Michelle Myers is in her 4th year of study at the University of Alberta, and has experienced first hand the challenges of trying to bridge the gap between the traditional wisdom she received growing up in Xeni Gwet’in First Nation and the western, scientific approach to environmental conservation.
Back in 2013, when Taseko Mines was conducting panel hearings in communities near its proposed open pit copper mine at Teztan Biny (Fish Lake), Myers was looking for a university program that would integrate indigenous knowledge with the science of environmental conservation. She credits her interest to where she grew up: “I grew up in an area that was very well intact, and that had a rich ecosystem and a diversity in the environment…. Xeni Gwet’in community and surrounding Tsilhqot’in communities have been caretakers of the area, basically since time immemorial.”
As she participated in the panel hearings, speaking about her connection to the area and what it meant to her as a First Nations person and a young mother, Myers soon became aware of a huge disconnect between the language of her community members and the scientific and economic language coming from Taseko Mines and the government people. “I knew that there was a huge barrier in language between my community and Taseko mines … and I knew that the open pit mine at Fish Lake wasn’t the only industrial threat in First Nations communities, I knew that it was all over Canada. So I felt like there was a need to be able to understand the western science and the environmental management aspect, and conservation sciences and stuff like that, but also … to stay true to who I am as a First Nations person and where I come from in Xeni Gwet’in.”
“During the discussions about Jasper and Banff national parks, there was nothing about the Indigenous nations and communities that were swept aside and never given any compensation for it.”
She hit on a unique program at the University of Alberta: a BA in Native Studies combined with a BSc in Environmental Conservation Studies.
Myers soon found that the program was far from the integrated experience she had expected: “Almost instantly I realized … there’s literally no connection between the two sides of the degree, there’s no courses that connect traditional indigenous knowledge with western science, and that’s what I thought the entire program was going to be.”
In a course on the history of conservation sciences in Canada, Myers says, “ During the discussions about Jasper and Banff national parks, there was nothing about the indigenous nations and communities that were just swept aside and never given any compensation for it, and how that has affected a lot of these nations … I know the Rocky Mountains have a lot of ceremonial areas for the communities who would go there for fasting camps and ceremonial practices.”
At one point during a presentation, the professor had prepared a slide with just a title – “First Nations People” – but had neglected to finish the slide, and simply moved on.
Ecology was the scientific area of study in which Myers was most able to incorporate indigenous perspectives and “kind of legitimize” the stories, oral history, and teachings that she grew up with. She gives the example of the ecological concept of keystone species, whose absence or extinction in an area can alter the whole ecosystem. “Growing up I learned stories and traditions about how powerful bears are, and how they carry certain spirits and energies to be able to affect the environment around them, and that you can’t cross a bear’s territory in a way that’s disrespectful, otherwise it’s going to alter that environment in a way that threatens that bear’s life. Once a bear is taken out of the environment, the environment changes because they carry certain songs, because they carry certain ceremonies, in their own way. And once those are taken out of the environment, the environment can’t continue to be what it is.” But, she says, “those things were only what I made out of it and only come from my own experience – it’s not something that was ever taught in the classroom.”
One class that did help her to bridge the gap between the two sides of the program was “Aboriginal Management of Natural Resources,” taught by Dr. Frank Tough of the faculty of Native Studies. It explored how Indigenous nations have managed their resources pre-contact, during contact, and post-contact, as well as presenting research proving that certain Indigenous nations and their sharing of traditional knowledge were critical to the success of the fur trade. Myers says the course gave her “analytical tools to be able to take what I know and find the research and the studies for it, and then apply that to a western model like an environmental assessment.”
Asked her perspective on the root of the disconnect, Myers says, “There’s no doubt in my mind that it has to do with the fact that we’re in the capital city of Alberta which is highly dependent on an oil and gas industry.” She was shocked to find that the science courses could cover topics such as the effects of greenhouse gases and CO2 emissions while completely failing to mention the effects of fracking and the oil and gas industry, and that during class discussions no-one appeared to know anything about it. She was also disturbed by what she saw as a disregard for the importance of truly incorporating First Nations perspectives or knowledge, or any secondary research. “It’s scary because these people are graduating from a program where their professors just brushed off any First Nations mention and just acted like it wasn’t a big deal, when it’s a huge deal – you’re graduating the next line of people who are going to be working in this province … and yet they don’t have any baseline knowledge of indigenous perspectives or indigenous rights, or anything to do with treaties….”
In spite of the obstacles and disconnects, Myers still thinks that the U of A is aiming in the right direction with the combined Native Studies and Environmental Conservation Sciences degree program. She thinks there is an opportunity to create something that is truly effective, beneficial, and far-reaching – if both faculties make the program a priority. She wants them to “realize the actual capacity that they’re able to build in creating a bridge between western models of science and indigenous knowledge – not just having the indigenous knowledge and perspective and historical context be an afterthought or a side note but being integral and central to the program.”
Claire Gilmore lives in the community of Comox, BC, on the traditional territories of the K’ómoks First Nation. She is the Watershed Sentinel’s managing editor.