Curriculum, Engagement, Indigenous Learning, Teaching

Teaching the Tension

Indigenous land rights, activism, and education in Canada

Popular, independent, and social media across Canada are currently filled with stories of conflict related to natural resource development and exploitation in Indigenous territories. Protest and advocacy in response to proposed pipelines such as Northern Gateway, Keystone XL, Energy East, and the Kinder Morgan Burnaby expansion, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in Mi’qmaqi/ New Brunswick, and social movements such as Idle No More are often motivated by inadequate recognition by government, industry, and much of Canadian society of Indigenous treaty and Aboriginal rights.

Despite recent efforts to increase Indigenous perspectives and knowledge in provincial curricula across Canada and the growth of land-based education programs, educational programming that addresses and explores Indigenous ecological knowledge, philosophies, and associated rights remains largely inadequate. As educators working with students in any level or subject area, it behooves us to become familiar with the underpinnings of these issues in order to apply our understanding in our pedagogical praxis.

 During the fall of 2012 and winter of 2013, I lived and taught in Prince George, B.C. My role as an assistant professor of Indigenous Environmental Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) proved to be especially interesting, as I arrived during the peak of hearings and protests related to the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline that would pass just north of Prince George en route to the Pacific Coast. That year also marked the introduction of the federal government’s omnibus Bills C-38 and 45, which contained drastic changes to environmental regulations, and the subsequent emergence of Idle No More.

After over a decade of working in outdoor and environmental education settings across Canada with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth, moving to UNBC at this time proved to be catalytic for my understanding of and connection to the link between contemporary socio-ecological issues and education. As a Métis academic and educator originally from Calgary, teaching predominantly Indigenous students from across northern B.C. and becoming involved in activism and advocacy as a faculty and community member also forced me to become much more familiar with the relationship between historical and contemporary treaties or lack thereof, constitutional and case law, and contemporary socio-ecological events. This experience also led me to a much deeper understanding of the historical and constitutional underpinnings of Indigenous rights that form the basis of most socio-ecological conflicts today – an understanding that I believe is lacking for many Canadians.

As an educator, I naturally came to view these events and my participation in them through a pedagogical lens, and I observed that significant teaching and learning was happening before, during, and after these rallies, marches, and protests.

I have now returned to Calgary, an economic and intellectual hub of natural resource development, where I work with education students at the University of Calgary to raise not only their awareness, but also their comfort level and confidence to engage with potentially controversial concepts in their studies and future teaching.

As such, I also experience tension at times when facilitating difficult conversations related to contemporary Indigenous and environmental issues. These dynamics have now become a major focus of my research. For example, I am currently leading a study into the pedagogical experiences of Indigenous and allied activists and educators involved in socio-ecological conflicts such as those described above.

In this article, I share insights from my recent experiences teaching and studying the tensions inherent in contemporary socio-ecological issues. I also introduce and discuss the duty to consult as an example of a commonly misunderstood area of Indigenous land and ecological rights. I conclude by providing suggestions based on my recent research in this area as well as links and resources for educators interested in learning more about historical and contemporary Indigenous ecological and educational topics in order to incorporate such discussions into their teaching practice.

Untangling the roots of conflict

The reverence for and maintenance of longstanding reciprocal relationships with specific geographical areas is a key aspect of Indigenous cultures around the world.1 This is certainly the case in Canada, where Indigenous peoples across the country have developed and maintained intricate relationships with particular territories prior to and after contact with Europeans and other settler groups.2

These reciprocal relationships have shaped Indigenous cultures, languages, epistemologies, and ontologies as well as the landscapes which our ancestors inhabited and cared for over thousands of years. These relationships are also practical in nature, as our ancestors learned over time how to survive and thrive in particular areas.2 As such, threats to Indigenous land rights are not only legal, political, and economic in nature; they threaten the very foundations of Indigenous cultures, wellness, and ways of being.

Unfortunately, many non-Indigenous Canadians remain unaware of the multifaceted centrality of the Land for Indigenous peoples and its recognition in rights that were affirmed in early treaties and the Canadian constitution.3 This lack of understanding often manifests in harsh, prejudicial and misinformed reactions to contemporary conflicts over land, such as recent events related to hydraulic fracturing on Mi’kmaq territory near Elsipogtog, New Brunswick.

