Guidance: Indigenous Knowledge under the Impact Assessment Act

Procedures for Working with Indigenous Communities

1. Purpose

This guidance provides some considerations when working with Indigenous communitiesFootnote 1 and knowledge holders on how to include Indigenous Knowledge in assessments under the Impact Assessment Act (IAA). It emphasizes including Indigenous Knowledge in the initial phases of the impact assessment process. It is designed for staff of the Impact Assessment Agency (the Agency), review panels, and proponents (and their consultants). This guidance differentiates between the roles of Agency staff and review panels and the roles of proponents and their consultants; and where it is specified that the roles of these parties vary.

The guidance may also be relevant to the conduct of regional and strategic assessments under the IAA. In some cases, regional and strategic assessments under the IAA may not be tied to any particular proponent. Guidance directed towards proponents may be applicable to Agency staff, committees and any other parties involved in a regional or strategic assessment, unless outlined otherwise in regional and strategic assessment policy and guidance.

Note: the term “assessment processes” is used to indicate impact, regional and strategic assessment processes under the IAA.

2. Introduction

This guidance should be interpreted and applied in conjunction with the guidance contained in other sections of the Practitioner’s Guide to Federal Impact Assessments under the IAA. In particular, the reader should refer to the Guidance: Protecting Confidential Indigenous Knowledge under the IAA. Also refer to the Indigenous Knowledge Policy Framework for Project Reviews and Regulatory Decisions. The framework applies to impact assessments and regulatory decisions under the IAA, Canadian Energy Regulator Act, Canadian Navigable Waters Act and amendments to the Fisheries Act.

Although there are many different definitions of Indigenous Knowledge by various Indigenous communities and organizations and in academic or international literature, there is no one universally accepted definition. For this reason, no official definition of Indigenous Knowledge is provided in this document. In general, it may be said that Indigenous Knowledge is based in the worldview of an Indigenous people – First Nation, Inuit or Métis.

Indigenous Knowledge is a holistic system embedded in the various cultures of different Indigenous peoples. For the purposes of assessment processes under the IAA, generally, Indigenous Knowledge is understood as a body of knowledge built up by a group of Indigenous people through generations of living in close contact with the land. Indigenous Knowledge is cumulative and dynamic. It builds upon the historic experiences of a people and adapts to social, economic, environmental, spiritual and political change. While the term “traditional knowledge” is often used interchangeably with Indigenous Knowledge, the IAA uses the term Indigenous Knowledge in order to recognize that the knowledge system evolves and is not set in the past, as the word “traditional” may imply.

When Indigenous Knowledge is provided with respect to a designated project, according to paragraph 22(1)(g) of the IAA, it is one of the factors that must be taken into account during the impact assessment of the project. Thus, where provided, proponents must include Indigenous Knowledge in their Impact Statement. In addition, the Agency or review panel must include Indigenous Knowledge, if provided, in their impact assessment report as per sections 28 and 51 of the IAA, and explain how Indigenous Knowledge was considered in the assessment. The Agency or committee conducting a regional or strategic assessment under the IAA must take Indigenous Knowledge into account as set out in subsection 97 (2) of the IAA, and, according to subsection 102 (2) of the IAA, must describe how Indigenous Knowledge was taken into account in the corresponding assessment reports. Proponents, review panels, committees and Agency staff need to collaborate with the Indigenous communities potentially affected by the project or regional or strategic assessment in order to include Indigenous Knowledge in their assessment.

The process of including Indigenous Knowledge in assessment processes needs to be based on a foundation of respect for the worldview of Indigenous peoples. This process of working with Indigenous communities and knowledge holders must respect Aboriginal and treaty rights, recognized and affirmed by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Indigenous Knowledge is often associated with the exercise and protection of Aboriginal and treaty rights, which is supported by the continued accumulation of Indigenous Knowledge through use of lands and resources for traditional purposes.

2.1 Importance of Indigenous Knowledge in assessment processes

Indigenous Knowledge will be considered alongside Western scientific knowledge and other information throughout the course of the impact assessment. Indigenous Knowledge is holistic, and in an impact assessment, it can provide evidence and understanding related to the biophysical environment; to social, cultural, economic, and health issues; as well as to Indigenous governance, traditional laws, customs and use of resources. It is important for proponents to be aware that Indigenous Knowledge should be included for all of these aspects of their technical assessments, and not only to inform an assessment of potential project impacts on Indigenous peoples. It is helpful for Indigenous communities to share Indigenous Knowledge with proponents and other participants in an impact assessment, starting early in the development of the project, as this knowledge may provide important insights related to:

Indigenous Knowledge may also provide important insights for regional and strategic assessments; it should be considered and included throughout regional and strategic assessment processes.

