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Weaving two worldviews to tackle environmental issues

January 8, 2018
Cindy MacDougall
Assoc. Prof Geo Takach and Indigenous Education & Student Services Manager Asma-na-hi Antoine
“We first started off in the conversation with ‘How do we try to bridge these two different worldviews?' But when you make a bridge you’re only joining the tips of two different worldviews. What we want to do is actually weave and intertwine." - Asma-na-hi Antoine

The Trans Mountain pipeline runs from Alberta to British Columbia, pumping about 300,000 barrels of oil through the Rockies to the coast every day.

When Associate Prof. Geo Takach made a parallel trip, leaving Alberta to join Royal Roads’ faculty in 2016, the debate was heating up over Kinder Morgan’s proposal to build a second pipeline which would almost triple the amount of oil flowing to BC’s shore.

As a researcher of environmental communication who has extensively studied Alberta’s oil culture and its diverse effects (most recently in his last book, Tar Wars), he saw an opportune time and place to extend his work to BC in cooperation with the people who have been stewards of the coast for millennia.

“I was struck by the great possibilities and potential of bringing Indigenous scholarship to my work,” Takach says. “I did so, though, with the utmost of caution, respect and humility.

“It struck me that, at its core, environmental and Indigenous reconciliation both seek to solve a profound, fundamental injustice that urgently requires full-scale, remedial action.”

Takach approached colleague Asma-na-hi Antoine, Indigenous education and student services manager at Royal Roads, to ask for her help with a unique research project funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Knowledge Synthesis Grant.

These grants, worth up to $25,000, support the synthesis of existing research and knowledge to help government, academic and other sectors develop better policy and practices to solve complex issues. The 2017 grants were awarded to projects exploring how Canada “will continue to thrive in an interconnected world and evolving global landscape.”

Together with research assistants Kyera Cook and Nicole Kapell, Takach and Antoine explored how Indigenous ways of knowing can inform the environmental protection of coastal areas and better shape environmental policy in Canada, while also helping Canada position itself as a leader in environmental protection and Indigenous reconciliation.

As their SSHRC report notes: “Indigenous knowledge is rooted in traditions profoundly different from Euro-Canadian settler ways of knowing and attitudes towards natural environments.” While the rationalist and objectivist view is dominant in Western thought, with goals of societal, business or technological progress, “Indigenous systems of knowledge more holistically see everything as connected and focus on sustaining reciprocal relationships among all things.”

They argue that using both Indigenous and settler knowledges would produce better decision-making structures and outcomes.

Bridging or weaving?

“We first started off in the conversation with ‘How do we try to bridge these two different worldviews?’” Antoine says. “But when you make a bridge you’re only joining the tips of two different worldviews. What we want to do is actually weave and intertwine.

“I use the metaphor of weaving a basket. You’re forming something new out of the materials you’re working with.”

That weaving with mutual respect creates a “third space” and an active form of reconciliation, Takach and Antoine argue, in which traditional and Western knowledge can be used in co-managing and fundamentally restructuring natural-resource development.

“Once you do that, you still have your own lens and your own traditional ways of knowing and being as well as the other side, but you’re able to respect each other in a really meaningful way, and redefine what reconciliation is in that moment,” Antoine says.

Takach says a large part of the work of creating this new form of environmental leadership means accepting past and present wrongs cannot be ignored.

“We have to be very conscious of the fact that colonization continues to occur, that it has had severe impacts on Indigenous culture and Indigenous ways of knowing,” he says. “You just can’t wipe it clean and say, ok, let’s be friends now and get along.”

It also means rejecting the misunderstanding that Indigenous people all come from the same background or have the same goals, Takach points out.

“We are not going to come up with the single, universal principle that is the answer to everything,” he says. “The truth is location-specific and nation-specific. So you need to derive an approach that meets the need for some general principles but is also flexible enough to honour and learn from the local.”

Antoine and Takach’s work generated interest from federal policy-makers who attended the presentation of their final report last November at the workshop that is part of the SSHRC grant program. Takach expects further discussions with officials in the coming months.

The next phase of the project is also underway, as the two plan an arts-based presentation of the research, perhaps in the form of traditional Indigenous storytelling in English and a local Indigenous language.

“We want to engage people outside the academy as well as within the academy on a more visceral level,” Takach says. “And to recognize, as Indigenous ways of knowing do, the importance of the emotional, the spiritual, that which cannot be quantified and put into a lab report.”