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Peigi Wilson

October 28th, 2010

By Erika Blackie

Peigi Wilson, a Métis from Ontario, has worked for the United Nations Environment Program, the Assembly of First Nations, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, and Environment Canada.  In her 18-year career as a lawyer and advocate, Peigi has promoted respect for the environment and Indigenous rights as a necessary joint objective.  In a recent discussion with Peigi about her Master of Laws thesis completed in 2009, Peigi discussed the importance of Indigenous participation in environmental governance.

Environmental issues are a collective threat as all populations are affected. The loss of biological diversity threatens our resiliency; the loss of different ways of looking at the world or addressing a problem threatens our intellectual capacity to respond to threats.  Therefore, to ensure environmental protection, it is advised that different schools of thought be explored when creating environmental policy. “As our societies are interconnected, we need to come together to develop environmental legislation that is respectful of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous worldviews”, says Peigi. “However, Indigenous Peoples are generally excluded from environmental governance and their ideas and values are ignored or ridiculed.”

The Indigenous concept of interconnectedness views the land and people connected as one. “Interconnectedness is a concept that is quite common across many different Indigenous cultures” says Peigi. “Many traditional Indigenous cultures recognize the symbiotic relationship between humanity and the natural world. It is the notion that everything: humans, plants, birds, fish, trees, the sky, earth, and water, are all part of each other and because of this interconnection what we do in the environment has an impact not only on the environment but on us”. The notion of interconnectedness is embraced in numerous Indigenous traditional laws, such as respect for the boreal forest, or respect for future generations. Although this idea is captured in Indigenous laws it is not yet recognized in current Canadian legislation.

Canadian laws do not reflect the traditional philosophies of Indigenous Peoples and their legal systems. As Peigi confirms, “There are very few opportunities for Indigenous Peoples to participate in environmental regulation”. In her thesis, Peigi cites numerous examples of disrespect for Indigenous Peoples in Canadian environmental laws and policy. She believes that the fundamental cause for neglecting Indigenous worldviews is a clash of cultures as well as a general lack of awareness by non-Indigenous Canadians. “Indigenous Peoples generally share a worldview in that everything is connected; the majority of Canadians view things as disconnected and presume that humanity is superior to the environment”, explains Peigi. “It is these two fundamentally different ideas that I see as the underlying difference between environmental laws of Indigenous Peoples and those of Canada”. As a result, Canadian Laws do not reflect the philosophies of Indigenous peoples and their legal systems. However, an approach to environmental governance which seeks to include the notion of interconnectedness can bring numerous benefits to natural landscapes in peril such as the boreal forest.

“As our societies are interconnected, we need to come together to develop environmental legislation that is respectful of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous worldviews … There are very few opportunities for Indigenous Peoples to participate in environmental regulation. … Incorporating Indigenous concepts of interconnectedness within the Canadian legal paradigm would promote greater pride by Indigenous Peoples in their own values, a greater awareness by other Canadians, and ideally greater respect for the natural world as a whole.”

As Peigi explains, one of the greatest simultaneous threats to Indigenous cultures and biological diversity is the ‘extinction of experience’ (Gary Naban and Sara St.Antoine). Essentially, extinction of experience is the extinction of a cultural relationship to the natural world. “The four sacred medicines: cedar, sage, tobacco, and sweet grass, are fundamental elements of some Indigenous Peoples’ spirituality as well as practical tangible elements of many Indigenous cultures in Canada”, says Peigi, citing the example of the four sacred medicines to explain the concept of extinction of experience. “Imagine if there was a blight that wiped out all of the eastern white cedar. This would make it virtually impossible for Indigenous People to use cedar as a traditional medicine and to practice their traditional religions”. Without the opportunity to experience the healing power of cedar, the notion of cedar as a sacred medicine would become empty words for future generations.  The loss of the boreal forest’s cedar for example, would create a disconnection to the natural land and as a result would greatly impact the way Indigenous peoples express their traditional culture. As the relationship with the natural world is weakened, the value of respect for the natural world becomes meaningless, promoting even greater environmental destruction.

An approach to environmental governance that seeks to include Indigenous Peoples and to recognize their traditional philosophies, such as the notion of interconnectedness, can bring numerous benefits to natural landscapes in peril such as the boreal forest.   “Incorporating Indigenous concepts of interconnectedness within the Canadian legal paradigm would promote greater pride by Indigenous Peoples in their own values, a greater awareness by other Canadians, and ideally greater respect for the natural world as a whole. The Courts have recommended reconciliation between Indigenous Peoples and the Crown; part of this reconciliation must include resolving our differences in how we view the environment. There needs to be dialogue, greater education and awareness, and consensus building between Peoples. Worldviews different from the majority must be given due respect. The rights of Indigenous Peoples to self-determination and self-government must be recognized in Canadian law.  This includes recognizing the rights of Indigenous Peoples to determine what happens on their lands.  Indigenous Peoples must form a third order of government in Canada with jurisdictional authority to exercise environmental decision making.”

First Nations are losing their role in national environmental governance and as a result a loss of traditional culture that supports the retention of biological diversity is occurring. Indigenous Peoples have been sidelined from environmental governance in Canada and are losing the capacity and opportunity to exercise their traditional cultures, including practice of traditional laws. Through recognition of Indigenous concepts such as interconnectedness, Indigenous Peoples environmental philosophies and modern-day governance practices can be harmonized. As Peigi asserts, this will help sustain Indigenous cultures, mitigate the extinction of experience, and support the retention of biological diversity.

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