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Community engagement, including with First Nations partners, is bringing together a wide range of stakeholders for conservation efforts. Examples are the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and community members involved in the Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound UNESCO Biosphere RegionUNIVERSITY OF SASKATCHEWAN SCHOOL OF ENVIRONMENT AND SUSTAINABILITY

When John Kindrachuk of the Redberry Lake Biosphere Reserve, Saskatchewan, first approached chief and council of the Mistawasis First Nation to invite their participation in conservation efforts, he received an unexpected response.

“The chief said, ‘Actually, you are on our territory, so you will be our partner rather than the other way around,’” Mr. Kindrachuk explains in a video. “And we realized this is right.”

Redberry Lake is about 100 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, where Maureen Reed is a professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability and UNESCO co-chair in Biocultural Diversity, Sustainability, Reconciliation and Renewal.

“The Redberry Lake Biosphere Reserve was designated in 2000, and for the first decade, leaders had little connection with local First Nations,” she says. “This changed with that first meeting, and the partnership has been expanding ever since.”

Fast-forward to 2021 and the establishment of Canada’s most recent biosphere region in the Howe Sound, B.C., which came on the heels of an extensive engagement process with First Nations and community partners, which Dr. Reed sees as “an example of conservation and sustainability leaders collaborating with Indigenous people and community stakeholders.”

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“In UNESCO-designated biosphere regions, people work to support biodiversity conservation, sustainable development, learning and, in Canada, reconciliation,” she says. “Our 19 biosphere regions in Canada are considered models for sustainable development.”

Societal shifts take time and require concerted effort from all involved, and Dr. Reed welcomes a growing focus on community-engaged scholarship and transdisciplinarity. “Scientists have long been seen as leaders in producing knowledge, but there is more and more recognition about the value of drawing on the knowledge of local and Indigenous people, who live and work in communities and landscapes,” she says. “We have to break down barriers and work together more effectively.”

The inclusion of the voices of community members has long been central to Dr. Reed’s research, which focuses on “the social dimensions of sustainability” – that is, how people, processes and institutions come together to tackle common challenges.

“Sustainability is about reconciling people and the planet,” she says. “To be successful in our transition towards sustainability, we have to address the worries, hopes, concerns and limitations that people see in that transition.”

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A focus on shared values

Community stakeholders and Indigenous rights holders must have a voice in conservation efforts, agrees Ruth Simons, executive director of the Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative Society. This conviction – along with research into existing biosphere models – inspired a “community-led nomination process” that culminated in the designation of the Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound UNESCO Biosphere Region in 2021.

Bringing different community members to the table – and keeping them engaged over the long term – is not easy, Ms. Simons admits, yet the process can be very rewarding. “In 2013, when we had our first open house, we asked the community two questions: What do we value? And, what do we need to do to protect our common values?”

There were about 140 people representing 80 different organizations in the room to ensure “we hear from all the different sectors and participants,” says Ms. Simons. “Moving from a focus on what we don’t want, which is exhausting and energy-consuming, to what we do want – and working towards a common vision is surprisingly refreshing,” she says. “This is how we landed on the framework of UNESCO biospheres; it was the model that spoke best to our values.”

" Scientists have long been seen as leaders in producing knowledge, but there is more and more recognition about the value of drawing on the knowledge of local and Indigenous people, who live and work in communities and landscapes. We have to break down barriers and work together more effectively.

Maureen Reed Professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability, and UNESCO Co-Chair in Biocultural Diversity, Sustainability, Reconciliation and Renewal

Indigenous Peoples play a key role, especially the Squamish First Nation on whose unceded territory the biosphere region is located, and Ms. Simons considers “conservation efforts a form of reconciliation.

“Approaches to bringing back natural systems and promoting healthy air, healthy water and healthy futures can be much enhanced by an understanding of Indigenous ways of living and knowing,” she says. “Fortunately, there has been growing respect for First Nations’ approach to caring for the land and waters.”

