natural order to suit the convenience of human beings, for man was only one part of a totally interdependent system that saw all things, animate and inanimate, in their proper places…..3


This “World View” concept dictated to the Mi’kmaq how they interacted with the natural world around them and was the foundation for the manner in which they hunted, gathered, and fished. For the Mi’kmaq, this spiritual understanding of the natural world is referred to as “Netukulimk”, a term that closely references “use and sustainability of natural resources”.


Netukulimk is the use of the natural bounty provided by the Creator for the self-support and well-being of the individual and the community. Netukulimk is achieving adequate standards of community nutrition and economic well-being without jeopardizing the integrity, diversity, or productivity of our environment.4


For at least 500 years, the Mi’kmaq have lived with European contact, and since that time the effects of modern technology have resulted in a decrease in the reliance on traditional practices as a primary way of life. Nonetheless, even with the decrease in their traditional patterns, the Mi’kmaq have and continue to maintain their Indigenous practices and beliefs, which has contributed to their unique relationship with the natural world and its resources.5 This relationship that Indigenous cultures maintain with the earth has been characterized by Richard Erdoes in his writings on Native Americans and summarized by author Suzanne Berneshawi in the following;


[the] relationship to the Earth, the winds, and the animals is intimate and intensely personal, closely related to their sacred beliefs. This relationship arises out of their environment. ... It arises out of their nature-related language and out of age-old oral traditions passed on from generation to generation.6


For the Mi’kmaq, it is from this perspective that they have approached their practices, traditions, and beliefs and which in turn has provided them with a wealth of Mi’kmaw Ecological Knowledge (“MEK”), or Indigenous Knowledge (“IK”):


The Mi’kmaq do not perceive the natural and spiritual world as separate and distinct spheres. This long-standing relationship that the Mi’kmaq have maintained for centuries with their natural surrounding is the foundation for Mi’kmaw Ecological Knowledge.7


MEK, or traditional ecological knowledge (“TEK”), or IK are all terms that refer to a body of Indigenous knowledge regarding the natural world or environment, where such knowledge is derived from the experiences, practices, and traditions of a particular group of Indigenous people.8 For the Mi’kmaq, living and relying on the natural world and its resources for hundreds of years have provided an understanding of the ecosystem, including the life systems and patterns of plants and animals, that has developed over time into an immense body of knowledge regarding the natural world. It is a distinct form of knowledge that is based on a Mi’kmaw understanding that all things in the natural world, including human beings, are interconnected and interdependent and, as such, we must be cognizant that our actions on one element of the environment can have effects on various other aspect of the natural world. There is a need for balance and no action or relationship can be viewed in isolation. For the Mikmaq, Indigenous knowledge encompasses both the physical word and the spiritual world and is in constant flux due to the everchanging natural world.


Because of the immense environmental knowledge that IK maintains, it is a significant body of knowledge that can provide great insight and knowing into the potential effects of human activity on the natural world and its resources. The contribution that IK can provide to an environmental assessment has been characterized by Mi’kmaw elder Albert Marshall as “two-eyed seeing”:


learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledge’s and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledge’s and ways of knowing ... and learning to use both these eyes together, for the benefit of all.9


Based on such understandings, it would be reasonable to assume that environmental assessments regarding project development would be keen to incorporate IK or MEK into the assessment process, as IK would be extremely insightful into project impacts and their mitigation. However, for many years the inclusion of IK within existing federal and provincial environmental assessment processes (“EA”) has not been included or even considered. This is strikingly odd, considering that if an EA is to consider impacts on the environment, then IK should be a welcome asset to such considerations.


In fact, IK has been ignored by government regulators for many years, and it has only been through government’s legal obligations owing to Indigenous peoples that we have begun to see IK included in EAs. Through Canadian governments’ application of the duty to consult, Indigenous groups have had the ability to insist that their IK be included and considered within the EA process in considering project impacts on their Aboriginal and Treaty Rights. This has resulted in an increase in the inclusion of IK in both provincial and federally regulated EAs, but such inclusion is not yet a requirement of the EA process. But this may now change.


Through Bill C-69, the federal government is now proposing to make changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (“CEAA”) that would require that Indigenous knowledge be a factor that must be considered when undertaking an impact assessment of a designated project.10 This is welcome news for both Indigenous people and for environmental protections. This could mean that Indigenous groups will no longer have to argue at a consultation table for the inclusion of an IK within an impact assessment, at least federally. This will ensure that an IK will be done early on in an environmental process, allowing such knowledge to be more fully realized within the environmental review of a project.


Through the inclusion of IK within the environmental review process, the environmental knowledge that will be considered through an EA would be increased, contributing to a more thorough EA process that benefits the environment, Indigenous peoples, and Canadians as a whole.

 

 

[1] Lynda M. Collins and Meghan Murtha, “Indigenous Environmental Rights in Canada: The Right to Conservation Implicit in Treaty and Indigenous Rights to Hunt, Fish, and Trap” (2010) 47 Alberta Law Review 960.
[2] Susanne Berneshawi, “Resource Management and The Mi’kmaq Nation” (1997) XVII:1 The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 115 at 120.
[3] L.F.S. Upton, “Mi’kmaq and Colonists: Indian and White Relations in the Maritimes 1713-1867” (1979) Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
[4] See Unamaki Institute of Natural Resources.
[5] See “Harvesting Consultation” which discusses the current Mi’kmaq hunting practices and protocols.
[6] Susanne Berneshawi, Resource Management and The Mi’kmaq Nation, The Canadian Journal of Native Studies XVII, 1(1997):115-148 at 120.
[7] Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, Mi’kmaq Ecological Knowledge Protocol, 1st Edition (22 November, 2000) at 6.
[8] Peter Usher, “Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Environmental Assessment and Management” (June 2000) 53:2 Arctic 185.
[9] Click here. 
[10] Bill C-69, Section 22(1) (g). 

 

Headshot Rosalie Francis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rosalie Francis

East Coast Environmental Law Board Member