Decolonizing Co-Management in Northern Canada

Where lands and resources have been contested in Canada’s north, many Aboriginal peoples have entered into cooperative environmental resource management agreements with provincial, territorial, and federal governments. On the face of it, many of these agreements are seen to serve Aboriginal interests as they frequently purport to result in tangible gains in Aboriginal management authority over traditional lands and resources.These agreements, for the most part, can be divided into three categories: land claims-based agreements, conflict- or crises-based co-management agreements, and multi-stakeholder environmental management agreements.

In all three types of agreements, the state-sponsored1 institution of environmental resource management (ERM) has played a pivotal role in marginalizing and muting Aboriginal systems of management, knowledge, authority, and responsibility—systems that have proven to be sustainable for generations. Attempts to insert the traditional ecological knowledge of Aboriginal peoples into established knowledge and data sets constructed by Western scientists, and the imposition of natural resource management concepts and procedures on Aboriginal peoples, have been particularly effective. In fact, it would be difficult to conceive of a more insidious form of cultural assimilation than co-management as currently practiced in northern Canada. At the same time, certain steps may help redress some of the current systemic inequities in the Canadian co-management experience, thereby creating space for the “real” inclusion of Aboriginal peoples and their knowledge and management systems into co-management practice.

Land Claims Agreements
Land-based agreements are often the consequence of years of costly and protracted negotiations among Aboriginal peoples, the provinces/territories, and the federal government of Canada over “legal” title to lands occupied by Aboriginal peoples since time immemorial. In addition to devolving the high costs of governance to northerners, resolving uncertainty over “ownership” between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals and natural resources development often provides the impetus for the federal government to negotiate comprehensive land claim settlements with Aboriginal peoples. Alternatively, sharing in the economic benefits of resource development, while preserving Aboriginal values and gaining greater control over their futures, frequently provides the incentives for Aboriginal peoples to negotiate land claims settlements with both levels of government.

In exchange for ceding to the federal Crown title to large portions of their traditional territories,2 Aboriginal groups obtain cash settlements to address pressing economic, social, health, education, capacity, and other needs; legal title to limited other portions of their traditional territory; and an increase in management authority on both Aboriginal lands and Crown lands. The latter is accomplished usually by the creation of cooperative wildlife, water, and environmental management boards, whereby decision-making is shared between representatives of the state and the Aboriginal signatory.

Crises-Based Agreements
Aboriginal peoples are commonly forced into negotiating specific resource management agreements on an ad hoc basis with provincial, territorial, and federal governments in order to protect their rights of access to specific resources (such as caribou, fish, sheep, and whales) and habitats, and to sustain their traditional land-use activities, lifestyles, and economies. More often than not, these agreements arise as a consequence of some perceived crisis by wildlife biologists, renewable resource managers, or some other government bureaucrats whereby Aboriginal peoples are implicated in either creating or contributing to the problem through over-hunting or misuse. Subsequently, restrictions are unilaterally placed on Aboriginal uses of these “threatened” resources, negatively impacting Aboriginal communities and, arguably, even the resources and ecosystems upon which they depend.

Multi-Stakeholder Agreements
Northern Aboriginal peoples and their representative governments are sometimes signatories to multi-stakeholder environmental agreements that arise in the context of growing general public concern over the effects of mining and other industrial developments on important species or habitats. Often these agreements create boards with varying levels of authority that involve Aboriginal, public, industry, government, and non-governmental organization representatives. But like other types of co-management structures, these disparate assemblies rely almost exclusively on models and approaches embedded in the ERM paradigm to set the terms, conditions, and operational procedures of such agreements.

Common to all three types of co-operative management structures are processes entrenched in the institutional and epistemological values, assumptions, and structures of the Canadian state and western European cultural traditions. Even in some of the more progressive attempts to include Aboriginal peoples and their knowledge in co-management initiatives, the issues up for discussion and the knowledge sought to address them reflect the historical biases and cultural practices of the dominant culture, whereby Western politics, economics, societal values, and science are tightly interwoven into a fabric that is virtually impossible to penetrate from an Aboriginal perspective. Among the more insidious processes practiced by wildlife managers and other state authorities, however well-intentioned they may be, are the appropriation of traditional ecological and environmental knowledge (TEK), and the imposition of state management policies, concepts, language, terminology, and practices on Aboriginal peoples.

