Experts examine traditional knowledge usage in NWT

Experts examine traditional knowledge usage in NWT
An onlooker examines information provided by the Tlicho government on their uses of traditional knowledge in various activities at the first TK Festival and conference in Yellowknife.Photo: Courtesy of Tony Rabesca.

Just weeks after one of the boats from the storied Franklin expedition was discovered - with the help of local Inuit knowledge - delegates met over the weekend to discuss the benefits of elevating traditional knowledge (TK) to a level where it shares similar status with Western science in the Northwest Territories.

The I??a?a? kat?? Tradtional Knowledge Festival, organized by the Tlicho government, the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage centre and the Canadian Polar Commission, invited members of the international community to converge in Yellowknife and Behchoko over the weekend and mull over increasing merits of indigenous TK usage.

“We’ve been involved with research studies going back quite a long ways, into the ‘50s and ‘60s and even before that with the early explorers,” said John B. Zoe, one of the event organizers, a special advisor to the Tlicho government and chairperson of the Tlicho research and training institute. “We’ve never really been part of research before. We’ve been on the end of the microscope (where) we’re the ones being studied.”

Zoe said the festival was designed to gather both local and international experts on TK, to discuss how they use TK and how that usage compares in the territory.

“As more autonomy and more government and more responsibility goes back to the Aboriginal people, we want to be more involved in research,” he said.

Academics, government representatives, industry workers and traditional knowledge holders were represented at the sold-out talks. Friday kicked off with a session for grad students using traditional knowledge in their studies, where they could discuss their work with elders and TK holders. Following that, festival goers were transported to Behchoko, where locals, including Zoe, presented the various uses of TK in government, land use, wildlife stewardship and social programs within the community.

On Saturday, TEDx Yellowknife captured various speakers as they shared their experiences learning about and using traditional knowledge. The following day, a panel of experts addressed the question of how governments and industry can more appropriately respect the knowledge of indigenous peoples and traditional knowledge.

TK a blip on government radar

“I try to stay away from these conversations because I find that a lot of them are sort of repetitive…A lot of talking about, ‘is it useful, is it valid’ and so on,” said Stephen Ellis, one of Sunday’s panelists. “I think we need to be a long way beyond that conversation.”

Ellis is a Northern senior associate with Tides Canada, an environmental stewardship company that provides financial and project management services for philanthropists, foundations, activists and civil organizations. While living in Lutsel K’e for 12 years, he also worked with First Nations, government and industry to address land and resource challenges.

“Certainly the government here plays lip service – ‘Oh we consider traditional knowledge equally’ and so on – but it doesn’t really play out,” Ellis said. “The system is still very much dominated by Western bureaucratic ways of doing things and scientific ways of doing things, as well.”

Joanne Barnaby, a former special advisor to the premier with almost 30 years of experience providing consulting services to government, indigenous groups and industry regarding TK, somewhat agreed with Ellis.

“I’ve had mixed experiences in terms of government use of traditional knowledge,” she said. “Sometimes it’s been somewhat successful, other times it’s been a total failure. I guess it depends on how controversial the issue is.”

While there have been some cases where the government has sought out traditional knowledge from local Aboriginal groups, like the NWT Protected Areas Strategy, Barnaby said it was far from being the norm.

“People resist change; I don’t think it’s ever going to be easy,” she said. “The government is embedded in the Western system, it’s not embedded in traditional knowledge. It’s an ongoing challenge to educate and to find ways to bring forward knowledge in a way that they can understand it and appreciate the value.”

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