(Mis)understanding Aboriginal and treaty rights

Early treaties contained specific “treaty rights” to various benefits such as medicine, education, and farming implements.4 However, in recognition of our ancestors’ longstanding relationships with specific territories, they also acknowledged inherent “Aboriginal rights” to continue traditional land-based activities such as hunting, fishing, and harvesting beyond designated reserve lands in territories subsequently designated as Crown land that were traditionally used by particular communities.

Fiduciary limitations on the potential disruption of these activities by settler governments and industry were clarified in Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 and subsequently affirmed through a series of provincial and federal court cases as the “Duty to Consult and Accommodate.”4 Canadian courts have ruled in favour of Indigenous groups in the vast majority of cases,5 firmly placing the onus on government in partnership with industry to adequately consult and accommodate Indigenous groups potentially impacted by developments in their traditional territories.

Justice Beverley McLachlan’s recent decision in favour of the Tsiqhot’in people of central British Columbia (Tsilqhot’in v British Columbia) has further affirmed, clarified, and extended Indigenous communities’ rights to make decisions regarding development in their traditional territories. Indigenous groups potentially impacted by resource or other development on or near their traditional territory must be adequately consulted and, if an agreement is reached to move ahead with the development, adequately compensated for the disruption.

There have been a number of recent cases of adequate consultation and accommodation that have led to mutually beneficial resource developments and co-management of parks and other areas of land.6 For example, the Haida Watchmen have successfully co-managed Gwaii Hanaas National Park in partnership with federal and provincial authorities since 1993, protecting their coastal waters and fisheries in keeping with traditional practices as well as preserving and sharing traditional knowledge for the benefit of local residents and visitors alike. For more information on the Haida Watchmen visit: http://coastalguardianwatchmen.ca.

However, despite such progress, broad societal misunderstanding and ignorance of Indigenous rights, the duty to consult, and what constitutes adequate consultation and accommodation are still at the root of many conflicts related to natural resource development and management today. Education about these issues is therefore critically important; however, educators attempting to engage their students in such critically informed discussion often encounter strong resistance and tension.

Challenges and strategies for educators

Formal and informal educators attempting to raise discussion and encourage critical thinking regarding social and environmental issues often experience personal stress as well as conflict with other educators, administrators, students, parents, and community members. Reflecting on personal experiences with socio-critical pedagogy, well known educational theorists Aoki7 and Haig-Brown8 invoke Paulo Freire to note that these processes are often characterized by conflict within one’s self, organizations, and the rest of society.

Mi’kmaq scholar Battiste9 also notes that educators engaging with critical Indigenous issues are faced with the dual task of not only providing facts, but also disrupting deeply seated societal assumptions and prejudices towards Indigenous peoples. Educators attempting to introduce critical environmental issues into their praxis also encounter considerable tension and resistance. As Jickling suggests, “the relationship between environmental education and advocacy is a stormy one.”10 Jickling also questions the role of educator as advocate and proposes that critical educators walk a fine line between merely promoting their personal opinions and facilitating authentically critical and open-minded thought by their students.

Education about these issues is critically important; however educators… often encounter strong resistance and tension.

Regardless of the sensitivity or reflexivity of critical educators, they often still encounter intense resistance from students, peers, administrators, and parents since merely raising issues for discussion can be viewed as controversial. It is therefore understandable that many educators consciously or unconsciously respond by distancing themselves from controversial issues.

However, as discussed by several participants in my recent study, those committed to continue working in critical areas often find success through strategies such as:

  • Seeking out resources to ensure that you have the content background and confidence to support your students’ learning;
  • Valuing controversy and fostering critical discussion rather than oppositional debate;
  • Embracing ambiguity and maintaining a sense of humour;
  • Facilitating case-based inquiry connected to current events;
  • Fostering interaction between your institution and a variety of stakeholders from the broader community; and
  • Reaching out to form relationships with supportive allies and even perceived opponents, an approach that Niblett11 describes as “appreciative resistance.”

Fortunately, inspiring cases of educators embracing these strategies are rapidly emerging and often shared, at least in part, on the Internet. A recent project by Grade 7 Science students at Connect, an inquiry-based middle school in Calgary, is a great example. These students had the opportunity to engage in an experiential research project exploring the social, cultural, economic, health, and environmental considerations of the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Their process and findings are shared on their website through a variety of media such as a sophisticated interactive map developed using ArcGIS technology, a physical model of the pipeline’s proposed route built to scale, and video.

