Traditional Knowledges: Métis Perspectives on Conservation

This summer, the Beaver Hills Biosphere’s Indigenous Engagement Coordinator, Bob Montgomery, interviewed Gerben Deinum with the Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) about the importance of Indigenous-led conservation efforts and MNA’s work in conservation.

Bob Montgomery: Tell me about the work the Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) is doing in environmental conservation.

Gerben Deinum: Over the last five or so years, the MNA’s Environment and Climate Change department has significantly expanded its conservation portfolio. These projects work to support Métis communities across Alberta in reconnecting with the land.

The largest is the Guardians program, funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada, launched in 2020. Métis Guardians will be trained in community-based monitoring, help MNA Citizens learn about various plants and animals and collect data - including from community members themselves. This information will be used by the MNA to provide a more holistic understanding of land management decisions to partners and government, especially where conventional data is not sufficient to guide decision making.

Another major project is the Askîy Fish Health Monitoring program, a government-led and industry-advised collaboration. The MNA visits lakes across the province to identify trends in fish populations. We invite Citizens to learn from traditional harvesters, who teach how to gillnet and line fish using Traditional Knowledge. We monitor how many fish we catch and the capacity of lakes and streams, and test some of these fish for toxins and pollutants. This program also helps create a broader understanding of habitat and fish health to make effective management decisions.

Finally, our Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCA) project is a big focus.

Bob: Tell me more about Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas.

Gerben: The official definition of IPCAs is still relatively loose. According to the United Nations, the land must be entirely or majority managed by Indigenous Peoples but can include partnerships with conservation organizations, industry or governments. We are at an exciting time where we can help shape IPCAs and how they function based on the needs of the Indigenous communities spearheading them. The MNA is developing an IPCA to be managed with Traditional Métis Knowledge by engaging with Citizens to maintain and conserve habitats and species that are important to them.

Conservation is shifting from a species-specific focus to habitats as a whole. Habitats are interconnected and if we can reclaim a habitat, it can have positive effects beyond just a single species. When one species thrives again, it could mean the return of other species, including humans. This cumulative effect occurred when wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone Park. The increase in predators affected the behavior of ungulate species now needing to avoid predation. This behavioral change led to former grazing habitats becoming revegetated, an increase in biodiversity in these areas, and decreased soil erosion.  

The federal government has committed to addressing the harms of colonialism. There have been significant turning points in the last few years and Canadians are gaining a better understanding of colonization and how land access was taken from Indigenous peoples and given to settlers. Indigenous peoples were moved to lands that were difficult to farm or sustain a community on and their movements were restricted. By ensuring access and agency over their traditional territories, Indigenous peoples can reclaim their identities and Traditional Knowledge.

Governments and non-Indigenous organizations can partner with and support Indigenous communities to lead conservation efforts, rather than follow existing Western frameworks. They can also examine their bylaws and policies to eliminate conflicts with Indigenous knowledge systems.

Bob: What is Traditional Indigenous knowledge from a Métis perspective? How can it help conservation efforts?

Gerben: From my understanding, Indigenous knowledge is rooted in inclusion principles wherein sustainability is best achieved when humans have a role in landscape management. Humans are a part of the land. Properties purchased for conservation often implement no hunting, harvesting, and other restrictions. But Indigenous people understand sustainable harvesting is critical to healthy landscapes.

Traditional Knowledge formed through many generations in certain places over a long period of time by revisiting those places again and again. That relationship helps Indigenous people see long-term cycles in the landscape and know how to work with them.

For example, fire suppression was used in conservation efforts for many years. We are now seeing the effects of massive, scorching fires because, for decades, the forests weren’t allowed to burn with lower intensity. If we had employed Indigenous knowledge from the start, responsible use of fire would have always been part of management.

Bob: Where does Traditional Knowledge come from? Why is it so important?

Gerben: In the last few years, I was introduced to the “knowledge basket” theory of information, where information from various sources is collected and shared over generations. The knowledge includes dos and don’ts, habits and behaviours. Elders, youth and community members all contribute to this basket, revisit it over and over, and adapt it to the conditions at hand. This wisdom is present when a community has been on and observed the land for many generations.

Many people are skeptical of Traditional Knowledge because it has different standards of rigour than Western science. But when Western culture validates knowledge Indigenous people have held for a very long time, it opens up the possibility for skeptics that there is more to it.

Bob: Why is it important for Indigenous peoples, specifically Métis people, to lead conservation efforts?

Gerben: Historically, conservation has been dominated by non-Indigenous institutions, groups and individuals, which drove policies and practices from a specific worldview. We recognize the benefits of good management decisions and learnings from this model. However, there have also been adverse outcomes that severely impacted Indigenous populations, including the right to harvest. People in the broader Canadian context are starting to recognize the importance of Indigenous Knowledge inherent in Indigenous communities and how this knowledge is often translated through oral stories rather than scientific literature.

For example, Indigenous peoples recognized the land’s capacity and often moved camps to allow for grassland regeneration. Before they left, they would burn the grass so new growth could emerge and support the germination of seeds that may benefit from low-intensity fire.

Métis people are limited in where they can practice traditional activities. A land base on which to practice their traditional conservation methods is critical to keeping that knowledge alive. Métis people have been practicing conservation for hundreds of years. Due to colonization, there are fewer and fewer people with a deep understanding of these practices. We are trying to ensure this knowledge gets transferred in a meaningful way. Because the Métis traditionally travelled, they had a comprehensive understanding of many landscapes and how to live on them; their knowledge has always been on these lands, and they have a lot to offer.

Bob: How can organizations like the Beaver Hills Biosphere support this work?

Gerben: We are building momentum and knowledge. We’re building partnerships to help highlight Indigenous knowledge. There are times when this knowledge is aligned, but we also need groups willing to challenge their assumptions and try something new.

An important step is for organizations to bring in Indigenous consultants, Knowledge Keepers and staff to help examine current policies and identify how they might conflict with Indigenous knowledge systems. Indigenous knowledge has a lot to offer, but all this work begins with relationships. We work with organizations to help them incorporate Traditional Indigenous Knowledge into contemporary management practices and institutional bylaws and policies.

Bob: What can individuals do to support Indigenous conservation efforts?

Gerben: Be open to new ideas and knowledge and understand the focus of Indigenous conservation is the same as Western conservation: to care for the land in the best way possible. Indigenous practices have stood the test of time and adapted as times have changed.

Indigenous peoples who have been removed from the land have few places to reconnect to the land and employ their Traditional Knowledge. The Métis Nation of Alberta is interested in developing an IPCA within Alberta, and the Beaver Hills Biosphere was brought forward by citizens as a suitable region due the historical, cultural and environmental relevance to our community. Individuals can help us connect with landholders who may be selling their property in or near the Biosphere to discuss a sale, which would provide the MNA opportunity to purchase such land.

Bob: If people are interested in supporting the MNA’s IPCA project, how can they contact you?

Gerben: People can email or phone at (587) 416-2792 ext. 124.

Bob: Anything else you’d like to share with us?

Gerben: We want to recognize the conservation efforts of other organizations and individuals in the Beaver Hills. This area is an excellent example of how conservation can work. We want to positively contribute to that project and be part of the community of people working to support the land.

Bob: Thank you so much for your time and knowledge Gerben!

Learn more about MNA and their conservation and environmental efforts here.