As Canada prepares to commit itself to new goals around the protection and restoration of its natural ecosystems at the upcoming COP15 discussions, it has the added responsibility to consider how biodiversity can be protected while fulfilling its commitments around consultation and relationship building with Indigenous communities and groups.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) published 94 calls-to-action that were designed to advance the process of Canadian reconciliation. Action 92 calls on Canada’s corporate sector to: “Commit to meaningful consultation, building respectful relationships, and obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before proceeding with economic development projects.” Since the publication of this report, many of those involved with economic development projects across Canada have been working to build these relationships and to better understand what meaningful consultation looks like. It is through this work that we are seeing the inherent value that these relationships can bring to these projects.
In Canada, federal and provincial governments have a legislated ‘duty to consult’ and, where appropriate, accommodate Indigenous Peoples. Governments are required to consider the views of affected Indigenous groups and modify an action or decision to avoid unlawful infringement on those rights where necessary and feasible.
Indigenous communities and groups can bring an important and historically overlooked perspective to our biodiversity projects. They often have, and are willing to share, traditional ecological knowledge relating to biodiversity that can strengthen scientific outcomes and help project proponents and regulators make better-informed decisions when managing natural resources. Examples of traditional ecological knowledge might include understanding how a wildlife species’ abundance or distribution has changed over time. This is why Indigenous communities and perspectives have an important role to play as Canada looks to provide greater investment and resources for the protection and restoration of the country’s biodiversity.
In the context of natural resource development and economic development projects, to be considered meaningful and to lead to the best possible outcomes, consultation with Indigenous communities and groups needs to occur early in the project life cycle. Engagement should include an exchange of ideas and knowledge, and a sincere effort by all involved to integrate the information shared by Indigenous Peoples into the project findings. Conclusions reached relating to the impacts of the project on biodiversity and impacts to Indigenous communities need to be informed by the lived experiences of the people in those communities. This approach can lead to more meaningful relationships and a more scientifically defensible understanding of the natural environment.
Within WSP, we are already seeing how this approach can be successful when it comes to protecting biodiversity, and how habitat restoration projects can benefit from Indigenous knowledge. For example, WSP staff have been working with a proponent to obtain an Environmental Assessment Certificate under the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Act for a proposed liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal on the Fraser River in British Columbia. During project consultation, the project team heard from Indigenous community members that the proposed location for the LNG terminal may contain suitable spawning habitat for a species of forage fish (Eulachon) that has cultural significance for Indigenous communities throughout the region.
As a result of this shared information, WSP biologists worked alongside Indigenous community members to design and implement a scientific study to assess for the presence of Eulachon spawning habitat within the proposed project area to inform potential mitigation and avoidance measures. Study results indicated that the proposed project area was unlikely to contain suitable spawning habitat as the site lacked several key characteristics that are important for spawning. Since this study, the client has refocused their efforts through an expanded, Indigenous-led study to identify other potential Eulachon spawning sites in the Fraser River. Once identified, the hope is that these sites can be prioritized for protection or restoration.
The Eulachon spawning study exemplifies how collaboration with Indigenous communities can strengthen our understanding of the natural environment and inform protection and restoration efforts. While the engagement process is not perfect and a universal strategy for success does not exist, these project experiences can help us refine our approach to relationship building and allow us to see firsthand the inherent benefits of collaboration with Indigenous communities.
As Canada refines its focus on biodiversity protection and restoration, whether through a modernization of the dated Canadian Biodiversity Strategy (first published in 1995) or through the development of an altogether new biodiversity framework, it’s important that our approach moving forward captures the issues that are important to Canadians. Not only does this include building resiliency toward environmental challenges and disasters, including those associated with a changing climate, but we also have the responsibility to build social resiliency for communities that have a history of being underrepresented.