Appropriating Traditional Ecological Knowledge
TEK, particularly those elements that are easily digested by and integrated into Western scientific thought and praxis, often become the nexus around which state managers and other non-Aboriginals frame their dialogues with Aboriginal peoples in cooperative resource management. However, there are fatal and systemic flaws to the usual process by which this knowledge is collected and applied in the northern Canadian co-management experience. The practice to date, with rare exception, has been to “cherry-pick” specific elements of TEK, most notably, specific environmental knowledge, from their broader context and to merge them with Western science to inform ERM. The end result has not allowed Aboriginal peoples nor their knowledge to make a significant contribution to the way resources are managed, frustrating both those who possess this knowledge and those wishing or mandated to use it in co-management. This process has profound implications for the widespread failure of co-management on many fronts, and goes something like this:

• The issues or problems are usually identified by non-Aboriginals (such as government biologists and wildlife managers, company scientists, or academic researchers)
• The research questions almost always originate with those “cultured,” or having a significant investment, in the western scientific and ERM traditions
• The knowledge sought to answer these questions requires that it be compatible with Western science, usually some understandable or useable form of specific environmental knowledge to which non-Aboriginals do not have ready access
• Elders and other TEK holders are then interviewed using Western information-gathering techniques that ignore the richness, contextuality, and complexity of Aboriginal narratives
• Local interpreters are used to filter and translate complex concepts and issues originating in one culture into the language of another
• The information is recorded or video-taped, and then transcribed, in whole or in part, onto paper or maps
• These formats are subjected to analyses that single out specific elements that contribute new information to established data sets and ERM procedures
• This “information” becomes the authoritative reference upon which decisions are made

Such processes present methodological and ethical “minefields” to co-management for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal participants. In each of the latter steps there is a progressive loss of information, knowledge, and context. Not only are specific elements of TEK increasingly divorced from the broader social and cultural context where they more properly reside, but TEK holders are increasingly separated from knowledge that they constructed and once owned, controlled, and were responsible for, effectively excluding them from any meaningful role in decision-making. In this all too common scenario, whatever TEK is deemed worthy—not anecdotal or irrelevant—by state managers is valued primarily for its contribution to Western science and ERM. Former President of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada Rosemarie Kuptana (1996) succinctly summarizes this process and its implications for the Inuit:

Our traditional ecological knowledge is too often taken out of context, misinterpreted, or misused. What wildlife managers, biologists, and bureaucrats understand, or think they see, is interpreted within their own knowledge and value systems, not ours. In the process, our special ways of knowing and doing things (for example, our local systems of management) are crushed by scientific knowledge and the state management model. What many Qallunaat [white people] fail to appreciate is that our traditional ecological knowledge exists in a larger frame of reference that is very different from theirs. Inuit also possess knowledge that is not traditional, and that is not connected to the environment. It is important to recognize that all aspects of our knowledge forms a unique system of knowledge that we use to interpret the world around [us], as it has been for thousands of years, and as it changes.

There is little doubt that many Aboriginal elders and TEK holders have developed extensive knowledge bases about the spatial and temporal distributions of critical plant and animal species and the factors that influence their composition, health, conditions, and behaviors. On the face of it, such knowledge, being the product of both personal experience and lessons passed down from previous generations, may reveal much about natural variation over time and space in critical species and habitats. At the same time, many Aboriginal peoples have witnessed the specific and combined impacts of natural and human disturbances and their subsequent effects on important species and habitats. Environmental resource managers need this kind of information and knowledge in order to make informed decisions over broad time and spatial scales. It is little wonder, especially in this era of government financial cutbacks (Feit 1998), that TEK appears to be increasingly attractive as a source of information, even to the most skeptical environmental resource managers.

Nevertheless, such uses of TEK without considering the broader socio-cultural contexts, understandings, functions, values, needs, rights, and interests of Aboriginal peoples are ethically and scientifically bankrupt, irresponsible, and politically, culturally, and ecologically unsustainable. Through its progressive sanitization, or “dumbing-down,” the ecological knowledge of Aboriginal peoples has assumed the role of “hand-maiden” to Western scientific knowledge in ERM, and alternative ways of knowing, seeing, and relating to the natural world are devalued and dismissed. This process not only reflects the predominant positions of Western science and ERM in co-management decision-making, but it strengthens the existing institutional arrangements and power relations that support them (Stevenson and Webb 2003).

Imposition of State Management on Aboriginal Parties
Aboriginal peoples enter into co-management agreements at tremendous costs and disadvantage to themselves, their communities, and arguably even the species and habitats upon which they depend. In order to make any headway, or to engage wildlife biologists and natural resource managers in the discourses of “wildlife and environmental management,” Aboriginal peoples are forced into adopting the institutional language, concepts, and procedures of ERM, which may have serious negative cultural and ecological consequences.

Moreover, often there is little local capacity and fewer resources available to Aboriginal parties to co-management to adequately represent the values, needs, rights, and interests of their communities, or to contribute equally with government managers in co-management initiatives (Natcher and Davis 2003). Yet, the whole process often finds local support and validation (or, at the least, no effective local opposition) by virtue of the fact that Aboriginal peoples find they are finally participating with wildlife and environmental managers in “good faith” to make sound environmental decisions that affect their lives.

