Juan Carlos Reyes is the organizer of the annual Learning Together conference and an aboriginal consultant with Efficiency.ca. He is passionate about human rights and works tirelessly to help improve the lives of Canadian aboriginal people. This column was originally published February 16, 2010.
Canada needs to do more to protect the traditional lands that hold important cultural value for Aboriginal people. The potentially negative natural, social and economic impacts of any proposed project on areas surrounding traditional lands are usually only analyzed at the Environmental Assessment (EA) stage. Moreover, in most cases, EAs never go far enough in addressing permanent impacts on Aboriginal societies and traditional knowledge. Consequently, development is often permitted in areas far too sensitive to handle it, creating a negative view of specific projects and the industry as a whole.
What role should the government play in protecting traditional land? It should assume responsibility for identifying potential risks and maintaining traditional lands in their pristine state. Protecting these sites, even from regional Aboriginal power struggles and internal political discord, is critical, especially because the short-term financial benefits of mining are occasionally seen as a license to abandon long-term planning.
The struggle for long-term views in environmental planning is not uniquely Canadian. An issue faced by indigenous populations around the world, it was a key theme highlighted by the distinguished Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis in his CBC Massey Lecture entitled, “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.” His insightful and inspiring views are paraphrased below.
Davis said: In northern British Columbia, where I live, by an extraordinary accident or miracle of geography, three great BC rivers — the Skeena, the Nas and the Stiking — are born. The headwaters are within walking distance of a place that is sacred to all the First Nations of the northwest. The only other place where such a miracle of geography happens is in Tibet, where the Ganges is born. That area is so sacrosanct to a billion Hindus, Buddhist and Jains who live downstream, that you are not even allowed to climb the mountain. The idea of imposing industrial infrastructure would be so detested, that it would doom you, your clan and your lineage for all time.
He added: In Canada we treat the land very differently. There are several industrial proposals, not the least which is a coal bed methane proposal by Royal Dutch Shell that could scatter 6,000 wells across the sacred head waters. What I find most interesting about such initiatives, environmental concerns aside, is what they tell us about ourselves. All you need to do in Canada is cobble together a company in Toronto with less history than my dog, secure sub-surface mineral rights online, promise the government a certain revenue flow, and you can secure the right to transform and irrevocably destroy a landscape for your own private interest!
Davis emphasized: Other cultures inspire us to understand that there are other options, other ways of being. This is not to suggest that we should slip back to a pre-industrial past or deny indigenous people the genius of modernity. It is simply to suggest that we do have options and to expose the follies of those who resist change. We must fundamentally change the way we occupy this planet. Sixty percent of the world’s population depends on water that flows from the Tibet plateau. There has been no net accumulation of snow or ice there since 1950. Within our lifetime, the Ganges, a river that 500 million people depend upon for water, a river sacred to 800 million people, will become a seasonal river.
In conclusion, Davis said: What is particularly touching is that indigenous people throughout the world have personally taken responsibility for these issues. I think it is time all of us too, take responsibility for a problem that is of our making.
Like the people of Tibet who revere their rivers, Aboriginal people have, for centuries, relied on, harvested and utilized their traditional lands through traditional knowledge. In an age of short-term economic development, it is critical that we place greater emphasis on traditional knowledge of the land, and use it to forge new sustainable paths in land development in Canada and around the world.