‘Both things are true:’ Science, Indigenous wisdom seek common ground

‘Both things are true:’ Science, Indigenous wisdom seek common ground

Reconciliation between Canada and First Nations is playing out not only in legislatures and courtrooms but in labs across the country

The berries tasted different. The blueberries and cranberries didn’t look the same either.

When elders from Fort McKay near Alberta’s oilsands went to their traditional picking areas, things just didn’t feel right. They knew something was off. But what?

The First Nation’s questions eventually grew into a collaboration with university-based researchers that brought botanists out on traditional berry-picking trips in an attempt to use western science to investigate community concerns.

Sure enough, the elders were right. Berries closer to the oilsands were different.

That effort to unite the white coats and the bush jackets was so successful that the Alberta government is extending the model into fish and wetland projects.

“We have a lot of scientists working in the area, but they don’t always get to meet the elders and learn from them,” said Jenelle Baker, a botanist who helped direct the research. “A lot of the scientists that are doing that are having some pretty big, almost life-changing moments.”

Reconciliation between Canada and First Nations is playing out not only in legislatures and courtrooms but in labs across the country. Research grant applications often require provision for what is called traditional ecological knowledge and Indigenous communities have a growing influence on what questions are explored.

It isn’t always easy. Differences between science rooted in European ideas and the conceptual tools of Indigenous people are real and both parties still sometimes struggle for common ground.

“Anything science can’t measure on the x and y axis, they tend to disregard,” said Elmer Ghostkeeper, an engineer, anthropologist and member of the Alberta government’s Indigenous Wisdom Advisory Panel — a group charged with bringing Indigenous perspectives to environmental monitoring.

“Everything is about measurement and anything you can’t measure is not scientific,” said Leroy Little Bear, a University of Lethbridge professor and another panel member.

On the other hand, individual experience and oral history isn’t always enough, said Andrew Derocher, a University of Alberta polar bear biologist with extensive field experience.

“There’s been a push to try to move the traditional ecological knowledge into the science and that has not worked very well. They are two very different entities.

“Traditional ecological knowledge isn’t feeding directly into the scientific questions that we have anymore.”

Science isolates a variable, notes its behaviour under controlled conditions and extrapolates that into a general rule. The scientist stands apart, neutrally observing.

Indigenous people have been more interested in relationships between many things at once as they interact in the real world. That real world includes the observer.

“I am nature,” said Ghostkeeper. “I am the environment.”

That perspective inevitably includes feelings and values — love for a place, for example.

“Science can’t measure love,” Ghostkeeper said.

But those feelings and values are real and they matter. In Fort McKay, they were what started the whole study.

“They have subtler indicators of contamination,” Baker said. ”Often, that involves symbolic, spiritual contamination.”

Sometimes, science itself causes the contamination. Inuit have long objected to polar bear research that involves tranquilizing, handling and taking samples.

“It is very disrespectful to the animal,” said Paul Irngaut of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which monitors the Nunavut land claim. “It goes against our beliefs and it goes against our values.”

And even in successful collaborations, Indigenous concerns sometimes leave scientists nonplussed, Baker said.

“If we’re doing a traditional land-use assessment and we’re talking about the landscape, what happens when someone brings up the serpent that lives under the muskeg?”

Still, both scientists and Indigenous leaders understand they have a lot to offer each other.

“We welcome science,” said Irngaut. “It enhances our knowledge.”

Derocher credits Inuit hunters with invaluable advice about bear behaviour and habitat.

“We’re talking to people who have been on the land for decades,” he said.

Fred Wrona, Alberta’s chief scientist, said Indigenous input has been at the heart of research programs he’s worked on.

“It’s important for us, when we’re reporting on the condition of the environment, to understand the values of that environment,” he said. ”It’s broadened my perspective. A classical western scientist, you tend to look at components in isolation from each other and try to understand all these pieces.

“The Indigenous perspective has always reinforced the importance of understanding relationships between components of the environment.”

Ultimately, western and Indigenous viewpoints may not be that far apart. Little Bear points to the findings of quantum physics, which conclude that the observer and the observed are part of the same system and that the only constant in the universe is flux.

“A subatomic particle, isolated — which is the western approach to science — doesn’t have much meaning. It’s only when you take that particle and relate it to something else that it begins to have meaning.

“We may measure. But we also have to relate.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dallas Lajimodiere is wanted by the Abbotsford Police Department.
Man wanted by Abbotsford Police domestic violence unit

Dallas Lajimodiere has three arrest warrants, including for assault with a weapon

Russell Jonathon George Gurney was last seen in Chilliwack in mid-December. (RCMP photo)
RCMP ask for help to find missing Abbotsford man last seen in Chilliwack

Police and family are concerned for the well-being of Russell Jonathon George Gurney

Grade 6 students at Eugene Reimer Middle School have been participating in the Equity Backpack Project. (Submitted photo)
Equity Backpack Project in Abbotsford addresses inclusion and anti-racism

Grade 6 teacher Nerlap Sidhu says she wants students to develop ‘strong sense of self’

The UFV Cascades women’s basketball program has announced the signing of Langley’s Esther Allison and Edmonton’s Charley Arnold for 2021. (UFV Cascades photo)
Langley’s Allison, Edmonton’s Arnold signed by UFV Cascades

Women’s basketball program adds pair of recruits for 2021, reporting to Abbotsford later this year

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, vice-president of logistics and operations at the Public Health Agency of Canada, speaks at a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
B.C. records 500 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, 14 deaths

Outbreak at Surrey Pretrial jail, two more in health care

Vancouver Canucks’ Travis Hamonic grabs Montreal Canadiens’ Josh Anderson by the face during first period NHL action in Vancouver, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Horvat scores winner as Canucks dump Habs 6-5 in shootout thriller

Vancouver and Montreal clash again Thursday night

A woman writes a message on a memorial mural wall by street artist James “Smokey Devil” Hardy during a memorial to remember victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. paramedics respond to record-breaking number of overdose calls in 2020

On the front lines, COVID-19 has not only led to more calls, but increased the complexity

Eighteen-year-old Aidan Webber died in a marine accident in 2019. He was a Canadian Junior BMX champion from Nanaimo. (Submitted)
Inadequate safety training a factor in teen BMX star’s workplace death in 2019

Aidan Webber was crushed by a barge at a fish farm near Port Hardy

Southern resident killer whales in B.C. waters. Research shows the population’s females are more negatively influenced by vessel traffic than males. (Photo supplied by Ocean Wise Conservation Association)
Female orcas less likely to feed in presence of vessel traffic: study

Research the southern resident population raises concerns over reproduction capacity

(Black Press Media files)
Transport Canada not budging on enclosed deck rules, despite calls from BC Ferries union

There have been at least 23 cases of the U.K. variant detected in Canada, four of which are in B.C.

The Elk Valley Hospital is adapting to meet the needs of patients in the Elk Valley.
1-in-5 COVID tests coming back positive in and around Fernie, sparking concern

Dr Ron Clark of Elk Valley Hospital said one in five tests was returning positive for COVID-19

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Ralliers gather in front of the Cityviews Village apartment building in Maple Ridge to protest attempts to evict low-income tenants by the building owner. (Ronan O’Doherty - The News)
Tenants protest pressure tactics by new landlord at Maple Ridge apartment building

Protest held in front of Cityviews Village on 223 St. Tuesday to rally against low-income evictions

Most Read