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Policy-makers ideally pursue well-informed, socially just means to make environmental decisions. Indigenous peoples have used Indigenous knowledge (IK) to inform decisions about environmental management for millennia. In the last 50 years, many western societies have used environmental assessment (EA) processes to deliberate on industrial proposals, informed by scientific information. Recently EA processes have attempted to incorporate IK in some countries and regions, but practitioners and scholars have criticized the ability of EA to meaningfully engage IK. Here we consider these tensions in Canada, a country with economic focus on resource extraction and unresolved government-to-government relationships with Indigenous Nations. In 2019, the Canadian government passed the Impact Assessment Act, reinvigorating dialogue on the relationship between IK and EA. Addressing this opportunity, we examined obstacles between IK and EA via a systematic literature review, and qualitative analyses of publications and the Act itself. Our results and synthesis identify obstacles preventing the Act from meaningfully engaging IK, some of which are surmountable (e.g., failures to engage best practices, financial limitations), whereas others are substantial (e.g., knowledge incompatibilities, effects of colonization). Finally, we offer recommendations for practitioners and scholars towards ameliorating relationships between IK and EA towards improved decision-making and recognition of Indigenous rights.

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In increasingly complex social, political, and environmental landscapes, decision-making about resource management can work to either resolve or stoke tensions as divergent communities and cultures offer and process information, knowledge, and values. Environmental assessment (EA) processes have provided a central paradigm by which many societies (predominately western societies and colonial nation states) make environmental decisions. EA is a process used by decision-makers to predict and evaluate ecological, social, health, and economic impacts of proposed development, activities, and strategic undertakings (Cashmore et al. 2004Murray et al. 2018)—its proper application in theory supports sustainability, environmental conservation, deliberative dialogue, and biodiversity management goals in the face of proposed projects (Gibson et al. 2005). However, EA processes and outcomes are increasingly criticized for their inability to incorporate the best available environmental knowledge, or the needs and cultures of diverse communities that they ultimately impact (O’Faircheallaigh 2017).

Whereas scientific knowledge and political systems rooted in historical imperialism have dominated EA processes and related dialogue over the past several decades, other societies (e.g., Indigenous Nations) have used Indigenous knowledge (IK) or local knowledge to support decision-making about the environment outside of an EA paradigm. In the context of contemporary decision-making, IK systems offer an alternative source of knowledge, often complementary to western science (Johannes 1978Turner et al. 2000Drew 2005Gilchrist et al. 2005Berkes 2012). Over thousands of years of observation and culturally transmitted learning, Indigenous peoples of the world have established complex management and conservation strategies to steward local environments (Johannes 1998Huntington 2000Turner and Berkes 2006Menzies and Butler 2007Berkes 2012Housty et al. 2014). Despite growing recognition of the complementary nature of IK and science (Ferguson and Messier 1997Drew 2005Berkes 2012Housty et al. 2014Service et al. 2014Eckert et al. 2017Ban et al. 2018) and recognition of the stand-alone value of IK (which has and continues to support environmental management and decision making by sovereign Indigenous Nations) (e.g., Agrawal 2002McGregor 2004Turner and Spalding 2013), theoretical and empirical gaps plague modern discussion surrounding IK as it relates to environmental management, policy, and assessments (Stevenson 1996Paci et al. 2002Vidler and Elhaimer 2016).

Examining the contemporary relationship between IK and EA processes is increasingly relevant in the context of expanding global environmental degradation (Scheffer et al. 2001Bopp et al. 2013IPBES 2019), increased attention to the rights of Indigenous peoples (e.g., United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; UN General Assembly 2007), and growing conflict resulting from EA decisions that poorly align with local knowledge, values, and interests (O’Faircheallaigh 2017). Canada provides a globally relevant case study to address the relationship between IK and EA. It is a country with heavy economic focus on natural resource extraction (Rosser 2006), where exploitation occurs on lands considered sovereign by many Indigenous Nations. Relatedly, Canada has a long history of problematic government-to-government relationships with Indigenous peoples, often over resource extraction.

EA occurs across scales in Canada, but we focus in this paper on the intersection of one such scale with IK. Canada has a federal form of government, where jurisdiction and legislative authority is divided between the national and provincial or territorial governments with constitutionally protected rights afforded to Indigenous peoples. Federal, provincial, and some Indigenous governments have all developed EA processes, but we focus here on EA policy enacted at the federal level. Such attention is justified, given the passing of a new federal EA Act (The Impact Assessment Act, 42nd Parliament, 1st session, 2019), which presents a contemporary context in which to investigate the relationship between EA and IK in Canada. Furthermore, insights gained from assessing the contribution of IK to federal EA policy have relevance for EA processes across other scales, as federal EAs are likely to impact large-scale environmental issues (such as those that effect Canadian oceans and global climate). Notably, Indigenous peoples in Canada have expressed concerns about EA across jurisdictions for similar reasons (Booth and Skelton 2011a).

