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Canada’s environmental policies must respect Aboriginal traditional knowledge

The Government of Canada has launched a review of the federal environmental and regulatory processes. As part of this strategy, The Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna has created a four-member expert panel to undertake the review.

Consultations will be held across Canada beginning in September 2016, allowing the panel members to take into account the views of Canadians, including Indigenous people and a broad range of stakeholders.

One of the topics under review includes the federal environmental assessment process, which refers to identifying and mitigating potential adverse environmental effects before they occur. A pressing issue to consider is the importance of Aboriginal traditional knowledge when conducting environmental assessments. At present, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act does not mandate respected authorities to consider relevant Aboriginal traditional knowledge when conducting an environmental assessment. Based on section 16.1 of the Act, the authorities have the discretion to consider community and Aboriginal traditional knowledge. The interim principles adopted by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency simply provide guiding principles rather than mandatory provisions when considering Aboriginal traditional knowledge. These include:

  1. Working with communities to plan and conduct research involving Aboriginal traditional knowledge with the respected knowledge holders.
  2. Seeking prior informed consent to access Aboriginal traditional knowledge
  3. Accessing Aboriginal traditional knowledge with the support of the community
  4. Respecting intellectual property rights of the the traditional knowledge holders
  5. Collecting Aboriginal traditional knowledge in collaboration with the community

There are many additional possibilities of policies that can be adopted, such as requiring the benefits that arise from the utilization of Aboriginal traditional knowledge to be shared with the providers of such knowledge. This would help promote fairness and equity. Other reforms can include establishing mutually agreed terms between the parties to promote openness and transparency.

In addition to adopting new policies, the prospect of mandating the above interim principles will be highly beneficial. Not only will this help establish trust, respect and cooperation when dealing with Aboriginal communities but it will also lead to better outcomes and help strengthen mitigation measures. In addition, this will help bring the environmental assessment process dealing with Aboriginal traditional knowledge in line with the principles of access and benefit sharing.

To share your input on the environmental and regulatory processes, you can take part in an online questionnaire, which is available until August 31st. In addition, funding is available for Indigenous people to express their views in the review process. For more details, please visit:

Vipal Jain is a Research Assistant with ABS Canada. Her interest in international intellectual property, biotechnology and sustainable development brings her to ABS. Vipal is currently a second year JD law student at the University of Ottawa. She is also the co-founder of BioTown, a nonprofit organization in Ottawa that encourages accessible science. Vipal holds a Bachelor of Science with a specialization in genetics and biotechnology from the University of Toronto.