The purpose of biospheres, for Ms. Simons, includes ensuring “people stay connected with nature – and to further our fundamental knowledge of how our environment and ecosystems work.”

Yet more effort is needed to promote understanding of “the importance of biodiversity and conservation,” she says. “It’s surprising that there is still a disconnect between how people view the bigger picture and their actions. There is a big need for education.”

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Education for sustainability

To leverage the power of education for addressing the interconnected global challenges of our time, including climate change, loss of biodiversity, poverty and inequality, Charles Hopkins, UNESCO Chair at York University, proposes to reorient education systems towards sustainable development and foster cross-sector collaboration.

“Climate challenges affect us all – and they cannot be resolved by anything less than a collaborative approach,” says Mr. Hopkins. “We need to create linkages between governments, academia, business, industry, the arts and civil society. What is required is a sense of responsibility and engagement from everyone to advance a common goal: a better future for all, while ‘all’ is not limited to humans.”

In order to engage a wide range of community members – in Canada and worldwide – in efforts related to environmental protection, the UN chose the term “sustainable development for describing development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Educational efforts advancing this goal are known under the term Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), and the UNESCO Chair co-ordinates global networks with members from over 70 countries, providing research-based evidence and policy advice to the UN, governments and other education stakeholders.

Four aspects enable ESD to help advance a sustainable future, says Mr. Hopkins. “The first is to ensure access to quality education and lifelong learning. The second aspect is reorienting education towards advancing sustainability and creating a sense of responsibility in every individual.”

The third aspect concerns public awareness, he says. “When citizens understand the impact of their everyday actions, they can make conscious choices. For instance, awareness about our ecological footprint – and understanding how we can create a handprint in life that helps reduce our footprint – can be an important tool to achieve sustainability.” Delivering training that enables people to improve sustainability at their places of work is the fourth aspect.

Universities can play a key role in answering fundamental questions about sustainability, believes Mr. Hopkins, “not only with cutting-edge teaching, research and community service but as their graduates will likely become leaders and influencers who have the opportunity to shape societal outcomes.”

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Towards societal change

Given that universities have the potential to play such a central role, how can we ensure that community-engaged scholarship or transdisciplinarity are embedded in their approach? For Dr. Reed, it starts with a commitment to advancing equity, diversity and inclusion, both in academia and society in general.

“We need to address sustainability challenges in a way that considers the social challenges and inequalities that are embedded in our institutions,” says Dr. Reed, who has long advocated for increasing the participation of women and other equity-deserving groups in decisions about the environment and development.

“There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure people feel welcome to make a contribution in fields where they are currently underrepresented,” she says. “We have to make changes to our norms and expectations to become more inclusive.”

Shifting societal norms requires leadership and skill-building, and Dr. Reed recently received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to lead the international TRANSdisciplinary Education Collaboration for Transformations in Sustainability (TRANSECTS) program. TRANSECTS offers flexible and accessible pathways for training, professional development, mentorship and networking for change-makers in Canada and internationally, with a focus on “the professional, relational and intercultural skills that enable students and practitioners to address sustainability challenges together.”

There is consensus among Dr. Reed, Ms. Simons and Mr. Hopkins that outcomes can be enhanced by drawing on various forms of knowledge, including scientific research, Indigenous knowledge and people’s lived experience, and by engaging a diversity of actors in a societal push to advance climate adaptation.

If learnings from Canada’s UNESCO biospheres are an indication, efforts to create partnerships – and to include reconciliation along with biodiversity conservation and sustainable development among the objectives for these model regions – are already bearing fruit.

As Joyce Williams, Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw councillor and co-chair of Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative Society Board puts it: “Átl’ka7tsem is really about beauty and hope, as much as it is about sustainable development and conservation. This biosphere region continues to bring all communities in Átl’ka7tsem together for effective decision-making and also gets people out on the land. Building that connection to the territory and the land inspires us all to better honour and respect the environment, and the life that lives here.”

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