Indigenous and non-Indigenous practitioners’ concerns regarding Canada’s federal EA processes have been previously documented (e.g., Booth and Skelton 2011a2011bUdofia et al. 2017). Such critiques are traceable to the initial Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in 1995 (Stevenson 1996Usher 2000Paci et al. 2002). These historical and contemporary tensions surrounding EA policy have arisen in Canada partially as a result of the functional exclusion of Indigenous Nations as decision-makers in federal EA processes (Usher 2000Carrier Sekani Tribal Council 2007Manuel and Derrickson 2015). Despite the reality that a myriad of proposed projects, and the federally led EAs that follow, occur on sovereign territory occupied and managed by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, the degree to which local or IK is incorporated effectively into EA processes and decisions are often not considered adequate, consistent, or comprehensively understood (Stevenson 1996Usher 2000Paci et al. 2002Vidler and Elhaimer 2016). Canadian EA Acts have also been criticized for lagging behind judicial court decisions. When resolving resource management conflicts, even Canada’s legal systems have increasingly recognized knowledge, Constitutional rights—and in one case, title—of Indigenous peoples (Usher 2000Paci et al. 2002Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia 2014Manuel and Derrickson 2015). Indeed, a recent high-profile legal decision emphasized the importance of improving engagement between Indigenous peoples and their knowledge in federal EAs when the Federal Court of Appeal overturned Canada’s National Energy Board’s approval of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project, holding that the federal government failed in its duty to meaningfully consult First Nations in the EA process (Tsleil-Waututh Nation et al. v. Attorney General of Canada et al. 2018).

Against this background, here we assess how IK might be engaged in a potentially new chapter of EA in Canada. The emergence of the new Impact Assessment Act (enacted by the Liberal administration in 2019 to replace the 2012 Canadian Environmental Assessment Act) provides an opportunity to analyse how the federal government intends to apply IK in assessments and regulatory reviews as well as to examine the relationship between IK and EA under previous federal EA frameworks (Table 1). Synthetic literature reviews that summarize the contemporary application of IK in EA processes in any area remain largely absent (Gardner 2016Vidler and Elhaimer 2016). Whereas some have examined the relationship between IK and EA since the initiation of formal Canadian EA processes (e.g., Stevenson 1996Usher 2000Paci et al. 2002Booth and Skelton 2011b), to our knowledge no recent synthetic review of this body of literature has been completed. We recognize that IK is embedded in complex worldviews, cultures, governance systems, and recognition of sovereignty of Indigenous Nations. Our analysis, however, focuses on the application of the knowledge itself in federal EA processes. Here we analysed related peer-reviewed literature (i) to identify key obstacles preventing meaningful engagement of IK in the Canadian EA process and (ii) to use identified obstacles as criteria to assess if and how the Impact Assessment Act might engage IK.

Table 1. Past, current, and proposed Canadian federal environmental assessment policy (Government of Canada 20162018).

Act title Proposal Year enacted

Environmental Assessment and Review Process Guidelines Order (EARPGO)

SOR/84-467, issued under the Government Organization Act, 1979


Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA)

Bill C-78 1995

Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA)

Bill C-19 2010

Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) and National Energy Board Act (NEB)

Bill C-38 2012

Canadian Impact Assessment Act and Canadian Energy Regulator Act

Bill C-69 2019



Literature review

We performed a systematic literature review, using several online databases (Google Scholar, The University of Victoria Electronic Libraries, and EBSCOhost). Search terms were: “Indigenous knowledge” or “traditional knowledge” or “traditional ecological knowledge” or “Aboriginal knowledge” or “Indigenous wisdom” or “Indigenous Law” and “Canada” and “Environmental Assessment”. We included peer-reviewed publications published between 1973 (the year of the informal, but influential assessment Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry) and 2018 that focused explicitly on Canadian federal EA processes.

We approached our analysis in ways that supported reproducibility of our qualitative research. We used a qualitative content analysis approach (Krippendorff 2018). We considered papers as sampling units and corresponding sentences as units of analysis. In this systematic process, we focused on the context of relevant text, considering sentences within the greater context of paragraphs, paper sections, and within the entirety of the scope of the paper. We followed an emergent coding process; although we began our analysis with a list of key questions (Table 2), we identified additional themes and categories from the texts themselves, rather than establishing them prior to analysis (Charmaz 2006Charmaz and Belgrave 2012). We created a code book (Supplementary Material 1) to describe in detail our analyses.

Table 2. Key questions utilized in qualitative analysis process and code book.

Key questions

Does the paper indicate that the author(s) find the relationship between Indigenous knowledge and federal environmental assessment adequate and positive, either implicitly or explicitly?

Does the paper indicate that the relationship between Indigenous knowledge and federal environmental assessment in Canada is in some way flawed or inadequate, either implicitly or explicitly?