This case exemplifies several of the strategies suggested above. The teacher, Greg Neil, clearly went to great lengths to invite various stakeholders into the classroom, foster critical discussion and inquiry, and connect with the broader community through several special events where the class shared their impressive work. Of particular note are the shifting and varied perspectives expressed by students before, during, and after the project. These students were provided with the necessary resources, tools, and intellectual freedom to conduct an inspiring case-based inquiry into a critical socio-ecological issue.12

As societal leaders working with learners of all ages, educators play a key role in questioning and shaping Canada’s understanding of itself. Sharing and gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges and successes experienced by educators and students who engage with critical socio-ecological issues such as Indigenous land rights, is a crucial first step in developing and providing better resources, curricula, and policies to support this highly important work.


En bref – Les médias populaires, indépendants et sociaux du Canada fourmillent actuellement de récits exposant des conflits en matière de développement des ressources naturelles et d’exploitation des territoires autochtones. Les protestations et les pressions qui en résultent et les mouvements sociaux tels Idle No More sont souvent issus du fait que le gouvernement, l’industrie et une grande partie de la société canadienne ne reconnaissent pas les traités et les droits des Autochtones. L’auteur de cet article fait état des constatations tirées de son expérience récente d’enseignement et d’étude des tensions inhérentes aux questions socioécologiques contemporaines. Il présente et examine également l’obligation de consulter, à titre d’exemple, un aspect souvent incompris des territoires autochtones et des droits écologiques. Enfin, des suggestions fondées sur les recherches récentes de l’auteur sont formulées à l’intention d’éducateurs souhaitant explorer les sujets des territoires autochtones et de l’écologie.

Original Photo: Michelle Caron (wikipedia.com)

First published in Education Canada, March 2015

1 G. Cajete, Look to the Mountain: An ecology of Indigenous education (Skyland, NC: Kivaki Press, 1994).

2 L. Simpson, “Anticolonial Strategies for Recovery and Maintenance of Indigenous Knowledge,” American Indian Quarterly 28, no. 3 & 4 (2004): 373-384.

3 G. Jardine, “An Invitation to Explore the Roots of Current Aboriginal/ non-Aboriginal Relations in Canada,” One World in Dialogue 2, no. 1 (2012): 25-37.

4 D.C. Natcher, “Land Use Research and the Duty to Consult: A misrepresentation of the Aboriginal landscape,” Land Use Policy 18 (2001): 113-122.

5 Jardine, “An Invitation to Explore the Roots of Current Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal Relations in Canada”; Natcher, “Land Use Research and the Duty to Consult.”

6 P. Nadasdy, “The Case of the Missing Sheep: Time, space, and the politics of ‘Trust’ in co-management practice,” in Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Natural Resource Management, ed. C. Menzies (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 127-151; S. Tsetta, V. Gibson, L. McDevitt, and S. Plotner, “Telling a Story of Change the Dene Way: Indicators for monitoring in diamond impacted communities,” Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health 3, no. 1 (2005): 59-70.

7 T. Aoki, “Experiencing Ethnicity as a Japanese Canadian Teacher: Reflections on a personal curriculum,” Curriculum Inquiry 13, no. 3 (1983): 321-335.

8 C. Haig-Brown, “Taking Control: Contradiction and First Nations adult education,” in First Nations Education in Canada: The circle unfolds, eds. M. Battiste & J. Barman (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1995), 262-287.

9 M. Battiste, “Post-Colonial Remedies for Protecting Indigenous Knowledge,” inTeaching as Activism: Equity meets environmentalism, eds. P. Tripp & L. Muzzin (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2005), 224-232.

10 B. Jickling, “Environmental Education and Advocacy: Revisited,” The Journal of Environmental Education 34, no. 2 (2003): 20-27.

11 B. Niblett, “Appreciative Resistance: Balancing activism and respect,” Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education 20, no. 4, (2008): 4.

12 To view the project summary visit: https://connectcharterschoolblog.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/an-inquiry-into-the-northern-gateway-pipeline/

Meet the Expert(s)

Gregory Lowan-Trudeau

Gregory Lowan-Trudeau, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary and an Adjunct Professor of First Nations Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia. He is the 2014 recipient of the Canadian Education Association’s Pat Clifford Award for Early Career Research in Education.

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