The knowledge of each Indigenous community is unique, and thus it is a best practice for proponents to engage each community separately, unless the communities indicate an interest in working together. Not only is the Indigenous Knowledge of each community unique, but the knowledge of First NationsFootnote 2, MétisFootnote 3 and InuitFootnote 4 have their own unique contexts, and there can be further distinctions within these groups. Given this, the diversity of knowledge of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit needs to be recognized in the assessment process and in the Impact Statement and Impact Assessment report. Flexibility is needed in working with Indigenous communities, as the needs and approaches of communities will vary.

Indigenous Knowledge is very specific to community context, the knowledge holder(s), and often to the language of the Indigenous group. If the Indigenous Knowledge is linked to the biophysical environment, or the practice of traditional activities, then the specific context of the location it is tied to is important.In impact assessment, Indigenous communities often contribute knowledge in this context, which is often called traditional land or marine use, and referred to within traditional land or marine use studies.

3. Questions and considerations

This section outlines questions and considerations related to working with knowledge holders and communities to include Indigenous Knowledge in assessment processes, especially during the initial stages of setting up the process and working with the community to include Indigenous Knowledge.

Proponents usually engage Indigenous communities over a longer time period, ideally beginning before an Initial Project Description is submitted to the Agency. Within impact assessments conducted under the IAA, the majority of information about a project is generated by proponents, and then examined by impact assessment participants - in particular the Agency or review panel. Thus, Indigenous Knowledge related to a project is often submitted via proponents. It is beneficial for Indigenous communities to engage directly with proponents for this work.

3.1 Setting up the process

3.1.1 Understanding community context

Prior to contacting an Indigenous community, proponents and Agency staff should review existing resources to learn about the community in terms of their historical context, geographic location, traditional use of their lands and resources, governance structure, how the community undertakes consultation and shares knowledge, and the Indigenous laws in place in the community. This initial research is important to begin to understand the context of the community and to ensure initial engagement and discussions about Indigenous Knowledge are respectful. It can also be helpful to provide context for the community and provide background for what the community considers culturally significant or sacred. This background information will also help in determining who to speak within the community and how best to approach community members. In many cases, protocol will require that leadership be approached first in order to seek Indigenous Knowledge of community members.

It is also important that the community not be asked to re-create work and that the person initiating the work be well informed. It is helpful to look into whether the community has provided Indigenous Knowledge for other projects or for research. Consent by the community should precede any use of the information for purposes other than that for which it was originally intended.

3.1.2 Community protocols on Indigenous Knowledge

Proponents and Agency staff should discuss with the Indigenous community how best to undertake engagement to include Indigenous Knowledge in assessment processes. Part of this approach requires that the current local protocols and procedures developed by the Indigenous community for the management of Indigenous Knowledge be understood and followed. These Indigenous Knowledge protocols may include direction for the collection, use, internal approvals and validation, review, interpretation, and protection of Indigenous Knowledge. As noted above, the definition and approach to Indigenous Knowledge varies between Indigenous communities. It is vital that the differing processes for respectfully working with the community to include their knowledge in assessment processes be understood, respected, and implemented.

While Indigenous Knowledge protocols may be provided in written form, there may also be oral traditions, including unwritten rules or protocols. Best practices or customs related to engagement should be understood. For example, when meeting knowledge holders, there may be customs to follow, such as the giving of tobacco or asking an Elder to conduct an opening prayer or a ceremony. Consent must be sought from leadership and knowledge holders to include Indigenous Knowledge in the assessment process prior to beginning any work with knowledge holders. Consent cannot be assumed - even if the proponent, review panel, committee members, or Agency staff have previously worked with the knowledge holder or community. In addition, the community or knowledge holder may choose to withdraw their consent at any point in the process. Links to examples of Indigenous Knowledge protocols can be found in the appendix.