Forced cooptation or acquiescence through direct interaction with state managers and biologists is not the only process by which Aboriginal peoples come to use and apply ERM concepts, procedures, and institutions in co-management. Many Aboriginal parties to co-management have invested heavily in post-secondary educations in natural resource management or the natural sciences. Often, obtaining such educations entails tremendous personal sacrifice and financial and other costs. Upon returning home, these individuals are often called upon to represent their communities in co-management processes and other arenas of interaction with the state, such land-claims negotiations (Nadasdy 2003). However, without adequate training and skills to deconstruct western European epistemologies and ontologies, or to filter out of their formal education what is and is not in the best interests of their communities, these individuals often wind up becoming unwitting and imposing agents of assimilation for the dominant culture.

The concepts, terms, and procedures that become the currency used by Aboriginal peoples in co-management are not only foreign, but antithetical to Aboriginal values, concepts and understandings. Cost/benefit determinations and technical quantitative information about specific resources are often used to the exclusion of other types of knowledge.

In co-management frameworks, formally institutionalized concepts originating in the ERM paradigm, such as “resource,” “wildlife,” “stock,” “harvest,” “quota,” and “replacement, growth, and death rates” have come to frame the dialogue and dominate the discourse between state managers and Aboriginal peoples. Indigenous rights advocate Ingmar Egede spoke at the Circumpolar Aboriginal People and Co-management Practice Conference held in Inuvik on November 20, 1995:

The concept of wildlife is taken from a farming culture. ...We do not use the concept of wildlife. My reason for questioning these concepts is that the policy makers, the biologists and administrators outside our world are foreign to hunting and hunting cultures. ...So ban the concepts of “managing stocks”, the concepts like “harvesting”, the concepts of “wildlife” [and] through the process of changing your vocabulary, you may be understood better by the people you serve... or [who] hired you to create a sustainable culture for themselves and the generations to come.

As many of these concepts and terms necessitate the collection of quantitative data or measurements beyond that normally held by Aboriginal peoples, they play key roles in the systemic rejection of critical and relevant knowledge held by Aboriginal peoples. Contrary to traditional Aboriginal teachings that animals exist on an equal footing with humans and deserve the same respect and treatment, adoption of non-Aboriginal concepts subvert customary and informal Aboriginal systems of management by placing control of the relationship entirely in human hands. Even the concept of “stewardship,” despite its common use by Aboriginal peoples, is an Eurocentric construction that fails to accurately capture most Aboriginal people’s relationships with the animals and plants upon which they have depended for centuries.

This dismissal of traditional Aboriginal “management” approaches has, in some cases, resulted in not only detrimental impacts to Aboriginal peoples, but to the animals and ecosystems upon which they depend. For example, whale quota reductions imposed on several northern Inuit communities have had significant adverse environmental, social, and cultural impacts. In west Greenland quotas resulted in the over-exploitation of other species (such as fish and waterfowl), while in south Baffin Island, quoata reductions created increased competition among hunters, which resulted in greater struck and loss rates, and thus more whales being killed.

Aboriginal Resistance to Co-Management
Aboriginal resistance is frequently an outcome of the imposition of state management concepts and procedures on northern Aboriginal peoples. Resistance may be manifested at local levels and expressed directly in meetings by Aboriginal refusals to use the language, terms, and concepts of state managers (Natcher and Davis 2003). I observed such an occurence several times in meetings of the Southeast Baffin Beluga Co-Management Committee. Inuit hunters on this board simply refused to use or consider the term “stock”; they had no word in Inuktitut for such a concept.

Resistance is also often manifested in subtle and indirect ways such as non-engagement and non-attendance at meetings, which I have witnessed in a number of co-management contexts, including the Beverly-Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board. The decision by several Aboriginal members of this board to boycott a meeting in favor of spending time together in a local bar, however, was not interpreted by government managers as resistance, but as support for the general stereotype they had already formed in their minds about Aboriginal peoples. While direct forms of resistance are not usually sustained for any length of time because of the engagement costs involved or the failure to achieve any meaningful alterations to co-management practice in the short-term, indirect forms of resistance may not even be recognized by state agents for what they really are because of their subtlety. Inevitably, neither has been an effective tool for Aboriginal participants to get their viewpoints across or to affect change in co-management discourses.