Does the author explicitly indicate obstacles that prevent a positive and effective relationship between Indigenous knowledge and federal environmental assessment in Canada? If so, what are these obstacles?

Does the paper identify ways forward in repairing or improving the relationship between Indigenous knowledge and federal environmental assessment either explicitly or implicitly? If so, what are these suggestions?

Papers we analysed spanned a range of geographical locations and project types. While some papers broadly analysed the federal EA process across geographies, several examined case studies. Papers included in the review covered federal EA study cases across Canada; five papers (26%) commented on projects undertaken in the Northwest Territories, two (11%) occurred in Saskatchewan, three (16%) discussed processes that occurred in Ontario, three (16%) papers focused on processes in British Columbia, one (5%) in Alberta, and five (26%) were not geographically specified beyond Canada.

All qualitative analyses were performed through NVivo-QSR software (NVivo qualitative data analysis Software 2012). One person (LEE) read selected papers, coded answers to questions established prior to reading the papers (Supplementary Material 1), and identified emergent themes. We conducted an iterative coding process; novel themes were coded into broad categories, and then further into sub-categories. As new categories and sub-categories emerged, all papers underwent a second round of analyses.

Relating themes to the impact assessment act

We used the identified obstacles from our literature review as criteria to assess the Impact Assessment Act. We coded all identified obstacles from the literature search (Supplementary Material 1: Question B1), and then sub-coded obstacles into finer categories (Historical Obstacles, Procedural Obstacles, Legal Obstacles, Epistemological Obstacles, Political Obstacles, and Resource Limitations), and finally into obstacle components (e.g., Unresolved Treaty and Title Rights, Historical Colonization, Financial Limitations, etc.). Then, we qualitatively analysed the Impact Assessment Act using key search terms and with identified obstacles in mind (see Supplementary Material 2). While analyzing the Act, we focused on the Act’s language relating to addressing these obstacles within the broader context of the legislation itself. Similar to our literature analysis, we used a code book to guide, inform, and appropriately constrain our analysis of the Act and our interpretation (Supplementary Material 2). This code book used the key search terms we relied upon in our literature review (excluding “Canada” and “Environmental Assessment”), as well as new search terms (See Supplementary Material 2 for additional information).

Finally, we evaluated whether identified obstacles were surmountable or addressed by the Impact Assessment Act based on this guided qualitative review and information that emerged in the literature review. In this context, we defined surmountable as reasonably able to be overcome within the confines of current Canadian federal governance norms. We defined addressed as a directed, actionable written statement acknowledging an obstacle to engaging IK in the EA process, which will likely contribute to that obstacle’s remediation. Using these definitions and the text of the Impact Assessment Act, we evaluated whether the Act identified or addressed obstacles (see Supplementary Material 2 for more details and methodological examples). To identify whether or not obstacles were surmountable, we consider how embedded they were within systems typically resistant to change (e.g., colonial systems, worldviews, etc.).

Personal experience

We complemented the literature search with authors’ personal experiences, especially in our interpretation of analysis in the Discussion and Conclusion. Our team’s experiences with federal EA processes were diverse and contributed to understanding the potential practical applications of recently passed EA legislation, given that analyzing a recently passed Impact Assessment Act (rather than an established Act) generates limitations in understanding how the proposed Act will be applied. Two authors (LEE, NCB) are engaged as ethnoecological researchers hired to investigate environmental and cultural impacts after an industrial contamination in Indigenous territory. One author (NXC) has testified in the context of federal EA hearings representing the Tsawout Nation’s concerns and positions on proposed industrial projects, in recognition of shared Tsawout responsibility to manage their traditional territories. One author (CTD) has been engaged in a federal EA process as an official Intervenor. One author (AJ, a lawyer) has represented Indigenous clients in federal EAs, served on a multi-interest advisory committee appointed by the government to advise on the Impact Assessment Act, and has appeared before the House of Commons and Senate committees reviewing the bill.

Here we also address our positionality as authors. We recognize the inherent biases and limitations that influence our analyses and results. We attempt to reflect critically on our positionality as scholars, practitioners, and non-Indigenous and Indigenous authors. The Euro-Canadian scholars among us recognize that, as individuals who have benefitted directly and indirectly from forces of colonization and who are embedded within the cultural milieu of western society, there are as aspects of IK and culture that we will never comprehend. The same limitation may be applicable to many of the authors whose publications were reviewed in this paper, most of whom were non-Indigenous.

Results and discussion

Literature review

Nineteen papers (Supplementary Materials 3 and 4) matched our search criteria for review. None identified the relationship between IK and Canadian federal EA as adequate and positive. All papers explicitly identified obstacles in engaging IK in Canadian federal EAs, and nearly 90% (16 papers) suggested ways, either explicitly or implicitly, by which these obstacles could be confronted.

Obstacles identified

We identified six categories of obstacles to engaging or incorporating IK appropriately in Canadian federal EA. We divided each obstacle into three components (Fig. 1).

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