Watching, listening, and learning


Cheryl Chetkiewicz
Director, Indigenous Communities and Conservation


Indigenous partnerships Freshwater



Community-based monitoring and Indigenous Knowledge in a Changing World

By: Cheryl Chetkiewicz

Between 1962 and 1970, the Reed International pulp mill company dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River watershed at the mill site in Dryden. Downstream from Dryden, people in the community of Asubpeeschoseewagong—known to settlers as Grassy Narrows First Nation—have been living with, and dying from, the impacts of this potent neurotoxin.

In addition to mercury accumulating in the freshwater fish that are a vital part of the culture and rights of these communities, recent research shows that the residents of Asubpeeschoseewagong and the nearby Wabaseemoong Independent Nation of Whitedog— including youth — continue to have symptoms of mercury poisoning. These effects include the loss of muscle co-ordination and tunnel vision, which, among many other deleterious effects, makes it impossible for people to hunt and fish and go out on the land.

First Nations in these communities raised the alarm about contaminants in the watershed and their health for decades, but were largely ignored by Government and the industry. But what might have happened if a program was in place where the community was actively engaged in monitoring the changes to the things they cared about in their watershed? What if they were able to collaborate with scientists to document and interpret the findings together with their own knowledge of the watershed, and to use both kinds of knowledge to communicate the urgent need to address changes they were seeing and experiencing? Perhaps this tragedy could have been avoided while the community was more empowered instead of made sick, and the extent of the problem would have been difficult to ignore.

This is why it is important for Indigenous and local communities to have a more direct role in developing and implementing monitoring to evaluate the impacts of industrial development such as forestry, mining, and pulp and paper mills on their traditional territories through Community-Based Monitoring (CBM).

To do this well, Indigenous communities must have access to monitoring approaches, methods and tools that are culturally appropriate and that are based on the best available knowledge, including traditional knowledge (TK). These methods and tools can then be integrated with the observations that are routinely gathered as community members hunt, fish, gather and travel across their territories.

For generations, Indigenous communities around the world have been monitoring what takes place on their traditional territories. When does freeze-up begin? Are there fewer animals today than a few years ago? Are there more fires in the forest? Based on these observations, they would change their activities on the land — move their camp to a new place or stop hunting in a given area.

Monitoring programs that integrate TK can reflect both the interests and needs of the Indigenous communities living with environmental change brought about by both climate change and industrial development. They can also enable and empower First Nations communities to track environmental changes based on local priorities and values, expertise and traditional management practices. For example, one community may want to track changes in fish populations while another monitors changes to ice cover and how it affects things such as winter roads.

While there is a growing interest among the Indigenous communities in playing a greater role in restoring and applying their TK along with scientific research and monitoring approaches, CBM approaches are not widely appreciated or practiced in Ontario. Recognizing this need, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada completed a review of best practices, identified key principles underlying CBM approaches, and highlighted case studies where CBM and TK has taken a central role in resource management and conservation. This can all be found in a new report, entitled “Watching, Listening, and Learning to Understand Change”.

The Government of Ontario has invested in some science-based monitoring and baseline data collection in the Far North. However, little is publicly available at this time and these efforts are not continuous. Meanwhile, the pressure on the region will only increase as the climate changes and industrial development is approved. First Nations in Ontario’s Far North have a long history of hunting, gathering, fishing, and trapping and longstanding relationships with the land, water, fish and wildlife. First Nations knowledge about the region cannot be duplicated by short-term scientific studies or data collected for narrowly-scoped project-based environmental assessments.

To address the challenges of climate change and new development, First Nations must be able to monitor what is happening to the land and water, using both TK and science. Doing so will help communities understand the impacts and enable them to respond in a way that ensures the continuity of their way of life — a right protected under the Canadian Constitution.

Our report develops the rationale for the design and implementation of a CBM approach in Ontario’s Far North and looks at examples from across Canada and around the world in order to support First Nations in their roles and responsibilities in taking care of the land, water, fish, and wildlife.

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