Canada and the Green Transition: Perspectives on the Way Forward

Chapter 2: Indigenous Knowledge and the Way Forward

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  • Drawing from his traditional Huron-Wendat teachings and knowledges, as well as his research experience in different North American regions, in this chapter Sioui provides a broad discussion of the value of Indigenous responsibility-based thinking in a climate change adaptation and environmental stewardship context
  • This chapter describes and elucidates the value of IK systems when it comes to developing more holistic and effective climate change action strategies that are place- and responsibility-based
  • It is becoming abundantly clear to scientists and policymakers that Indigenous knowledge must continue to play an increasing role in climate change and environmental stewardship policy and action on every scale




In the face of increasing environmental change, and the threat it represents to their land-based subsistence and cultural practices, Indigenous Peoples in Canada are increasingly taking leadership roles in resource co-management arrangements and other stewardship activities. This includes a recent surge of efforts to conduct Indigenous knowledge (IK)-based monitoring, reporting and education in support of protected areas, sustainable resource management and traditional land-use. Scholarly research in the area of resource management and environmental governance has been slow to recognize and value the contributions of Indigenous Knowledge (IK). Building on identified research priorities emerging from existing scholarship on co-management, and seeking to address a notable gap in knowledge about Indigenous Guardians programming, this chapter will allow the reader to better understand and appreciate the ways in which Indigenous worldviews and land-based knowledge systems are helping to reshape environmental stewardship and governance.

In recent decades, global climate change has brought about multifarious challenges to Indigenous peoples across North America, from water scarcity in drought-prone regions like the Yucatan, where increasing average temperatures and diminishing precipitation are leading to reduced crop yields for Maya farmers, to the consequences of permafrost thaw in the Canadian subarctic on the land-based livelihoods of the Dehcho First Nations. The localized manifestations of global climate change in Indigenous contexts come with additional challenges, as Indigenous peoples continue to endure the legacies of colonial practices and policies aimed at gaining control of their territories. Because their livelihoods are often dependent on the land and water, Indigenous groups native to those regions have direct insights into the localized impacts of global environmental change. Indeed, Indigenous peoples in different regions consider themselves stewards of the land (and water), and many consider it a spiritual duty to care for the land and its flora, fauna, and aquatic community, or ‘Circle,’ of beings.

In recent years, a growing number of academic researchers have begun to understand the scientific value of Indigenous knowledge (IK) and its potential to bolster traditional approaches to scientific research and analysis with regard to climate change and its manifold impacts. There have been a number of recent examples of the scientific value of IK in terms of environmental (including water) management in relation to climate change adaptation and mitigation. For example, there is the case of the recent uncontrollable wildfires that ravaged a large percentage of Australia’s territory. In North America, of late forest fires have similarly, albeit to a lesser degree, ravaged parts of California, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. It is increasingly acknowledged that Indigenous practices not only have substantially contributed to the present fire ecology of North American forests, but also that the practice of frequent small-scale anthropogenic fires is one of the key ways to prevent large-scale destructive fires.

Over the last decade, my environmental research with Algonquin, Yucatec Maya, Ojibway, Dene and Cree communities has demonstrated that Indigenous relationships with the land are commonly informed and guided by a concept that I refer to as ‘responsibility-based thinking.’ I define ‘responsibility-based thinking’ as an Indigenous cultural ethic that informs and mediates personal and collective conduct by instilling in an individual and, by extension, a community, a sense of duty or responsibility toward their human and other-than-human, including environmental, relations). The Indigenous responsibility-based outlook stems from a cultural paradigm that understands that it is human beings who must “learn to live with the land,” as told to me by one Maya Elder and great-grandmother. This way of thinking instills in its adherents an inherent awareness that the other-than-human realm is capable of existing and thriving without humans. I put forth that this Indigenous cultural precept is perhaps the most significant contribution of Indigenous people to the rest of humanity as we struggle to find solutions to monumental challenges that we collectively face, such as climate change. It is necessary for humankind to learn to apply this Indigenous cultural wisdom if it ever hopes to learn to successfully adapt to—and mitigate the impacts of—climate change and its myriad sociopolitical, economic, and ecological implications.

At present, in the Indigenous context, global climate change is a major environmental issue that is posing increasingly significant threats to Indigenous cultures across the North American continent (and elsewhere). In the Canadian north, where the impacts of climate change are occurring at an alarming rate, there is a pressing need to generate a fusion of leading-edge scientific and Indigenous knowledge on permafrost, and to use it as a basis to co-develop new predictive decision support tools and innovative risk management strategies to inventory and manage permafrost and adapt to permafrost thaw. For instance, the ~150,000 km2 Dehcho region in the southern Northwest Territories is one of the most rapidly warming on Earth. Permafrost thaw in the Dehcho is widespread and occurring at unprecedented rates, evidence that this region is particularly sensitive to climate warming and disturbance due to thaw. My current research as part of the Dehcho Collaborative on Permafrost (DCoP) (with Dr. William Quinton) aims to improve the understanding of and ability to predict and adapt to permafrost thaw. Because livelihoods in the Dehcho are so tightly connected to the land, DCoP’s close collaborative approach, which places Indigenous communities in leadership positions, is required to generate the new knowledge, predictive capacity and decision-support tools needed to manage the land and water resources that support Dene ways of life. This research project represents just one such Indigenous-academic partnership to enhance climate change adaptation and mitigation capacity.

However, more research in other regions needs to be aimed at developing new insights for both researchers and policy makers to provide openings towards more holistic co-management approaches that recognize and affirm the central role of Indigenous peoples as stewards of their ancestral territories, especially as they continue to face accelerating changes in the land due to climate change. It is essential for academic researchers and their Indigenous partners to continue to develop best practices for IK consolidation and mobilization in stewardship and climate change adaptation. It is also necessary that they continue to investigate governance arrangements, economic relationships and other factors that hinder Indigenous efforts in these areas, and propose possible policy solutions at the international and national scales, and outline culturally relevant tools for assessing vulnerability and building capacity. There is mounting evidence that IK should underpin any climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. This inclusion not only increases the likelihood of Indigenous cultural survival but also motivates governments to recognize the territorial sovereignty of its Indigenous groups. It all begins with a commitment to valorizing and recognizing Indigenous land-based values and practices on the land and seeking to understand more about them by fully engaging with these groups and communities in a spirit of mutual respect and learning.

Finally, I offer that the investigation and analysis of responsibility-based philosophies of our Indigenous peoples from across the continent will lead to the development of climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies that are more likely to promote responsible and respectful relationships with the environment over the long term, as well as actionable information that can inform future scientific research and policymaking aimed at developing more integrated, region-specific, and culturally relevant solutions to these critical challenges. It is my hope that this effort will help the global society to deal more effectively with increasingly complex global environmental management challenges like climate change. Adapting to change, in all its forms, has since time immemorial been one of the defining characteristics of Indigenous cultures on Turtle Island (the American continent).

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