Frances Widdowson questions whether indigenous “traditional knowledge” should be recognized alongside “western science” and given “equal recognition”

Frances Widdowson questions whether indigenous “traditional knowledge” should be recognized alongside “western science” and given “equal recognition”

By Frances Widdowson

Two recent reports from expert panels appointed by the Canadian government — one about modernizing the National Energy Board and the other providing a new vision for Canadian impact assessments — stress the importance of integrating indigenous “traditional knowledge” alongside “western science” and giving it “equal recognition.” Such recognition, according to these reports, not only will result in reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples and a realization of “nation to nation relationships;” it also will enhance evidence-based decision making.

While these bold pronouncements promise much, it is surprising that both reports make no effort to define what “traditional knowledge” is, or specify how it complements “western science.” The use of the “western” adjective in conjunction with science is also perplexing in that science is a universal method that can be used, regardless of one’s ethnicity, to increase empirical knowledge and theoretical understanding. To juxtapose and elevate traditional knowledge in this way is to claim that indigenous peoples have unique insights inaccessible to others. And if this is the case, how can their claims be evaluated?

The peculiar stance of declaring the importance of something without stating what it is comes as no surprise to those who critically analyze the interaction between aboriginal groups and the Canadian government.


This evasion enables the government to hide the reality that the “knowledge” consists of either unsystematic observations or spiritual beliefs. Neither of these enhance “sound facts, evidence and analysis,” which both reports assert are essential for informing “good policy.” Demands that traditional knowledge be equally recognized, however, constitute a lucrative form of rent-seeking for quite a few lawyers, consultants and aboriginal leaders (a practice I have referred to elsewhere as neotribal rentierism).

As Albert Howard and I pointed out in our 1996 Policy Options article, “Traditional Knowledge Threatens Environmental Assessment,” promoting traditional knowledge is often seen as a harmless way to “include” aboriginal groups in decision making. But pretending to admire something that has only a token benefit is condescending and manipulative. This will not lead to reconciliation or bring to fruition legally contrived relations with indigenous “nations.”

Aggrandizing traditional knowledge also can have serious environmental consequences. The much vaunted aboriginal “knowledge about the lands, plants and animals” based on being “intricately linked to the land” disguises the low quality of testimony that is provided.

Impressions that wildlife populations are increasing or decreasing, that sea ice is being depleted, or that fish have more lesions than in the past, might impart basic information, but this is very different from the systematic data that are collected and analyzed in accordance with well-substantiated scientific theories.


Traditional knowledge observations are actually protoscientific, in that they lack specificity and are not recorded, preventing them from being compared accurately across space and time and used purposefully in hypothesis testing. Even worse, designating certain people as “traditional knowledge holders” shields their claims from scrutiny, undermining the skeptical ethos of scientific research.

The uncritical inclusion of these unsystematic observations is particularly problematic when it involves protecting species that aboriginal peoples have an interest in harvesting. Take, for example, the cases of polar bears and bowhead whales, which the Inuit want to hunt. In both cases, “traditional knowledge holders” argued, in opposition to scientific studies, that these species were increasing in numbers due to the fact that they were seeing more animals.

But spotting more whales and bears does not mean that the populations, as a whole, are becoming more numerous. In the case of polar bears, for example, the deterioration of sea ice could mean that more bears were being forced into inhabited areas to search for food, resulting in additional sightings. The conclusion that there were “more bears” could also have been due to motivated reasoning; an acceptance of population increase would result in the relaxation of hunting restrictions, enabling more profits to be obtained from the trophy-hunting industry.

The demand that traditional knowledge should be recognized equally is even more problematic when one considers that the “knowledge” includes spiritual beliefs. As spiritual beliefs cannot be challenged or verified, they can be used to justify any activity, including the over-exploitation of resources.

This has been seen in the aboriginal spiritual belief that animals “present themselves to be killed.” Some “traditional knowledge holders” believe that animals actively participate in being hunted, and that an appearance of an animal indicates that it is asking to be killed. To not kill the animal, in fact, is thus considered to be disrespectful by denying the animal’s wishes and disrupting spiritual ecological relationships. Professing to take this belief seriously is obviously not conducive to protecting endangered species.


The environmentally destructive consequences of equally recognizing traditional knowledge are often ignored because it is assumed that aboriginal peoples are “natural stewards” whose “worldview” directs them to care for, and not exploit, the environment. But aboriginal environmentalism, even if it existed historically, would have operated under the constraints of stone-age technology and subsistence practices. Today’s aboriginal peoples can have both the technology and economic interests that make it possible to damage the environment, and they must be subject to the same scientifically determined restrictions that apply to all resource users.

The inability to recognize these problems is due to a constant confusion that appears in the two expert panel reports. “Traditional knowledge” and “western science” are perceived as two parallel “value systems,” when values and science are completely different.

Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people alike will vary in the extent to which they value environmental protection. Determining the extent of environmental damage, such as the severity of global warming, the depletion of animal species and the toxicity of water, on the other hand, can emerge only through rigorous and objective scientific investigation. We need to prevent all vested interests from distorting our understanding of the environmental harm caused by economic development, and politically motivated promises to “equally recognize” traditional knowledge do not aid us in this endeavour.

Frances Widdowson is an associate professor in the Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary. She is co-author, with Albert Howard, of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation.

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