Decolonizing Climate: part I of a series

Deborah McGregor, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous environmental justice with Osgoode Hall Law School and the Faculty of Environment and Urban Change at York University.

Traditional Indigenous knowledge must be considered as part of climate change knowledge

EDITOR’S NOTE: The questions that are asked determine the responses. This holds true in terms of how we understand climate change. There has been a bias towards conventional Western science in terms of peer-reviewed research and the funding of it, with traditional Indigenous knowledge omitted because it doesn’t fit that model. Indigenous people have a wealth of climate knowledge, in their lived experience, their language and their stories, that can lead to solutions for adapting to climate change and needs to be considered on a par with conventional science. Both have their place. Traditional knowledge also needs to be considered in a meaningful, respectful way in the development of climate change policies at all levels of government. Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Justice, Deborah McGregor, from Whitefish River First Nation, discusses decolonizing climate change with The Expositor. In Part I, we learn about biases in existing bodies of knowledge and in Part II, Professor McGregor shares her experiences as a member of various policy panels or committees.

by Lori Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

BIRCH ISLAND—There is a huge bias in the existing body of knowledge around climate change, said Deborah McGregor, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous environmental justice and professor with Osgoode Hall Law School and the Faculty of Environment and Urban Change at York University.

That bias encompasses what we know about climate change, how we define the problem, and the silos created in understanding the problem. Vulnerability and risk assessment reports rely on the existing body of knowledge, published research that’s been funded, conducted and peer-reviewed by a particular group of people. Traditional knowledge has rarely been considered, and working groups continue to include Indigenous persons as tokens, she said. 

“Because my area is justice, Indigenous climate justice is something I think about a lot,” she added “Equity and justice, how people are impacted, that hasn’t really been considered (in past research). They didn’t look at questions that were important to other people although that’s slowly changing.”

Professor McGregor and co-researchers did a scan over the summer and into the fall to see if there is any research on Indigenous people governing climate impacts in their own community. “What’s the impact on people?” she asked. “There’s hardly anything because nobody asked the question. If we weren’t asking the right questions decades ago or even 10 years ago, we don’t have the existing body of knowledge.”

For example, she was asked to contribute to Chapter 4 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report that was released in February. Chapter 4 looks at climate change and water. The United Nations has been trying to include Indigenous knowledge in assessments since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The IPCC was previously criticized for not doing so. Scientists don’t know much about this topic, Professor McGregor said. “They don’t engage with it very much. I was asked to submit at the last minute. Other people had years to work on this.”

The task was to look at risk and vulnerability, climate change, Indigenous people and traditional knowledge. She was allowed 400 words to cover both Canada and the United States.

“They made it clear that these had to be in the title but I couldn’t find hardly anything like that because again, people hadn’t thought about it. They didn’t ask those kind of questions.”

Last summer she worked on another report with scholars from Canada, United States and Mexico, looking explicitly at governance. This time they were given two pages. They did find some examples, but she said it was very hard.

“There’s huge gaps in our knowledge because of this decades old bias about what kind of research was funded, who was funded to conduct the research, and who hasn’t been part of those conversations at all, said Professor McGregor.

She pointed to the IPCC definition of climate change: Climate change refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. The IPCC Sixth Assessment also made it clear that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.  

“Their definition of climate change is true,” she said. “That’s exactly what’s happening. What I say is, that’s not the only thing that’s true. Why is climate change existing? It’s because of humans.”

Indigenous climate declarations, such as those by Turtle Lodge, Manitoba or the Chiefs of Ontario, say climate change is because of the kind of relationship that people have with the Earth. “People don’t know how to behave properly,” she said.

Indigenous people define the problem differently so their ideas of what the solution is are different. “We’re saying in order to regain this connection to the land, we need to get kids out on the land,” she explained. “They need to know the language. Everything is about reconnecting and understanding what’s happening to the natural world in order to be able to respond to it appropriately. When you define the problem differently, then your solutions are different.”

Most people don’t think revitalization of Indigenous languages is a climate solution but it makes perfect sense in an Indigenous context. The kind of work scholars are doing now is more holistic and recognizes that humans are part of the planet. They’re trying not to think about everything in the siloed kind of approach that science tends to have towards things.

“I’m not saying that approach is bad,” noted Professor McGregor. “What researchers are doing is helpful, but they don’t have the whole picture. They don’t have all the knowledge we need to have in order to come up with innovative and transformative solutions.”

“Indigenous knowledge needs to be recognized as knowledge and a lot of times, it’s not. You’re just adding it on to something. It’s not front and centre. One of our working assumptions is Indigenous people (I’m speaking for Canada but assume it’s the case in other places as well) have had to have climate knowledge. They’ve had to deal with things for thousands of years and have knowledge because a lot of the environmental change, which is also related to climate change, has been extremely rapid in Indigenous communities.”

Not only has there been catastrophic change in our history, she pointed out, “particularly colonial history over the last however many centuries, but we managed to survive, despite genocidal policies and everything else. We managed to survive, so maybe we know something about survival that can help other people.”

“We have lived experience and knowledge, so our solutions are different because of that. What’s enabled us to survive to the present day? It wasn’t other people’s solutions because those solutions were intended to eradicate Indigenous people. It was our own knowledge and traditions, our ability to be a community, to have those values and to know what our own laws are, that contributed to our survival.”

Think about the killing of the buffalo, the professor suggested. That changed the ecosystem dramatically. It was a source of food for many people, so that was a major, catastrophic change that people had to survive. And they did survive.

“A lot of our stories aren’t recognized as climate knowledge,” Professor McGregor said. “We’re not being asked to share stories but to look at peer-reviewed literature from the last five years, but to me, those stories are knowledge that already exists.”

One of Professor McGregor’s favourite stories, in her Anishinaabe tradition, is the pipe and eagle story. “You can look at that as a climate change story because it’s speaking to disasters that are coming. It’s not unusual for elders to say the problem is that people don’t know how to behave properly in relation to the natural world. In most of those stories, that’s usually why a disaster is coming and the way to avert the disaster is to get a teaching, some kind of intervention, usually from the natural world and to learn a lesson in behaving properly.”

She looks at her work as trying to mobilize the knowledge that’s already there into these other places and spaces. “It’s already there and it can help address the big questions, and help develop plans for how to survive into the future. I call it how to self-determine your own future, how you determine what your future is in light of climate change. Those stories become really important.”