Ecological Change in the Hudson Bay Bioregion:
A Traditional Ecological Knowledge Perspective
By Terry Fenge

The November 1996 issue of the respected journal Policy Options included an article by Albert Howard and Frances Widdowson that rebuked attempts to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in environmental assessment of resource development projects. In a "take no prisoners" approach, the authors suggest that TEK is spiritually based and that its incorporation in the Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP) assessment processes was resulting in the "imposition of religion on Canadian citizens." They opine:

Because traditional knowledge can be "anything that [its] holders say it is," the authors suggest it will be used to justify over-exploitation of natural resources. Citing, as an example, Inuit harvesting of Bowhead whales, they warn against Aboriginal groups regulating use of renewable resources.  They accuse the federal government of "appeasing" and "buying off" Aboriginal groups by attempting to integrate TEK in decision making and, finally, they express "astonishment" that Aboriginal leaders would suggest that traditional knowledge is "intellectual property" for which holders should be paid. Uncompromising stuff.

The Canadian Arctic Resources Committee has always supported the inclusion of TEK in land- and resource-use planning and environmental assessment. CARC believes that incorporating TEK in decision making will help to implement principles of sustainable development adopted by the federal and two territorial governments and enshrined in various international agreements to which Canada is party. Moreover, representation of Aboriginal peoples on institutions to manage natural resources provides an excellent vehicle to integrate scientific and traditional ecological information -- a means of seeking and defining the public good rather than the alleged appeasement.

Interest in TEK has mushroomed in the last ten years.  Academics now teach courses on it; the Government of the Northwest Territories has a policy on how it should be considered and used; and the recently proclaimed Canada Oceans Act mandates federal agencies to consider TEK in promised strategic ocean-use planning and management. And it is not only in Canada that TEK is generating interest. The 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, and Agenda 21, agreed to at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, urge governments to recognize, use, and help preserve the knowledge that Aboriginal peoples have of their natural environment. The Convention on Biological Diversity, also agreed to in Rio, includes the convoluted but justly celebrated clause 8(j) committing contracting parties (including Canada) to:

Who better to respond to Howard and Widdowson than Aboriginal peoples themselves, willing to share their knowledge and understanding of their environment with their fellow Canadians? This issue of Northern Perspectives introduces Voices from the Bay -- a new book five years in the making -- co-published by CARC and the Environmental Committee of the Municipality of Sanikiluaq, a small Hudson Bay Inuit community on the Belcher Islands. This book draws upon and records the TEK of Inuit and Cree resident in 28 communities on the shores of Hudson and James bays and Hudson Strait.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s residents of communities around Hudson and James bays nervously anticipated construction of the Great Whale hydro project. Having already completed development of La Grande River, Hydro-Quebec intended to develop first the hydro potential of the Great Whale and then of the Nottaway-Broadback rivers. Similar but smaller developments had been completed or were proposed in northern Ontario and Manitoba; for example, the Conawapa hydro project in northern Manitoba was under serious consideration.

Cree and Inuit residents downstream from these developments feared for their future and for the health of their environment. Following extensive political and legal action, primarily by the Grand Council of the Crees of Quebec, an environmental assessment of the Great Whale project was put in place.  Notwithstanding its sole jurisdiction over Hudson and James bays, the federal government cited sensitive federal-provincial relations in justifying its decision not to insist on analysis of the project's offshore impacts. Moreover, neither the federal nor the provincial governments were thinking of an environmental assessment of the combined effects of existing and proposed development. All bowed to the intellectual merits of such an exercise, yet each jealously guarded the ability to act freely and singly.

It was in this potentially dispiriting milieu that CARC, Sanikiluaq, and, initially, the Rawson Academy of Aquatic Science proposed the Hudson Bay Programme. The programme sponsored a TEK study and proposed to show how science and TEK might be integrated in a combined effects assessment and how it might help to implement sustainable development policies and programmes to help define the bays' "carrying" and "assimilative" capacities -- their limits to withstand development.

