Canada is ‘weaving’ Indigenous science into environmental policy-making

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This week:

  • Canada is ‘weaving’ Indigenous science into environmental policy-making
  • So, about that soup-throwing climate protest
  • Canada still hasn’t met its 2020 biodiversity targets. Here are 3 possible solutions

Canada is ‘weaving’ Indigenous science into environmental policy-making

(University of Manitoba)

Research shows that Indigenous communities in Canada are at higher risk from climate-related disasters such as flooding. Myrle Ballard is setting out to make sure Indigenous people are also part of the solution to climate change. 

Ballard is the first director of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s new division of Indigenous Science, a role in which she’s tasked with raising awareness of Indigenous science within the department and helping the government find ways to integrate it into its policies. 

“Indigenous science is … a science of the way of knowing the land. It’s a way of knowing the water, the air, everything about the Earth. Their knowledge of the weather patterns, their knowledge of how species migrate,” Ballard said in an interview with What On Earth. “It’s this knowledge that has enabled them to survive.”

Ballard, an assistant professor in the faculty of science at the University of Manitoba, is Anishinaabe from Lake St. Martin First Nation. Some of her own research looks at what Indigenous languages reveal about local ecosystems. She said her own first language, Anishinaabemowin, has a scientific management tool embedded within it. 

“We have words for various spaces and places right across the country that are very significant to the natural state of the ecosystem,” she said. 

The names of streams, for example, reveal details about the natural way water flows. Other words contain information about when fish start to spawn, said Ballard. 

“We have words like that that are very significant as a biological monitor throughout our language,” said Ballard. “They’re the indicators of the state of the ecosystem and the way it was before, to the present.”

Ballard, who was hired in July to lead the new permanent division, is using a process she calls “bridging, braiding and weaving.” Bridging means raising awareness about Indigenous science within the government, while braiding is when Western scientists work together on research with Indigenous peoples on the land. 

“The weaving process will be when the government, when the department ECCC, starts weaving Indigenous and Western science for better-informed decision-making,” she said. 

This concept is not new for Dominique Henri, a wildlife researcher with the ministry. She’s been collaborating for about 15 years on research with Indigenous partners in the Arctic and subarctic. Most recently, she worked with Inuit partners to study the impact of climate change on polar bears

“The bear biologists within our team learned tremendously from listening to elders’ stories and narratives,” she said. “It’s just been beautiful to see how it’s just different parts of a puzzle. [Western] science doesn’t know it all; Inuit don’t know it all, either. And by putting those pieces together, then you just have such a more rich, fuller picture of what’s going on.”

Henri said these partnerships aren’t easy to forge. It’s important to use a process that’s reciprocal, mutually beneficial and ethical, she said. And engaging properly with communities takes time. But Henri said having Ballard in this role will help. 

“This team has a crucial role to play moving forward. And I hope that we can learn from this, and that other departments can then also create similar structures and that other initiatives can spread across the country,” she said.

“I think this is the future. This approach of mobilizing multiple ways of knowing in environmental conservation is really needed, I would say, to address the ecological crisis we are facing now.”

During her first few weeks in the role, Myrle Ballard has been organizing a speaker series, inviting government scientists to learn from Indigenous scholars and experts on environmental issues. A spokesperson from the department said via email that the series has so far had three speakers and more than 800 participants.

Ballard is confident the work is already making a difference.

“We’re creating change, I know we are, because we’re getting a lot of interest from within the government,” she said. “We’re not quite there yet, there’s a lot of work to be done, [but] we’ll get there eventually. It just takes time.”

— Rachel Sanders

Reader feedback

Our interview with Todd Smith, a former pilot who is warning people to fly less for the sake of the planet, generated a lot of responses.

Jay McKean:

“At last! A former pilot telling us to cut back on our air flights. I think our government must legislate how many flights a year a person can take. What government wants to do that? Such legislation will be like reinstating the temperance movement when alcohol was banned.”

Karen Hertz:

“Stop wasting your time telling regular people who rarely use airplanes for travel. GO TO THE MAIN SOURCE OF AIRPLANE TRAVEL — THAT IS, THE UBER RICH!!!”

Rodney Harle:

“Todd Smith, the retired pilot, is wrong. Flying is not the problem. The problem is the fuel that is used, not only for flying, but also for all forms of transportation. The whole world must cease using ALL fossil fuels within the next 10 years. If we do not intend to do it, and do not do it, then the climate will continue to get hotter and wetter and stormier.”

Jeff Hawker:

“The recent article on the need for us to jet less mirrored what I have been thinking for some time. We humans are great at rationalizing things to suit our wants. Three per cent of CO2 from flying gets rationalized as it’s only a small part of the problem, and MY flight is only a piece of that, so it’s OK for me to jet around. Sadly, the CUMULATIVE EFFECT of everyone doing that is why we’re in so much trouble.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

CBC News has a dedicated climate page, which can be found here.

Also, check out our radio show and podcast. Iconic Berg Lake Trail in B.C.’s Mount Robson Provincial Park, near the Alberta border, was heavily damaged by flooding in 2021. As rebuilding begins, can Mount Robson become a blueprint for how Canada’s parks can adapt to withstand climate change? What On Earth now airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.