3.1.3 Starting engagement

It is a privilege for proponents, Agency staff, review panels, and regional or strategic assessment committees when Indigenous communities share Indigenous Knowledge. There are various ways to include Indigenous Knowledge in assessment processes, and the Indigenous community sharing the knowledge should provide direction on how this may be done. Depending upon an Indigenous community’s practices and protocols, proponents should not be seeking Indigenous Knowledge separately from relationship building and engagement. The community may wish to work together to define the way in which Indigenous Knowledge will be included or considered in the impact assessment. The community may wish to be provided with funds to undertake an Indigenous Knowledge study themselves. When proponents or Agency staff are engaging with communities, it is recommended to start with the leadership in order to gain a clear understanding of how to respect the appropriate protocol or process, which could include a community meeting if desired.

Discussions with the Indigenous community regarding Indigenous Knowledge should start early in assessment processes:

Note: the Agency’s time lines for impact assessments apply to the Agency’s engagements for Indigenous Knowledge, which is one of the reasons for beginning these discussions early on. Discussions about Indigenous Knowledge that begin in the Planning phase can continue into the later phases of the impact assessment process, should it be determined that an impact assessment is required.

Prior to the first meeting, ask about cultural protocols to be followed with members of the community, and whether there are different practices in different communities. When including Indigenous Knowledge in the impact assessment, consideration should be given to whether there are additional things that need to be done in addition to the cultural processes for general engagement. This must be done respectfully, with the goal of building relationship.

3.1.4 Indigenous Knowledge and confidentiality

Prior to sharing Indigenous Knowledge, Indigenous communities and knowledge holders need to discuss with the Agency, committee or review panel whether any of the Indigenous Knowledge is confidential. If an Indigenous community wishes to provide confidential Indigenous Knowledge to the Agency, committee or review panel, discussions must happen prior to submission of the Indigenous Knowledge to ensure that it can be appropriately managed. Please see Guidance: Protecting Confidential Indigenous Knowledge under the Impact Assessment Act.

3.2 Spend time with the community

3.2.1 Understanding who you are meeting with

It is important for proponents and their consultants to understand who they are meeting with in the community, as well as the role of the community members, whether the individuals need to have agreements from their leadership to share Indigenous Knowledge, and if agreements have been received. Since the inclusion of Indigenous Knowledge is part of the larger relationship building process and can only be done effectively if based on trust, proponents need to dedicate a significant amount of time to ensuring this is done properly. Spending a short amount of time in the community does not suffice; collaboration, transparency, and relationship building is needed. For example, the proponent needs to continue to engage with communities throughout the impact assessment - not only at the beginning. Indigenous Knowledge will inform initial project design, scoping, and the development of an impact statement, but also may be helpful in responding to information requirements and in developing follow-up and monitoring programs. The proponent and the community should agree to the ways Indigenous Knowledge will be included throughout the impact assessment and life cycle of the project.

To better understand the unique cultures of the Indigenous peoples and their ways of life - which encompasses their knowledge and which is often based on oral history and time spent on the land - it is a best practice to walk the land and participate with knowledge holders. It is also important to meet in a setting where the knowledge holders are comfortable. It is best to spend time with different knowledge holders in the community in order to seek a variety of perspectives. It is important to ask the community about best practices for engaging with women, elders, harvesters, and youth. It is vital to understand the importance of the Indigenous Knowledge that is being entrusted to people from outside the community, and the significance of the sharing. Indigenous Knowledge is based on worldviews and cultural values; the act of sharing Indigenous Knowledge can be sacred.

These are best practices for everyone when engaging with knowledge holders. Agency staff do not always engage directly with knowledge holders and may receive knowledge through other means, such as written submissions.

3.2.2 Indigenous language considerations

Proponents and their consultants need to consider whether the knowledge holders or community members will be speaking in their Indigenous language when sharing knowledge, and whether there is a need to arrange for an interpreter. It is vital to note that some Indigenous words used by knowledge holders cannot be easily translated into English or French, and the language itself may be a crucial way of preserving and transmitting the Indigenous Knowledge. It is important that the knowledge holders be able to express themselves and share their knowledge in their own language, and that a qualified person chosen by the Indigenous community provide the interpretation or translation. Furthermore, translation of Indigenous languages should include a description of the terms used and not simply be one-word translations, as context is important and a direct translation of one word may not exist. Since review panels hold hearings and Indigenous persons may wish to speak in their own language during a hearing, these best practices around interpretation may be applicable to these proceedings as well.

