Environmental Assessment & Indigenous Consultation

Continuing our content for Indigenous History Month, this article examines how environmental assessment historically and continually lacks involvement from Indigenous communities.

Written by: Thomas Tinmouth

In 1962 Rachel Carson published arguably the single most influential book for the modern environmental movement. The book was called Silent Springs and examined the effects of synthetic pesticides on the environment and human society. This book launched forward environmental awareness and activism, bringing many people’s attention throughout the 1960s to how our land was being developed and treated. This was the beginning of environmental assessment (EA) in Canada. Since its inception, EA has had a volatile journey, to say the least. From taking steps backward in EA operations, to adding key agencies and rules, Canada’s EA has impacted all areas of the country. For many, these were just rules to abide by, but for Indigenous communities, it was much more. EA would determine what their land looks like and how it would change. Thievery blended into the long history between the Canadian Government and Indigenous communities. Crimes that would be camouflaged behind the laws were written to allow the systemic oppression of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

What is Environmental Assessment?

Figure 1 – What is environmental assessment?

To perform an effective and sustainable environmental assessment of an area, one must study the location’s past, present, and future. This is called the “baseline” which is extremely important as it will indicate how the area has responded and will respond to certain environmental indicators. Valued ecosystem components (VECs) are another key term to understand as they are an integral piece in determining the baseline conditions. VECs are broad ecological, social, or cultural components of the environment that are valued by key stakeholders. VECs are identified during the scoping process, with each one being analyzed to see how they would be impacted if the project was implemented, and also if the project was not implemented. This way we can compare how the environment reacts to the project. Impact significance is determined based on how each VEC was affected. A decision can then be made based on this data as to how the project will be imposed, with the goal of having the least amount of impact on all VECs identified. This seems like a straightforward process, but history shows not all environmental assessments in Canada have gone so smoothly, and not all VECs have been treated equally. 

Duty To Consult

Figure 2 – The Duty to Consult definition.

When the Europeans first came to Canada they took land with no regard for who was already there. Fast forward to the era of EA, and land is still being taken just covered up by regulations created by the government. One of the most important aspects of EA is public participation. Unlike the previous EA “Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012”, the new “Impact Assessment Act 2019” (IAA 2019, current EA guideline) looks to involve the public throughout the process so stakeholders can have their opinion heard. One of the biggest challenges the government faces is how to consult Indigenous communities about proposed projects. To try and close this gap the “Duty to Consult” was enacted as a legal obligation for the government to consult Indigenous groups when their treaty rights may be infringed upon. The problem is there’s no delegated party that is in charge of the communication between the project team and Indigenous communities, often leading to the proponent being the one in charge of appointing these meetings. This poses two issues, the first being that the proponent often has no knowledge of Indigenous views and culture leading to a disconnect. The second being the proponent is very invested in this project and will make decisions to benefit its success, and not always the wellbeing of Indigenous communities.

Once a project is approved and constructed all EAs under IAA 2019 call for follow-ups. This means verifying the accuracy of the EA and determining the effectiveness of any mitigation measures. The follow-up process from CEAA 2012 to IAA 2019 was improved as it is now necessary to address non-compliance, implement follow-up, and release information to the public.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Figure 3 – Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

The most underutilized component in Canadian EA is Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). This is the knowledge accumulated over thousands of years by Indigenous peoples who have lived directly off the land and have accumulated insights about their area unlike anyone else. By neglecting Indigenous communities in the participation of EA we are also neglecting the knowledge that would be brought forth and help the process. For thousands of years, Indigenous groups lived in a symbiotic relationship with the land, not overpowering or degrading the natural environment that allows them to live. This mindset is lacking in EA as far too often land is degraded and nothing is given back. This is a key area where Indigenous groups and TEK can be of great help in Canadian EA. The way we have treated the environment has gotten us to a tipping point across the world with climate impacts set to ravage our lands. It is time that we bring forth and stop neglecting knowledge that has proven to keep our land plentiful. This mindset is needed now more than ever, and at the very least can help alter our perspective on giving back to the land, rather than constantly taking from it. The following is a case study that shows how incorporating Indigenous views and values into EA proves successful.

Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry

In 1970 two detailed proposals were put forward by Canadian Arctic Gas Pipeline Ltd, and Foothills Pipelines Ltd. Canadian Arctic Gas Pipeline Ltd was composed of 27 Canadian and American producers who proposed an $8 billion pipeline. This would be the longest pipeline in the world which would connect oil from Alaska through northern Yukon and the Mackenzie River, finally ending up in America passing through the Alberta USA border. The Foothills Pipelines Ltd was much shorter, spanning from the Mackenzie delta to Alberta, only touching Canadian markets. These proposals posed massive threats to the environment as they would need to be built on permafrost, and parts buried underground disturbing ecosystems and the natural temperature of the ground. The other major problem was the pipeline would be going through Indigenous land, disturbing land treaties and cultural practices.

Figure 4 – Thomas Berger (left) and Deline Chief George Kodakin (left) in Ottawa during pipeline hearing.

In 1974 Thomas Berger was appointed by the Federal Government to examine the environmental, cultural, social and economic impacts on the northern communities affected by the pipeline. Community hearings were held across the Northwest Territories and Yukon from March 1975 to November 1976, documenting concerns Indigenous peoples and environmentalists had with the project. This was the first time Indigenous groups were able to participate in an EA. In April 1977 Thomas Berger put forth his report which concluded that a pipeline crossing the Northern Yukon would be extremely damaging to caribou and other wildlife populations that certain Indigenous communities relied on for survival. He concluded a pipeline built across the northern Yukon would be detrimental and strongly advised against it. Berger ended by recommending a 10-year moratorium on construction to allow for the settlement of Indigenous land claims. The government accepted this request.

This was a pivotal point in the development of Canadian EA, setting precedence in how the process should be completed. This inquiry was the first time potential social and environmental impacts were associated with development. Thomas Berger led the fight by including all communities and held Traditional Ecological Knowledge to the same standard as scientific information. In a high-profile case, Canada was able to further learn about northern Indigenous communities and the environmental degradation attached to building on this land. Finally, the economic benefit did not outweigh the social and cultural degradation of Indigenous communities in Canada.

Unfortunately, it took until 1977 for the Canadian Government to show an instance of holding Indigenous communities’ well-being over economic benefit. This was also a breakthrough for TEK as traditional knowledge was accepted and used in federal decision-making. This was a large step forward as it set a precedent for Indigenous involvement in EA. Since then, progress has been made, but also progress lost. There is still much work to be done, but right now, let us look back on this accomplishment and learn from it. During this case, Thomas Berger showed us the power of Indigenous involvement in EA. It is time we take what has proven successful and turn these teachings into a constant reality.

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