Carried out between 1992 and 1995, the study was supported financially by a wide range of interests: the federal and territorial governments, Canadian and American foundations, electric utility companies, regional Aboriginal organizations, and members and supporters of CARC.

A very interesting picture of the Hudson Bay bioregion emerges through TEK. The pace of ecological change in the bioregion seems to be accelerating. Drawing upon close and continual observations of their environment while hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering and from information passed down from previous generations, and using a wide range of "indicators" often based on animal behaviour, Cree and Inuit are able to record, map, and articulate explanations for what they see going on. In this manner they provide both a picture of their immediate environment and a record of changes to it over time.

This is important because comprehensive scientific studies in the North are expensive and rare. Data are often limited to the last ten to twenty years, making it difficult to establish trends over long periods. Most TEK studies have been carried out by credentialled experts from universities or governments who have interviewed hunters or fishers. Their work tends to concentrate on individual species of wildlife such as the barren-ground caribou or beluga whale to map the distribution and abundance of these animals. This approach sees TEK as a supplement to ecological and biological data collected scientifically.

Voices from the Bay documents a study very different in scale, methodology, and outcome and which sets a new standard in TEK research. Rather than dwelling on individual species, this approach, developed by the Environmental Committee of Sanikiluaq, sees TEK as complementary to scientifically collected data and paints a picture of ecological change in a huge portion of Canada. Information was gathered, verified, and analyzed in workshops and meetings by Cree and
Inuit themselves in their own languages. Indeed, one interesting outcome of the study was greater understanding between Cree and Inuit, who -- although they live in different parts of the bioregion and rarely meet -- readily shared and exchanged information. They hope all will listen to their voices and benefit from their knowledge -- a far cry from the proprietary attitude attributed to Aboriginal peoples by Howard and Widdowson.

This special issue of Northern Perspectives gives the flavour of the book. The first section summarizes key observations on seasonal change in the bioregion, noting environmental cues or indicators used by Inuit and Cree to understand the ever-repeating rhythm of and transitions between the seasons. Many Canadians learned in elementary school that Inuit have a rich vocabulary to describe snow, but this section details their extraordinary understanding of sea ice. This should not surprise us, for sea ice is a primary highway to Inuit and many travel hundreds of kilometres on it in search of marine wildlife. The book provides an unprecedented model of sea-ice formation and ablation through winds, currents, climate, and other environmental factors. The second section outlines the significance to Inuit and Cree of the environmental changes they observe. The reader gets some indication of the difficulties facing the region's Aboriginal peoples as they adapt to these changes. Finally, the third section outlines, primarily in direct quotations from Inuit and Cree, just what the Elders think should be done in the face of their changing environment. They suggest that, rather than turning back the clock, incorporating their knowledge in decision making may benefit us all. This is particularly generous in light of the sorry history between Cree and Inuit and many federal and provincial governments.

All with an interest in the North should read this book.  Filling its 100-odd pages are compelling observations on changing flyways for Canada and snow geese thought to result from birds staging farther inland on reservoirs created by hydro dams, pollution as a result of tire fires in southern Canada, and polynyas (areas of open water in winter) thought to result from current change and alteration in freshwater input to southern Hudson Bay as a result of the La Grande project, and much more. The casual reader is likely to get caught up in the grand sweep of ecological change reported. Specialists may be drawn to the intricate account of sea-ice formation. Whatever the case, here is a wealth of information -- offered in good faith -- that surely we would willingly forgo only as a result of cultural hubris.

While the need for a combined effects assessment of development in the Hudson Bay bioregion remains, the Hudson Bay Programme has shown that TEK should play a central role in such an exercise and that it is possible to integrate scientific and TEK approaches to better understand regional ecological change.

The TEK study conducted under the Hudson Bay Programme suggests not only that TEK has a major role to play in resource management, but also that Howard and Widdowson's argument ignores the practical benefits that TEK can provide. In short, we can all benefit from listening to the Voices from the Bay.

Terry Fenge is Research Director of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Canada)
and from 1992 to 1996 was Executive Director of CARC.
 
 


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