Canada’s new approach to Indigenous research offers a model to industry

Mark Mann
February 19, 2020

At the time of this writing, the rail blockades in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose the construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline through their ancestral territories are ongoing. The chiefs won’t meet with Trudeau or Horgan until the RCMP leave their land. CGL workers, including Wet’suwet’en, are clearing a path for the pipeline through the contested area. 

At the heart of this crisis is the government’s “duty to consult,” according to the Supreme Court’s 1997 Delgamuukw decision, and what the concept of “meaningful consultation” really means. Reporting suggests that CGL consulted with the band councils — a colonial governance system imposed through the 1876 Indian Act — and obtained their support, but failed to consult successfully with the hereditary chiefs, who are responsible for the unceded land beyond the reserves. 

The clash traces back to an environmental assessment certificate issued in 2014, the CBC has reported, in which concerns from the Office of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs were acknowledged but overridden by the province. The Office of Wet’suwet’en Natural Resources Department then produced a “title and rights” report that signalled that they are “not opposed to commercial and economic development on their traditional territories as long as the proper cultural protocol is followed and respect given” and that “every effort is made to ensure the protection of their traditional territories from environmental damage.” The report indicates that they ”are deeply concerned about the Coastal GasLink Project due to potential significant effects to Wet’suwet’en territory.”

In a recent policy paper published by Facets Journal, Lauren E. Eckert and co-authors examined the obstacles — some significant and deeply ingrained, others more easily surmountable — to incorporating Indigenous knowledge in environmental assessments. Their recommendations include explicit recognition of land and treaty rights, legally binding adherence to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and increased funding programs and opportunities, among others. Ultimately, if the province’s consultations with Wet’suwet’en knowledge-keepers had been more “meaningful” at the moment of the original EA, one can imagine that a different course could have been charted that would have avoided the current turmoil. 

As the Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC) prepares to implement its new Indigenous research strategic plan, guided by the Aboriginal Leadership Circle, we are seeing our major government funding agencies striving to create a starkly different type of relationship: one based on co-development, representation, and recognition of Indigenous leadership of research. The strategy won’t automatically heal the wounds from Canada’s history of colonial and exploitative approaches to research, but it’s aiming to do better. Industry should take note. Indigenous peoples contribute $30 billion annually to Canada’s GDP, and that number is expected to increase to $100 billion by 2024. Shared prosperity awaits when environmental assessments include Indigenous knowledge, when respect is given, and when consultations go beyond checking off boxes.


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