2019 Sources of Knowledge Forum to Look at Traditional Knowledge vs Scientific Evidence

Submitted by John Bainbridge

In the late 1990’s I worked for the Tetlit Gwich’in people in the NWT on implementing their land claims agreement. The agreement established a system of regulatory boards to manage the land and water throughout most of the Mackenzie Valley. The membership of the boards was predominantly Gwich’in and other First Nations and their mandate was to examine and approve or deny development projects, mostly mines. Approval was based on how the project would affect the land and water. Developers were required to do an environmental impact study. Normally, only evidence collected according to accepted scientific methods was admitted for the Board’s consideration. However, the Gwich’in, whose occupancy of the land went back centuries, expected that their accumulated knowledge of the land would also be considered. Their evidence was frequently and necessarily oral because their traditional knowledge had been handed down for generations. 

Traditional knowledge is a link with humanity’s ancient origins and a testament to people’s ability to live sustainably off the land. There is much that modern society can learn from traditional knowledge – except that modern society has a deeply rooted belief and trust in the ability of science to manage the environment and to offer solutions to ecological problems.

The dilemma confronting the regulatory boards and the developers was how should traditional knowledge be received and what weight should be assigned to it versus the weight given to the scientific evidence? The developers inevitably looked for certainty, which for them meant that the information presented to the board should be scientifically based, that it would be collected according to accepted scientific methods, and that the board would render an objective, evidence-based decision that could, if necessary, be challenged in court.

Both traditional and scientific knowledge are the result of the same intellectual process but they are different. Traditional knowledge is an integral part of the culture of the people who hold it. It tends to have a social and often a spiritual context. Scientists are apt to be sceptical of knowledge that originates outside of the Western scientific tradition. They demand evidence when confronted by knowledge rooted in a cultural context that does not lend itself to scientific verification. It occurred to me, when observing this tension, that there was a profound distrust of engaging with a body of knowledge that the non-aboriginal bureaucrats did not fully understand even though that knowledge had been gained from centuries of experience. They preferred to regard the scientific method as most likely to lead to a true understanding of the environment.

While this attitude may be understandable, is it reasonable? On February 18 of this year Canadian Press reported on a University of British Columbia study published in the journal, Environmental Reviews. The study looked at 30 different environmental impact assessments conducted by various oil sands companies between 2004 and 2017, and filed with the Alberta Energy Regulator. The study found that all the impact assessments were flawed by inconsistent science. They were rarely subjected to independent checks. Even when they were checked independently there was little confidence in the conclusions. This inconsistent approach meant that the tens of thousands of pages of scientific evidence revealed little about the health of the tar sands environment. The methods used to evaluate industrial impacts were all different. Some 316 different mathematical models were used to measure wildlife habitat and their results differed 82 per cent of the time.

The land disturbed by the 30 projects covered nearly 9,000km2 and half of it was considered high quality wildlife habitat. Since 2013, Alberta has only denied approval to 1 per cent of 1681 projects. The author of the UBC study said, “You would have to go out of your way to make it this bad …There’s people who live on this land (whose) culture and way of life is tied to those animals. And we’re telling them we’re pretty much making this up.” 

Perhaps it is time to take traditional knowledge seriously and you can learn more about it at the next Sources of Knowledge Forum on May 3 to 5, which will feature a presentation by Damon Panek, a Park Ranger with the US National Park Service and an Ojibwe Cultural Educator. He will be talking about Managing Islands through Traditional Knowledge. 

SOK Talks

On March 13, 2019 at 7pm, Brian McHattie from Parks Canada will be giving a talk on: Iconic West Coast Orca Population in Crisis. The talk will be held at the Parks Canada Visitor Centre.