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Resolving tensions between competing interests is a core government function. It can also be an acrimonious business.

Take Ottawa’s recently introduced legislation to amend the federal environmental impact assessment process so that it “takes into account scientific information, traditional knowledge of the Indigenous peoples of Canada, and community knowledge.”

Last month, a Quebec government bureaucrat wrote an official letter to the feds raising questions about what is understood by “traditional knowledge” and musing about whether it should have equal footing with Western science.

Indigenous leaders were furious. A group of legal scholars accused Quebec of favouring a “reductive, counterproductive and offensive” hierarchy of knowledge. The government apologized for the letter.

The critics should turn down the volume. It is perfectly fair to raise questions about this or any reform before it is passed.

Asking for the term “traditional knowledge of the Indigenous peoples of Canada” to be defined, and for ways to evaluate it, is a good idea. Doing so doesn’t devalue traditional knowledge; in fact, a strong definition will only serve to give it more value.

But it is equally fair to defend the legitimacy of Indigenous traditional knowledge. It was, after all, Inuit traditional knowledge that helped researchers find John Franklin’s sunken ships in the Arctic. And traditional knowledge contributed to the Paris climate agreement.

Putting “traditional knowledge” on the same legal footing as “scientific information” is an audacious step in the era of reconciliation.

The key issue will be how to reconcile the two when they are in conflict during an environmental assessment, as one suspects they will be. And that is the problem that Ottawa has so far refused to address.

The failure to define those terms, or to provide guidance on how to resolve them when they are in conflict, might only lead to division and stalemate.

We need clear answers about what the government’s intention is with this law.

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