Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge and Assessment of Species at Risk: A Case Study from Northern Canada

Project Contributor: Nathan Cardinal

In Canada, both the inherent value and the lawful recognition of Aboriginal people’s traditional knowledge (ATK) are written into the Species at Risk Act (SARA). The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is the organization responsible for evaluating the status of species in Canada and is now required by legislation to base their species assessments on the best available knowledge, including both science and traditional or local knowledge. Such information has rarely been used in species conservation and the assessment of wildlife. A 2002 study of 190 reports that summarize the status of a given species at risk revealed that only one report referenced Aboriginal use, and none incorporated ATK (Ellis, 2001). COSEWIC works closely with Aboriginal Peoples to decide how ATK will be incorporated into the process of assessing species at risk through the Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge Subcommittee. Incorporating ATK into the assessment of species at risk improves the process, and therefore the quality of designations made by COSEWIC, by bringing information and perspectives on wildlife species that are not available in published scientific literature. While extremely beneficial for species, the inclusion of ATK can more importantly signal meaningful involvement of Aboriginal people in species conservation, which may ultimately improve local-level acceptance of a species’ status and associated recovery programs.

The focus of the project “The Use of Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge in Species Assessment: A Case Study of Northern Canada Wolverines”  is on the importance of understanding ATK to assist the scientific community in protecting species, in this case, the threatened wolverine, Gulo gulo, one of the least studied of the large carnivores. This project was completed as part of a Masters’ thesis, and is a research case study that investigated how ATK can be documented, described, and utilized in COSEWIC’s species assessment process. The study provided recommendations to COSEWIC regarding how such traditional knowledge can be gathered and utilized for future species assessments.

Wolverines are considered very important by local people, from both a cultural and a subsistence standpoint. The research found that ATK contributes invaluable information regarding the status of wolverines in northern Canada, including the special significance of the wolverine to Aboriginal people, the biological characteristics of the species, relative trends in abundance, and information regarding any significant threats. ATK proved to be very beneficial for improving the validity and acceptability of species assessments. ATK from the study was found to be congruent with contemporary scientific knowledge of wolverines, supporting various studies conducted on wolverine behaviour, habitat use and food requirements. It provided finer-scaled information than currently available for many areas in the North, and further refined the present relative abundance maps for wolverines.

ATK also contributed new information regarding wolverines and clarified threats to the wolverine, especially regarding regional differences in impacts due to wolverine harvest. The study concluded that the inclusion of ATK improves the quality of species assessments to some degree and that active involvement of Aboriginal people and their knowledge in the assessment process will increase the acceptability of decisions resulting from assessments at a local level. It was also noted that because of the unique cultural and historical characteristics of ATK, extreme care must be taken in its gathering in order to ensure the proper respect and acknowledgement that the knowledge and its holders deserve.

There were some challenges to the project. Not all people agreed to be interviewed, due in part to lack of support from community organizations where people’s time was already stretched, and in part to people being wary of the study. There was somewhat greater resistance to being interviewed in the larger centre, as opposed to the smaller communities. In larger communities, generally people will have less familiarity with one another, and typically are not as close-knit as in smaller communities. In smaller communities, it was easier to facilitate contacts due to the familiarity among people and their community organizations. In addition, many of the areas visited in the north were already covered by comprehensive land claims, while in the south land claims are ongoing, which usually engenders a more politically sensitive climate. This may make ATK studies in the south more difficult in some respects than in the north, due to the often controversial nature of ATK and the unsettled nature of many land claims and treaty negotiations.

The outcome of this research supports the development of long-term relationships between Aboriginal Peoples in Canada and the species at risk scientific community. It is expected to markedly change governmental wildlife policies.

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