"Alberta, the Canadian federal government and resource companies have paid intermediaries and interpreters millions of dollars to engage native-Canadian communities — called First Nations — and record their “traditional ecological knowledge,” or TEK, so it can be used in projecting and mitigating environmental impacts.
But as the stakes rise — Alberta is now the United States’ top foreign source for oil — some critics question the very premise of that “progressive” policy.
“A lot of so-called ‘traditional knowledge’ is bunk,” says Tom Flanagan, a political scientist at the University of Calgary and occasional adviser to Canada’s conservative government. “It’s what anthropologists used to call ‘folklore.’” Others question the sincerity of Canada’s commitment to let traditional knowledge — even when factual and relevant — stand in big oil’s way.
Although enshrined in Canadian law and part of official policy, traditional ecological knowledge is having only a minor impact so far on a massive rush for Alberta’s oil sands that is making the sparsely populated province wealthy but also denuding hundreds of square miles of its forest wilderness. This reality raises two questions about the development of Alberta: 1) Will native environmental knowledge ever be more than a political sideshow to the oil rush? 2) Given the nonscientific nature of much traditional knowledge, should it be?
Claims that traditional ecological knowledge should have a place in environmental policy start with an assertion that is hard to dispute: Indigenous peoples living in what is now Canada have survived in close relationship with their landscape and its plants and wildlife for thousands of years. “How can you doubt that they have huge reserves of applicable knowledge?” wonders Anne Gunn, a wildlife biologist who has worked closely with First Nations while studying northern caribou."
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Native Environmentalism and the Alberta Oil Boom
(Miller-McCune Magazine 10/27)