Science and Aboriginal perspectives unite in documentary, research paper and curriculum

Science and Aboriginal perspectives unite in documentary, research paper and curriculum
Violet Poitras, an elder from Paul First Nation, gazes over a wetland during research for Water - The Sacred Relationship documentary, research paper and curriculum.Photo: Native Counselling Services of Alberta.

After three years of cooperation between First Nations elders and Western scientists to research Alberta’s wetlands, lead scientists of Water - The Sacred Relationship are confident they’ve taken a step towards reconciling Aboriginal perspectives and modern science.

“The knowledge that Aboriginal people have comes from science. It comes from a longitudinal, experiential, subjective science that is built intergenerationally,” Dr. Patti LaBoucane-Benson, one of the project leads, told The Journal. “We wanted to say that this is a valid research method. Those findings are important and they are one piece of the puzzle in understanding what can happen with water.”

The research project was a massive undertaking by the Native Counselling Services of Alberta and Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions (AI-EES).

Over the last three years, the team of 39 research participants covered more than 10,500 km travelling around Alberta to interview traditional knowledge holders, elders and scientists, compiled 150 hours of video and analyzed 300 pages of single-space transcriptions.

Direction for the research was based on three questions: What is the relationship between Alberta’s Aboriginal peoples and water?; what is the science behind the Aboriginal viewpoint on water?; and, most importantly, where is the common ground between Western science and Aboriginal perspectives?

LaBoucane-Benson explained that the project saw world-renowned wetland scientists team up with Aboriginal knowledge keepers to venture into a wetland, talking about what they saw, what was important and how they know whether or not it’s fit to drink.

“We found common ground at every turn,” LaBoucane-Benson said. “It was unanimous from the elders to the indigenous scientists to the Western scientists that we have to work together. We have complex problems regarding water and we need everybody’s perspectives. We need both sciences finding sometimes the same results and sometimes unique results to bring these findings together to mobilize them.”

LaBoucane-Benson admitted that the majority of Western-trained scientists would not openly acknowledge there is an indigenous science worth considering. This project, she said, takes a huge step towards not only giving merit to Aboriginal viewpoints, but sharing that knowledge with the public.

From the project comes a documentary film, a peer-reviewed research paper and a curriculum designed for Grades 5 and 6 students.

The voluntary curriculum is available for download free of charge on the project’s website. Lesson plans are developed around 15 short videos that break down the research for students.

The goal, LaBoucane-Benson said, is to integrate an Aboriginal worldview into classrooms across Alberta, the country and even the world.

“The curriculum really is our legacy of the project,” she said. “The idea is we want to instill a sense of importance in children about wetlands and about our water – which I think our curriculum already does – but we want to also expose this Aboriginal way of knowing and say there are many ways to do science and to understand the world around us.”

To date, around 200 teachers from Alberta and beyond have contacted the project team to request the curriculum.

“Water is such a key thing for Alberta’s well being, not just economically but socially. Water is the key. I think learning at an early age to acknowledge that is really important,” Jon Sweetman, manager of water resources with AI-EES, explained.

Sweetman noted that a lasting result of the project was the relationships built between traditional knowledge keepers, elders and scientists.

“We’ve had interest in incorporating traditional knowledge or information that Aboriginal people can bring to water, but to bring that knowledge involves building a relationship with the people,” he said. “I would like to see further engagement and discussion around Aboriginal knowledge and recognition that that information is valuable.”

To learn more about Water – The Sacred Relationship and the curriculum, go online to

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