There are obvious reasons to be skeptical about the Trudeau government’s promise to speed up the environmental-review process for major resource projects all while broadening its scope. Tougher environmental standards, no matter how appropriate, will not make it easier or faster to get Canada’s resources to market or attract investment to the oil patch. It is disingenuous on Ottawa’s part to suggest otherwise.
Just what, then, is Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s real goal in remaking the environmental-review process?
Ms. McKenna last month tabled legislation to scrap the former Conservative government’s controversial changes to the environmental-review process and introduce a new set of hoops for resource-project instigators to jump through to win Ottawa’s approval. But rather than accelerating environmental reviews and providing investors with clear rules, as Ottawa insists it is doing, the new process promises to create even more delay and confusion than the current one.
Take, for instance, Ms. McKenna’s vow to “make it mandatory to consider Indigenous traditional knowledge alongside science” in reviewing the environmental impact of new projects. The preamble of Bill C-69, which creates a new Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, states that “the best available scientific information and data and the traditional knowledge of the Indigenous peoples of Canada” must be considered in decision-making.
There is no inherent incompatibility between science and Indigenous traditional knowledge. The latter can often fill gaps in the scientific data with respect to the impact of human behaviour on delicate ecosystems. Indigenous peoples can often provide insight into climate change and species habitat passed down over centuries by ancestors who lived off the land, as they do now.
What happens, however when science and Indigenous knowledge appear to contradict each other? The scientific method is grounded in a rigorous and objective process of data collection and hypothesis testing. Science can be inconclusive, but good science is not polluted by political, personal or religious agendas.
Yet, some environmental and Indigenous activists think the bill needs to be changed to explicitly put science and Indigenous knowledge on equal footing.
Bill C-69 “discusses ‘integrating’ science and Indigenous knowledge, which has been criticized as risking subjugation of Indigenous knowledge into the western scientific worldview and treating Indigenous knowledge systems unequally,” the West Coast Environmental Law said in a recent review of the proposed legislation. “In order to ensure equal respect for Indigenous knowledge, the [bill] should recognize Indigenous knowledge as an equally authoritative body of knowledge.”
The Quebec government was sufficiently alarmed by Ottawa’s open-ended inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in the review process that it wrote to the federal government to express its concerns. Quebec deputy environment minister Patrick Beauchesne wrote that Ottawa’s approach “could prove problematic” and recommended that the bill strictly define Indigenous knowledge, according to Radio-Canada, which obtained a copy of the letter.
Indigenous groups and their advocates were outraged by the deputy minister’s letter, and Quebec’s Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Geoffrey Kelley and the province’s Environment Minister Isabelle Melançon wrote immediately to the Quebec-Labrador Assembly of First Nations to apologize. But the incident revealed the Pandora’s box that Ottawa has opened with C-69.
“Subordinating consideration of [Indigenous] traditional knowledge to its compatibility with scientific data amounts to establishing a hierarchy of knowledge that favours scientific knowledge,” University of Ottawa law professor Thomas Burelli wrote this week in an open letter published in Le Devoir and co-signed by seven legal-profession colleagues. They called any approach that privileges science over Indigenous knowledge “reductionist” and “offensive.”
In an interview with Le Devoir, Prof. Burelli said the Quebec government’s original letter contained “a stench of racism … [the government] continues to call into question [Indigenous] knowledge rather than other kinds of knowledge.”
Rather than clearing the air, then, Bill C-69 risks muddying the water. Some in the resource-extraction industry worry this is exactly Ms. McKenna’s intention. Despite her government’s insistence that it is committed to getting Canada’s resources to market, its actions belie its words. Two major pipeline projects have died on its watch, while a third risks the same fate as Ottawa watches passively by.
“We will advance our commitment to reconciliation, and get to better project decisions by recognizing Indigenous rights, and working in partnership from the start. We will make it mandatory to consider Indigenous traditional knowledge alongside science and other evidence,” Ms. McKenna tweeted in the midst of the controversy over Quebec’s letter.
Ms. McKenna is right in insisting that greater Indigenous participation in the review of major resource projects is an essential condition for reconciliation. But the only science Ottawa seems to be perfecting so far is the science of pandering.