The Two-Row Wampum Approach
As Feit (1998) has observed, co-management, as it is currently practiced in northern Canada today, is at cross-roads. Government cut-backs and the growing Aboriginal frustration with and resistance to state-dominated approaches to ERM provides opportunities to change institutional structures and procedures for the benefit of all. It should be sobering to most government resource managers, and perhaps even to some Aboriginal participants in co-management, that the knowledge of Aboriginal peoples did not evolve to inform Western science or ERM. Rather, it evolved to inform ways and understandings of life very different from those in which these paradigms emerged. In this light, and contrary to the claims of many environmental resource managers, academics, and even Aboriginal peoples, TEK may have little to offer conventional ERM. However, the knowledge of Aboriginal peoples may have much to contribute to understanding and developing sustainable relationships with the natural world.

The two-row wampum, given to early European settlers by the Iroquois, provides a model of co-management that some might wish to follow. This device embodies the principles of mutual respect, recognition, and partnership, and is based on a nation-to-nation relationship that acknowledges the autonomy, authority, and jurisdiction of each nation. The two rows symbolize the courses on the river of life for canoes of each great nation to navigate down, each with its own laws, customs and traditions, neither trying to steer the others’ vessel. This concept is attractive, at least in principle. Operationalizing it, however, may be more difficult. Perhaps by focusing on relationships in addition to resources, a rightful place will be created for Aboriginal peoples and their knowledge and management systems in co-management processes.

We have much to learn about developing sustainable relationships with the natural world by empowering Aboriginal peoples to rebuild and apply their systems of management, and the knowledge that informs them. But we must create the space for this to happen. We have nothing to gain, and much more to lose, by jumping into each others’ canoes.

1. I use the term "state" in much the same sense as Nadasdy (2003), who suggests that rather than viewing "state" as a thing, it should be seen as an ideological project that confers legitimacy upon a complex constellation of government institutions and processes, many with different and contradictory agendas and interests.

2. For example, under the Nunavut Final Agreement, the federal Crown received legal title to 90 percent of the surface and 99 percent of the subsurface of Nunavut, respectively.

Marc G. Stevenson is the Aboriginal Program manager for the Sustainable Forest Management Network at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in social anthropology and has been working for over 20 years with Inuit and other northern Aboriginal peoples in co-management, environmental assessment, traditional economy, and indigenous rights discourses. Some of his more informative experiences have been with the Southeast Baffin Beluga Co-Management Committee, the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, the Qikiqtaaluk Wildlife Board, the Beverley-Qamanurjuaq Caribou Management Board, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, BHP Ekati diamond mine, the North Slave Metis Alliance, and the Independent Environmental Monitoring Agency for the BHP Ekati diamond mine. This article is adapted from a paper he presented at the annual American Anthropological Association conference in 2003.

References and further reading
Battiste, M. & Youngblood Henderson, S. (2000). Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage: A Global Challenge. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Purich Publishing, Ltd.

Feit, H.A. (1998). Reflections on local knowledge and wildlife resource management: differences, dominance, and decentralization. In Aboriginal environmental knowledge in the North: Definitions and dimensions. Quebec: University of Laval, Groupe d’etudes inuit et circumpolaires. Pp 123-148.

Howitt, R. (2001). Rethinking resource management: justice, sustainability, and indigenous peoples. New York: Routledge Press.

Kuptana, R. (1996, October 5). Indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination and development: Issues of equality and decolonization. Keynote address to International Seminar on Development and Self-determination among the Indigenous Peoples of the North, Fairbanks: University of Alaska.

Nadasdy, P. (2003). Hunters and bureaucrats: power, knowledge and aboriginal-state relations in the southwest Yukon. Vancouver, B.C.: UBC Press.

Natcher, and Davis S. (2003). Rethinking devolution: Emerging challenges for aboriginal resource management in the Yukon Territory. Paper submitted to Sustainable Forest Management Network Working Paper Series.

Stevenson, M.G. (1996). Indigenous knowledge in environmental assessment. Arctic 49:3, pp 278-291.

Stevenson, M.G. (1998). Traditional knowledge in environmental management? From commodity to process. Sustainable Forest Management Network Working Paper No. 1998.

Stevenson, M.G. (1999, February). What are we managing? Traditional systems of management and knowledge in cooperative and joint management. In Science and practice: sustaining the boreal forest. Proceedings of the Sustainable Forest Management Network Conference. Veeman, T.S., Smith, D.W., Purdy, B.G., Salkie, F.J. & Larkin, G.A., Eds. Edmonton, Alberta: Sustainable Forest Management Network, University of Alberta. Pp 161-169.

Stevenson, M.G. & Webb, J. (2003). Just another stakeholder? First Nations and sustainable forest management in Canada’s boreal forest. In Towards sustainable forest management in Canada’s boreal forest. Burton, P.J., Messier, C., Smith, D.W., & Adamowicz, W.L., Eds. Ottawa, Canada: NRC Research Press. Pp 65-112.

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