On Indigenous Knowledge

Trudeau canoe - Ottawa Citizen.jpg

On Tuesday the National Post disclosed that at least one Quebec civil servant, deputy minister Patrick Beauchesne, is uncomfortable with the vagueness of the federal government's proposed new environmental-assessment legislation, Bill C-69, meant to govern future resource-extraction projects. In particular, he is worried about the addition of "traditional Indigenous Knowledge" to the adjudication process without codifying what that knowledge is or how it relates to the knowledge produced by Western science.

Beauchesne is right to worry. No sooner had the contents of his letter to his federal counterparts been made public than Quebec's AFN and Innu leaders pronounced his views so insulting that they would not meet with provincial officials to discuss them. “We’re still very much upset,” Quebec AFN regional chief Ghislain Picard told the press. “There’s no need to meet. Traditional indigenous knowledge is already a recognized fact." Two Quebec ministers apologized for Beauchesne's presumed affront, while federal environment minister Catherine McKenna reiterated the feds' commitment to moving forward. "We will make it mandatory to consider Indigenous traditional knowledge alongside science and other evidence," she said.

Terrified, no doubt, about the prospect of ending up on the wrong side of the national reconciliation imperative, obliging Canadian media have covered Bill C-69 entirely uncritically. An important exception comes from the Globe's Konrad Yakabuski, who rightly observed that "the only science Ottawa seems to be perfecting so far is the science of pandering." As for Canada's influential and well-heeled environmental lobby, the expectation that loose language on "indigenous knowledge" will confound the regulatory process and entangle future resource development projects in even more red tape is all for the good.

No one disputes the rights of any Canadians, indigenous or otherwise, to their religious or ontological views or practices. But as the academic debate over the practical applicability of "indigenous knowledge" to public policy makes its way through the federal parliament and even into the nation's law schools, Canadian intellectuals should be paying close attention.

University of Ottawa civil law professor Thomas Burelli is the lead author of an open letter published in Le Devoir, the central claim of which is that any privileging of Western science over "indigenous knowledge" constitutes "racism of intelligence." According to Burelli et al, "aboriginal knowledge is much more than just quantitative and qualitative data about the description of the environment and its management. It forms a set of knowledge, innovations and practices with multiple facets also including ethical dimensions, identity and the cosmology of groups." Asked about a November 2017 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, which rejected an attempt by the Ktunaxa First Nation to veto a proposed ski resort because it would drive away the Grizzly Bear Spirit, Burelli replied, "Let’s pay attention in this, instead of mocking it, which is very insulting. If we look at the question of the bear spirit according to our scientific criteria, obviously it will be put aside. But if we seriously take it into account, if we talk to people who believe these things, we will maybe be very impressed."

Thanks in large part to Prime Minister Trudeau, we live today in a Canada in which credulous respect for the beliefs of minority faiths is the essence of liberal tolerance. Nowhere is this trend more in evidence than in the current mania for "indigenous knowledge"—in our classrooms, in our media, and now, apparently, in the sacred precincts of our secular politics. (Recall, for example, that former governor general David Johnston was last spring forced to apologize for saying that indigenous peoples were Canada's first "immigrants," in part because what is known of prehistoric human migration patterns conflicts with indigenous creation myths.)

Professor Burelli's casual deployment of the phrase "intelligence racism" provides political cover for his entirely dubious conflation of "quantitative and qualitative data" with the "ethical" and even "cosmological" prerogatives of indigenous spiritual beliefs. That a Canadian professor of law should invoke the Grizzly Bear Spirit in his critique of a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada is surely a troubling sign of the times. It matters little, of course, whether Professor Burelli's objective is to rehabilitate "indigenous knowledge" or to contribute to the environmentalists' stated goal of complicating the regulatory process, or both. What matters is that such claims have made their way from one of Canada's most august institutions of higher learning into Bill C-69.