Indigenous knowledge and Western science

How the two can work together to create progress in the environmental sector

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As businesses look to operate more sustainably, there has been a growing movement to draw on the wealth of Indigenous knowledge that’s intimately connected with the natural world.

In Canada’s rapidly evolving environmental sector, Indigenous Peoples can benefit from the increase in environmentally oriented jobs. That’s the objective of ECO Canada’s BEAHR training program, which builds capacity among Indigenous youth and membership to engage in meaningful environmental careers. BEAHR provides customizable environmental training programs for Indigenous communities that braid Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) with Western science.

Progress in the growing environmental sector is not possible without collaboration with Indigenous communities; their vast knowledge is crucial in informing business practices and decision-making throughout Canada. This is especially important for companies that operate in the natural resources sectors, where nearby Indigenous communities can provide a breadth of land knowledge as well as a workforce. As more businesses look to partner with First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, it’s critical that Indigenous Peoples participate equitably in, and benefit from, the socioeconomic opportunities available.

“For thousands of years, Indigenous Peoples have had a sustainable way of living, understanding that they are an integral component of a healthy functioning ecosystem. They have a depth of knowledge on all issues, from biodiversity to traditional medicine and conservation. By using their knowledge, coupled with Western science, we can bring forward a strengthened approach to environmental practice, for enhanced harmony and sustainable growth,” says Yogendra Chaudhry, vice-president of professional services at ECO Canada.

The BEAHR program, which is partially funded by the Government of Canada, is available to First Nations, Inuit and Métis people across Canada, helps communities develop local environmental champions to pursue green careers. Each program is developed with input from traditional Knowledge Holders and Elders, academic institutions and local industry and can be adapted to local community needs. Training is usually field-based, and students take away a renewed connection with their land, as well as technical skills suited for local environmental jobs or further education.

While current environmental work relies heavily on Western science, Chaudhry says BEAHR takes a different approach. “We try to make sure there is a good balance of Western science and Indigenous knowledge in every program.”

Employers looking to attract Indigenous environmental professionals must recognize that a relationship with Indigenous Peoples needs to be founded in respect for their distinct cultures and history. The BEAHR program, which has a nearly 80% employment rate for its 3,700 graduates, is committed to collaborating with Indigenous Peoples to build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships based on values of honesty and inclusion. BEAHR graduates have been employed by various organizations in utilities, natural resources, engineering, and environmental consulting. Some choose to stay on as technicians or land guardians on their own traditional territories. Many of them have also attended higher forms of education at a post-secondary institution to further pursue a meaningful environmental career.

The program has also evolved with the growing needs of the environmental sector. Prior to COVID-19, all BEAHR programs were delivered in-person. ECO Canada has since shifted to a blended model where parts of the course are virtual-led, without compromising either the quality of the course or the interactions between students. The Tsuut’ina Nation is one of the partner communities where ECO Canada recently delivered a successful 17-week hybrid model program.

“The BEAHR program is a great initiative,” says Samantha Whitney, program coordinator with Tsuut’ina Nation Career & Employment Resource Centre. “The program is important for the youth to learn about the environment, take information they’ve learned, and translate it into working in the environmental sector.”

Whitney notes the importance of including Elders, as a way of bringing Indigenous youth closer to their culture and heritage: “It brings an awareness to the land, and Elders are able to share what they know, because they are shedding light on things that have happened, are happening, or will happen. The program teaches the youth to bring the two [Indigenous Knowledge and Western science] together so they can have a better life for themselves while also helping the country.”

Indigenous Knowledge and Western science have much to offer to the environmental sector. While both knowledge systems bring a unique approach to environmental practice, Indigenous youth trained in both can help guide Canadian companies on the path to operating in harmony with the land.

For more information on ECO Canada and the BEAHR program, visit eco.ca/beahr/ or email beahr@eco.ca.

About ECO Canada:

ECO Canada is the steward for the Canadian environmental workforce. From job creation and wage funding to training and labour-market research, we champion the end-to-end career of an environmental professional. Our aim is to promote and drive responsible, sustainable economic growth within industry while ensuring that environmental care and best practice is a priority. Over the past 30 years, we have forged the academic partnerships, tools and research to not only train and certify environmental job-seekers, but to help fill the labour market.

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