Excerpts from "Traditional knowledge threatens environmental assessment"
an article by Albert Howard and Frances Widdowson
in Policy Options, November 1996

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Spiritualism is the very essence of traditional knowledge because without the stipulation that TK includes "knowledge and values ... from spiritual teachings..." it is just a basic form of knowledge which anyone can acquire through observing his or her environment over time.

But it is the spiritual aspect of traditional knowledge that links aboriginal people to "The Creator" -- a relationship referred to throughout the Northern literature on traditional knowledge.

Although the exact nature of this relationship is never explained, it forms the basis of the argument that aboriginal peoples have a better understanding of ecological processes than non-aboriginals and are therefore more suited to managing the environment.

Obviously aboriginal peoples should be able to use and document traditional knowledge as they see fit. But the current attempts to use TK to understand the effects of proposed development projects in the NWT have disturbing implications for the environmental impact assessment process.

The integration of traditional knowledge hinders rather than enhances the ability of governments to more fully understand ecological processes since there is no mechanism, or will, by which spiritually-based knowledge claims can be challenged or verified.

In fact, pressure from aboriginal groups and their consultants has made TK a sacred cow for which only uncritical support is appropriate. Traditional knowledge is thus granted a sanctity which could lead to the acceptance of incorrect conclusions....

The perception that traditional knowledge is held through a special relationship with The Creator supplies the rationale for aboriginal groups obtaining more control over environmental management. Claiming that self-regulation will lead to greater environmental protection, aboriginal groups point to the fact that they have lived in spiritual harmony with nature for thousands of years and have thereby proven that they are astute environmental managers....

Governments, however, ignore the disturbing implications and results of integrating spiritual beliefs into public policy since supporting traditional knowledge is a relatively easy opportunity to appease aboriginal groups.

The federal government is aware that aboriginal groups are suspicious of mineral extraction in the North because they have suffered from the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of past projects while receiving few of the benefits.

It is also widely understood that the greatest opposition to the project will come from those using their resistance to the mine to extract more favorable land claim settlements from Ottawa.

Throughout the public hearings, leaders of the Dogrib Treaty 11 Council, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, and the Lutselk'e First Nation repeatedly stated that their support for the mine hinged upon the timely settlement of their land claims and treaty entitlements.

The federal government's unconditional support of traditional knowledge, therefore, is just a tactic to buy off the First Nations' leadership and to reassure aboriginal people that their interests are being represented....

It is hard to imagine how such a policy will benefit most aboriginal people. The preoccupation of the panel with the integration of traditional knowledge has only diverted attention away from addressing the actual environmental and socio-economic impacts of BHP's mine.

Aboriginal people, already disenfranchised by lower education levels, social problems and alienation from the labor culture, are unlikely to benefit greatly from further industrial developments in the NWT. Attempts to integrate traditional knowledge will not change this reality....

In fact, one of the only effects that the integration of TK will have is to coerce those individuals who do not share, but are required to affirm, the spiritual beliefs of traditional knowledge.

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