3.2.3 Appropriate procedures and protocols for an Indigenous Knowledge study

It is a best practice for proponents to discuss with Indigenous communities the possibility of funding the community to undertake its own Indigenous Knowledge study or identifying a mutually agreed upon third party to complete such work. This will help to ensure the Indigenous Knowledge is accurately described, that it is collected in a culturally appropriate manner, and that the ownership of the Indigenous Knowledge by the Indigenous community is fully respected. It is helpful for impact assessment to include the perspectives of a diversity of knowledge holders, including elders, harvesters, women and youth, who often have unique knowledge to contribute. The Indigenous Knowledge researcher needs to be chosen or agreed upon by the community’s leadership, and should follow any confidentiality arrangements in place between the proponent and the Indigenous community. The Indigenous community should be asked to identify or approve the Indigenous Knowledge holders who are representative of the community (i.e., holders of different types of knowledge) to participate in the study. The Indigenous community should determine the exact circumstances, including if the process should include participation in activities on the land, such as conducting site visits with knowledge holders in and around the proposed project area. This participation can deepen the understanding of the Indigenous Knowledge and its context.

If an Indigenous community decides not to work with a proponent, Agency staff or the review panel should begin conversations to identify methods to receive Indigenous Knowledge directly. These methods can include oral presentations at public hearings or meetings, and submissions of studies via documents, or sharing of videos. In some circumstances, the Agency could meet with knowledge holders or participate in observations on the land to receive Indigenous Knowledge directly. If Indigenous Knowledge is being documented via video or in writing, discussions should occur with respect to the ownership, control, use, and protection of the materials. If the Indigenous community has agreed to the proponent describing or summarizing Indigenous Knowledge in the Impact Statement, the Agency or the review panel should ensure that the Indigenous Knowledge described by proponents has been validated by the Indigenous community. Regarding confidential Indigenous Knowledge, please see our guidance: Protecting Confidential Indigenous Knowledge under the Impact Assessment Act.

3.2.4 Considering the form of Indigenous Knowledge being provided

Indigenous Knowledge is a holistic knowledge system, based on the Indigenous community’s worldview. Though the knowledge holder traditionally passes down Indigenous Knowledge orally, it comes in many forms and may also be documented in writing, photos, videos, etc. It can also be reflected in ceremonies or through activities on the land, and may be place-specific. It is important to respect oral history, to honour the form in which Indigenous Knowledge is provided, and to ask whether the knowledge can be recorded in writing. This is part of understanding cultural norms, knowing that certain information should not be written down, and recognizing that stories should not be broken into pieces. It is also important to ask if it is possible to transcribe the Indigenous Knowledge in English or French, or whether there are terms that do not translate properly.

When working with Indigenous Knowledge, it is very important not to take the Indigenous Knowledge out of context. Therefore, when creating an Indigenous Knowledge study or document, a best practice is for the Indigenous community to write it themselves, or to hire their own consultant to write it on their behalf. In this context, the Indigenous Knowledge document needs to be verified by the knowledge holders and community, especially if the document was not written by the community. The format in which Indigenous Knowledge is shared with the Agency or review panel must respect the context in which the knowledge holder originally provided it. Efforts should be made to provide a culturally appropriate setting for sharing the Indigenous Knowledge.

Proponents, regional and strategic assessment committees, or Agency staff need to discuss with the communities why Indigenous Knowledge is being requested, how it will be applied to the impact assessment, and views about how the Indigenous Knowledge relates to the project or potential impacts of the project. Furthermore, Indigenous Knowledge should only be applied to the project for which it is collected, and not be considered for any other project unless the Indigenous community indicates a desire to do so. Although Indigenous Knowledge studies done for previous projects or other purposes may be helpful, especially in examining cumulative effects, the agreement of the Indigenous community must be obtained before referring to other studies. If a previous Indigenous Knowledge study is being considered in an assessment process, information on the context of the study should be sought from the Indigenous community.

4. Analysis and inclusion of the Indigenous Knowledge

4.1 Understanding linkages between Indigenous Knowledge and the potential impacts of a project

The proponent, and Agency staff, committee or review panel need to understand how the Indigenous Knowledge being presented is related to impacts of the project. Indigenous peoples have worldviews different from that of Western science. The process of including Indigenous Knowledge in impact assessment should be inclusive, with proponents, Agency staff and review panels working with the Indigenous community to identify and understand the potential impacts, based on the knowledge and interpretive framework of both worldviews. This collaborative analysis can include looking at how Indigenous Knowledge and Western science each contribute to understanding the direct or indirect linkages to potential impacts of the project. This can inform a common understanding of potential impacts on Indigenous peoples, as well as impacts on the biophysical environment; on social, economic, and health conditions; and on the rights of Indigenous peoplesFootnote 5.