The Big Picture: The nature of climate protest

One of the most heated debates on the environmental beat in recent weeks concerns “the soup action” — namely, the incident at the National Gallery in London last Friday in which two demonstrators tossed tomato soup at the Vincent van Gogh painting Sunflowers to protest Big Oil’s patronage of the arts. The immediate response from most observers was alarm and disgust — they saw it as a pointless act of resistance that unnecessarily targeted a prized work of art and would likely sour people on climate action.

After the initial shock of the stunt wore off, the conversation around it began to evolve, with commentators providing more context. One of them was NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus, who launched a Twitter thread by calling it “a visionary and inspired action.” As Kalmus pointed out, many people — especially young people — are frustrated by the relative inaction on reducing carbon emissions, and, in some cases, the expansion of fossil fuel projects. The two protesters from the group Just Stop Oil decided to do something that would command the world’s attention, which they did. The twist is that van Gogh’s work is behind glass and was thus unaffected. “The painting is *perfectly fine,*” Kalmus wrote. “What they DID damage? Crazy social norms that hold an object of art to be worth more than billions of people’s lives and life on Earth. Their action holds a mirror to a sick society.”

Scottish eco activist Craig Murray was one of many whose minds were changed. After originally calling the stunt “stupid vandalism, and counterproductive,” Murray later said, “I was wrong about this. The painting is behind glass and unharmed. In which case, this is a very effective bit of campaigning for publicity.”

A few days later, one of the young women who took part in the stunt explained her rationale in clear terms: “I recognize that it looks like a slightly ridiculous action…. What we’re doing is getting the conversation going so we can ask the questions that matter: Is it OK that [now-former U.K. prime minister] Liz Truss is licensing over 100 new fossil fuel [projects]? Is it OK that fossil fuels are subsidized 30 times more than renewables, when currently offshore wind [power] is nine times cheaper?… This is the conversation we need to be having now, because we don’t have time to waste.”

(Just Stop Oil/The Associated Press)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web


Canada still hasn’t met its 2020 biodiversity targets. Here are 3 possible solutions

(The Canadian Press)

In less than two months, Canada will host delegates from around the world for a United Nations summit on biodiversity. But as a host country, it is struggling to solve its own biodiversity problem.

The 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity will meet in Montreal to address accelerating species decline globally and negotiate a new framework for protecting nature, with a key commitment of conserving at least 30 per cent of land and oceans by 2030.

Canada, a member of the High Ambition Coalition, has already committed to the 30 by 30 pledge. Yet the federal government has failed to meet its biodiversity commitments for 2020, casting doubt on how likely it is to achieve those 2030 goals. 

The most recent data shows land and freshwater conservation in Canada is falling short of the 17 per cent target for 2020, with 13.5 per cent of terrestrial area currently protected. In terms of protecting marine life, the country has made more progress — 13.9 per cent of marine and coastal areas is conserved, surpassing the 2020 goal of 10 per cent.

As COP15 in Montreal draws near, here are some solutions that could change the status quo. 

Grassroots stewardship

A Canadian initiative launched in October hopes to help spur grassroots action by making it easier for the public at large to understand where crucial habitats are located. 

The Key Biodiversity Areas program has an interactive map that visualizes biodiversity hotspots in Canada, where rare species and ecosystems are concentrated.

Areas identified on the map aren’t guaranteed to be protected or conserved. Instead, the idea is that by sharing the information publicly, the program can be used as a springboard for conservation efforts by citizens, community organizations and Indigenous-led stewardship. 

“We’ve already had people in all sorts of sectors saying, ‘OK, if this is identified as a key biodiversity area, we might be able to get more funding for this, to be able to steward it better,'” said Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, director of Key Biodiversity Areas at Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.

Until now, Raudsepp-Hearne said that information didn’t exist in a standardized, national format.

Accounting for forests and wetlands — literally

Another idea being pitched is adding biodiversity to the balance sheet, so to speak, to ensure natural assets are factored into government decision-making.

A recent paper, from the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, calls for the establishment of national guidelines to value green infrastructure (wetlands, forests and lakes) in the same way that is standard practice for “grey” infrastructure (roads, dams and water treatment plants). 

“Every day, people benefit from services that nature provides, be that flood protection or protection from extreme heat or purifying our water or air. But we take those services for granted,” said Joanna Eyquem, managing director of climate resilient infrastructure at the Centre on Climate Adaptation.

While some have pushed back against this approach, arguing nature can’t be limited to a financial value, Eyquem said it’s not about slapping a price tag on nature as a whole, but on the services it provides. 

“If we say nature is worth so much that we’re not going to put a price tag on it, we’re actually putting a price tag of zero [on it],” she said. 

A stronger federal biodiversity law

Some activists say what’s needed is a federal law to guarantee the protection of flora and fauna in the country.

Salomé Sané, a Greenpeace Canada climate campaigner who worked on a paper calling for biodiversity legislation, said a law would hold Ottawa accountable on translating biodiversity promises into concrete action.

“We want an act that sets clear biodiversity targets, clear implementation mechanisms and clear legal recourses in the case of a failed target.”

While Canada does have some biodiversity protections in place, such as the Species At Risk Act (SARA), the government has long been criticized for its reticence in using the powers enshrined in the act.

Sané is hopeful the COP15 summit will be a turning point.

“We really want it to be like the Paris [agreement] moment —  if not more — for biodiversity,” she said. “It’s that once in a decade opportunity for governments around the world.”

Jaela Bernstien

Stay in touch!

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty





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