Contributed by Robert Lyman © July 2017
On June 29, 2017 the Canadian federal government issued a discussion paper on the review of environmental and regulatory processes, presenting a number of changes in the present regimes that the government is considering. One of the main departures from current practice proposed in the paper was the incorporation of indigenous knowledge alongside other sources of evidence. Specifically, the paper indicated that the government is considering two measures:
- Co-developing “tools, guidance, and capacity with indigenous peoples to better support and systematically consider indigenous knowledge.
- Protecting “the confidentiality of indigenous knowledge where appropriate (e.g. sacred site locations).”
While it is nowhere stated this way, the implication of the discussion paper is that, henceforth, Canadian agencies undertaking environmental assessment or considering the public interest impacts of major resource developments will give equal weight to science (i.e. empirical evidence concerning the effects of the project) and traditional indigenous knowledge.
This commentary challenges the wisdom of such an approach.
Since the release of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1995, there has been an ongoing debate in academic and certain political circles in Canada about the possible incorporation of aboriginal peoples’ “traditional knowledge” into public policy. Several serious issues have been raised about whether “aboriginal knowledge” is knowledge at all in the sense of a body of verifiable facts, whether its heavy reliance on “spiritual teachings” qualifies it as a source of objective evidence, its vagueness and lack of systematic discipline, and its potential, in the field of environmental assessment, for justifying practices that, while acceptable in terms of aboriginal historical practice, clearly pose dangers to wildlife preservation. As documented in a lengthy paper by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard of Trent University, these concerns have largely been ignored by the proponents of aboriginal knowledge. 
What is meant by “traditional indigenous knowledge”? One definition that has been used by the Government of the Northwest Territories since 1993 is “knowledge and values which have been acquired through experience and observation from the land or from spiritual teachings, and handed down from one generation to another.” It is perhaps also well-described as the system that indigenous people used through the centuries when they had no written tradition of passing down from generation to generation what was known by hunters about the wildlife conditions in which they had historically hunted.
There is no question that “indigenous traditional knowledge” includes a large component that rests on spiritual teaching about the relationship between the aboriginal people and the world and wildlife around them. In fact, this native “theology” is a particularly worrisome part of the indigenous traditional knowledge claim to be a valid basis for modern decision-making. Nowhere else do governments accept spiritual beliefs as “knowledge”. Stripped of the spiritual beliefs, indigenous aboriginal knowledge largely consists of the information one would receive from a guide familiar with the local area – basic knowledge whose incorporation certainly would not require a radical transformation of scientific research, policy development or regulation. The significance of the linkage to native spirituality is essentially that, in an atmosphere of elevated sensitivity to aboriginal concerns, it becomes politically incorrect to challenge aboriginal beliefs as a basis for action.
The acceptance of aboriginal spiritual belief as knowledge by governments is thus dangerous for three reasons. It can be used to justify any activity, including actions that are environmentally destructive. It cannot be tested for its validity and relevance to the matter in question because there is no empirical way to do so. Finally, any attempt to challenge it can be attacked as “racist” or pejorative to aboriginals when there is no such intention.
The previously referenced paper by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard makes an essential point in this regard:
“Rather, each item of purported traditional knowledge – like each item of purported knowledge of any kind – must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, according to the quantity and quality of evidence for and against it. …The mere fact that a belief has been ‘acquired through experience, observation, through the land or from spiritual teachings, and handed down from one generation to another’ does not, in and of itself, constitute the slightest reason to believe that it is true. And if it is not true, it is not knowledge” (Widdowson & Howard, 2009, p. 6).
It is especially problematic that the federal discussion paper appears to support equal consideration of facts, analysis and judgments based on the use of the physical and social sciences and aboriginal traditional knowledge. The significance of findings based on modern science is not that it is always “right” but that the methods used are empirical (i.e. based on real-life observation) and replicable by other studies. Further, if they are shown to be inadequate, the methods used can be revised and the conclusions discarded. Traditional knowledge, in contrast, does not have this capacity to progress because it involves repeating ancestral patterns, binding its holders to mythology from the past. It is static – immune from questioning because it is based on what is “held” by elders with revered qualities whose views, according to advocates, must be uncritically supported. Any attempt to challenge these beliefs, any attempt to raise critical questions is often immediately condemned as gestures of “disrespect”.
Supporting traditional knowledge may be seen, especially in political terms, as a harmless acquiescence, a way to build aboriginal self-esteem so that the aboriginal population can overcome the harmful effects of past government policies. Unfortunately, it can be far more damaging than that.
he National Energy Board attempted, during its hearings on the applications for the Nova Gas Transmission Project, the Northern Gateway Project and the Energy East Project, to determine what precisely was meant by aboriginal traditional knowledge and how this could be properly taken into account in the Board’s decision-making process. If one examines the testimony from those hearings, the points made by the aboriginal people who testified can be summarized briefly in the following points.
- Aboriginals have existed for many years on the lands under which a proposed pipeline will be constructed.
- The lands have many burial grounds.
- The hunting, fishing, and trapping on the lands are not as good as they used to be thirty or forty years ago. It takes longer to get food if you try to live entirely of the land.
- Over the past forty to fifty years, the oil and gas industry has been more active in exploring and developing lands in the area.
- Aboriginals have been told that “the pipeline will blow up and so may litres of oil will leak.” They do not trust what they are told by representatives of the petroleum industry.
None of this, one might argue, has anything to do with traditional knowledge. It has to do with fears, many of which may be unsubstantiated. The remarkable thing about these hearings was that no one – not the pipeline proponents or the NEB panel members – asked any probing questions that would have tested the validity of the arguments being made. No one asked for evidence that aboriginals had any legal interest in the lands where the proposed pipelines would be built. No one asked for any proof of a connection between the oil industry’s past, present or future activity and the population of wildlife in the area. No one asked whether the burial grounds were located anywhere near the proposed right of way for the pipeline. No one, in other words, subjected the aboriginals to standards of evidence that would have been imposed on anyone else. If one were looking for evidence of a continuing “colonial” mentality in which aboriginals are treated like children who should not be expected to meet modern standards, it would be difficult to find a better example.
The public interest in considering whether or not major resource projects and energy transmission projects should proceed and, if so, under which conditions, does not properly rest on taking solicitous account of the historical beliefs of aboriginal peoples. It rests on the rigorous and objective application of standards of knowledge and evidence that can be critically tested through examination and cross-examination. Most of the studies of traditional knowledge are undertaken by traditional knowledge advocates, many of whom have a vested interest in the assertion of traditional knowledge’s validity. The objective distance that is needed to evaluate the credibility and value of traditional knowledge is lacking.
The proposal that the government of Canada should entrench consideration of aboriginal traditional knowledge into the core of modern regulatory practice and indeed elevate it to a par with scientific, evidence-based knowledge and considerations is fundamentally flawed. It would undermine the rigour needed to properly assess the Canadian public interest.
- Widdowson, F., & Howard, A. (2009). Aboriginal “Traditional Knowledge’” Science and Public Policy: Ten Years of Listening to the Silence, Trent University. http://blogs.mtroyal.ca/fwiddowson/files/2009/10/Aboriginal-traditional-knowledge-science-and-public-policy-Widdowson-and-Howard-peer-review-copy1.pdf
See Robert Lyman’s summary of the federal discussion paper “Environmental and Regulatory Reviews: A Proposed Approach” for more details.