The Indigenous Knowledge informing the assessment of impacts on Indigenous peoples could include direct associations, such as the project site overlapping a specific harvesting area, but may also include less obvious and more complex connections, which the proponent, review panel or Agency must seek to understand. For example, if a knowledge holder shares a story, it is important to discuss what is being communicated in order to understand what the relationship is between that particular story and the proposed project. Linkages between Indigenous Knowledge and topics explored under regional and strategic assessment may also be based on complex connections; a similar approach should be taken by the Agency or regional or strategic assessment committees to understand these. It is important to discuss what is being communicated and to seek to understand the context of oral histories, especially if the importance of the Indigenous Knowledge is not fully understood. There may be important connections between culture, oral histories, and the land - especially around the proposed project.

Discussions about linkages of Indigenous Knowledge to potential project impacts start with early engagement, and should continue throughout the impact assessment. For example, when the Indigenous community engages with other participants who are assessing the potential impacts of the project and new information is shared, further linkages are often revealed. Proponents, Agency staff, regional or strategic assessment committees, and review panels require cultural competencies in order to engage in this dialogue and to understand the linkages. An open and ethical space for sharing between the knowledge systems of Indigenous Knowledge and Western science needs to be created.

4.2 Seeking feedback on how Indigenous Knowledge has been described

The proponent should view Indigenous Knowledge as complementary and influential information alongside Western science. A mutually respectful consideration of different types of knowledge is needed in order to produce a full understanding of the potential impacts of a project, whether measurable or perceived. Activities such as workshops or site visits that include leadership (of both the Indigenous community and the proponent and their experts (knowledge holders, scientists, engineers, etc.)), may provide appropriate information for considering Indigenous Knowledge in impact assessment.

Where Indigenous Knowledge has been summarized, or a party external to the Indigenous community has written their own text to describe the knowledge, verification of that description by the Indigenous community is vital. The Indigenous community should be given the opportunity to review the report, and to ensure the Indigenous Knowledge is accurately described. The Agency or committee should also verify with the Indigenous community the appropriateness of methods used to collect and report on Indigenous Knowledge, for example, considering whether consent of knowledge holders was obtained in writing prior to the Indigenous Knowledge being shared. Also, in the case where existing Indigenous Knowledge was used by the proponent in its submissions, examine whether the proponent properly described the context for which the existing Indigenous Knowledge was originally collected. Further points to examine are whether a diversity of knowledge holders were included and whether the proponent sought Indigenous Knowledge in a culturally appropriate setting for example by engaging with knowledge holders while on the land.

Indigenous Knowledge should be examined in the same way as other evidence, including by looking at its relevance and keeping it in full context. Where Western science and Indigenous Knowledge are presented on the same aspect of the impact assessment, both forms of evidence should be given full and fair consideration. Where the conclusions about potential impacts on the same valued component differ, knowledge and views from each perspective should be presented so the reader can better understand the context.

4.3 Reflecting Indigenous Knowledge in the report

The IAA requires that the impact assessment, regional or strategic assessment report indicate how Indigenous Knowledge was considered in the assessment of effects. Impact assessment reports should provide a transparent overview of how Indigenous Knowledge was received, applied and considered in the analysis, and how it influenced conclusions of the assessment. Where possible, reports should describe the Indigenous Knowledge provided by each Indigenous community separately.

When the Agency consults Indigenous communities on the development of potential conditions for the decision statement (where applicable), any text about Indigenous Knowledge should be verified with the communities. If aspects of Indigenous Knowledge influenced conclusions or actions around the project design, mitigations, or the importance of effects, that must be reflected.

5. Conclusion

The process of including Indigenous Knowledge in assessment processes must be based on a foundation of respect for the worldview and rights of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous Knowledge is holistic, and in impact assessment it can provide evidence and perspectives for understanding the biophysical environment, as well as social, cultural, economic, health, Indigenous governance and resource use. The inclusion of Indigenous Knowledge in assessment processes respects the relationship Indigenous communities have with the land, air and water, and working together on considering Indigenous Knowledge in assessment processes can contribute to better assessments and project outcomes for the Indigenous communities and proponents, as well as the Agency, review panels, and committees.


Indigenous Knowledge protocols by Indigenous Nations or Organizations

Examples of Indigenous Knowledge in impact assessment guidance

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