Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge to Environmentalism in Canada

By Ana L. Arciniega B. 

There is a problem of inclusivity within the environmentalist community and government policies in Canada. In particular, Indigenous people and their cultural teachings are underrepresented and completely sidelined in environmental NGOs and organizations as well as in the building of national policies regarding the land. Indigenous peoples in Canada have a long-standing culture and thousands of years of connection to their land and have developed their own sustainable land management practices. These Indigenous teachings have been widely ignored and underrepresented in the mainstream environmental movement in Canada where the main focus lies on Westernized, settler concepts of the environment and its preservation. The main focus of solving the climate crisis has been shaped by policies and conservation efforts that are founded on a colonialist, European perspective of how the environment is viewed and engaged with. By separating the human from the land and viewing the land as something that needs to be dominated and exploited for its resources, the environment and its peoples have suffered loss, destruction, and a lacking sense of identity. For environmental efforts to be effective, mainstream environmentalism and public policies need to adopt a holistic approach to viewing the environment, so change can be made effectively.  

Traditional Ecological Knowledge has various meanings and encompasses the collective Indigenous knowledge of all the people from specific tribal areas (Glasier-Lawson, M., 2013). The Indigenous knowledge of the land has come through generations over thousands of years through storytelling and teachings taught in the land all around the globe. The documentary Traditional Ecological Knowledge (2013), describes TEK as elder knowledge and Indigenous tradition; the knowledge is all-encompassing, viewing the land as part of human beings’ skill set used for sustaining humanity and the environment as a whole. Indigenous ancestors tell the stories of the past to the future generations in order for them to understand how to sustain the land and its resources. TEK teaches that humans are a part of the land, and they cannot be without the land; where there needs to be a reciprocal relationship between the land and its inhabitants. TEK has taught that the way humans think of the land is the way they will treat the land, therefore, if the land is seen as a part of human beings and there is respect attached to the land, humans will treat it with respect and care.  The Indigenous teachings of the environment places humans within the land, not above it; TEK is a relational approach to the land, where anything that affects the land, affects the very identity and wellbeing of its guests, making it the utmost priority for everyone to be good stewards of the land (Glasier-Lawson, M., 2013). 

According to Kevin Hutchings (2020), author of Transatlantic Upper Canada, the way European settlers in Canada thought about the environment and the land came from the 19th century’s concept of “improvement” during the Enlightenment era. New technologies and scientific discoveries led Europeans to the notion that humans could “better their lives both materially and morally by transforming natural terrain, rendering ‘wastelands’ productive and capable of meeting the enhanced needs of expanding and shifting human populations” while also “associating the promotion of domestic civility with related processes of social and geographic improvement” (Hutchings, 2020). For Europeans, forests were seen as an indefinite resource for commercial prosperity, where wood could be used for building, land for farming, and animals for nourishment and wealth. Improvement or progress to them could not be seen in the forests or in those who lived there, outside of civilization, since the forests and wilderness were considered unproductive places if they were not being exponentially exploited. Europeans separated themselves as “civilized” people and saw those outside of civilization as “savage” or uncivilized, which in turn, meant less-than or against improvement (Hutchings, 2020). When Europeans settled in North America then, the “Indians” were part of what they considered as uncivilized and savage, who refused to acknowledge the authority and superiority of European civilization. This in turn meant they were considered subhuman because they had no “productive” purpose for civilization which caused no moral concerns to be raised when European colonialists forced the Indigenous peoples to abandon their land or destroy their livelihood (Hutchings, 2020). 

Many current environmentalist philosophies are rooted in the same colonialist perspective of the land and its attachment to the concept of “improvement” and domination, where technology and scientific discovery are seen as the superior way of approaching both the environment and those who abide in it. This system of thinking is, in many ways, in opposition to the holistic way that Indigenous peoples have approached the environment and themselves. The same colonialist perspective of the environment is what has led to the destruction of natural resources and Indigenous peoples’ livelihood, so I pose the idea that the system that has corrupted the environment cannot be the same system that solves the environmental crisis; there needs to be a reconciliation of both Western, colonialist systems of thinking and the traditional Indigenous systems of thinking. I propose that the environmental movement and the government makers in Canada should make space for Indigenous peoples to incorporate their traditional knowledge, gathered over thousands of years of experience, into environmental efforts to fight the environmental and ecological crisis in Canada and to take the forefront of the movement. 

The documentary Traditional Ecological Knowledge (2013), states that the way TEK approaches the teachings of environmentalism to non-Native people, is through relationship and partnership. Because TEK focuses on all aspects of environmentalism, which are mainly relational approaches, Indigenous environmentalists seek to build relationships with people within agencies. In the documentary, they mention that the way to tackle the environmental crisis is by changing people’s relationship towards the land; by changing the way we think of the land as an economic asset into a holistic, respectful, and relational approach to the land, the way we act towards the land will change to fit those values (2013). According to TEK, through relationship and the sharing of knowledge and perspective is the only way to truly change the harmful Western, colonialist ideology embedded in Canadian society (2013). The only way to change the harmful actions towards the environment is done by an internal change in perspective which will lead to a change in actions. Environmental groups and communicators then, need to share Indigenous perspectives and create a space where Indigenous environmentalists can relationally approach the public with a new perspective that can influence individuals into a different way of thinking of the environment and the environmental crisis. Partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is important in the action against the environmental crisis in Canada which is in accordance with TEK’s teachings.      


Maija Glasier-Lawson, & Alva Productions (Producers), & Maija Glasier-Lawson (Director). (2013). Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology. Retrieved from 

Hutchings, K. (2020). Transatlantic Upper Canada : portraits in literature, land, and British-Indigenous relations. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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