Using Indigenous and Western Science as a pathway for freshwater research across Canada

Steven Alexander and colleagues discuss their team’s latest research examining the extent to which Indigenous science and knowledge contribute to freshwater research and monitoring across Canada.

There are many benefits to drawing upon diverse knowledge systems in environmental research. Such practices – referred to by various terms including bridging, weaving, or braiding – have been shown to improve our collective understanding of environmental change, expand the evidence base, build trust, and increase legitimacy in decision-making.

Perhaps even more importantly, it is critical to leverage all available ways of knowing, including Indigenous science, in order to prioritize and restore relationships between Indigenous Peoples and the environment they live in, especially considering the numerous threats they face. While long-standing respectful and reciprocal relationships to the natural world can be found among Indigenous Peoples globally, this relational connection is particularly strong to freshwater ecosystems across what is known today as Canada and the US.

Implementing inclusive research approaches that bridge multiple ways of knowing remains a challenge, so our goal in this study was to identify examples to learn from and inform practice.

Mistissini Lake, Eeyou Istchee, Québec © Renaud Lefebvre

We turned to the published literature considering the plethora of local case studies which bring together multiple ways of knowing in the context of ecological research and monitoring. We’d like to highlight three key findings and insights based upon our review of 74 published case studies across Canada (see map below):

The first is the incredible diversity of Indigenous knowledge systems that were represented. Collectively, 78 distinct knowledge systems were mobilized across the case studies.

Geographic distribution of case studies included in the systematic map

The second is the diversity of methods and approaches employed which suggests that there are many ways to bring together knowledge systems, and not just one.

Finally, the presence and diversity of Indigenous methodologies employed and Indigenous co-authorship were especially notable in comparison to what we found in a previous study, suggesting an emerging transformation in aquatic research to a practice that elevates the role of Indigenous communities, respects Indigenous science and knowledge, and is informed by Indigenous ways of being and doing. This transformation is not only important for providing a greater depth of understanding, but also in responding to the immediacy of anthropogenic climate change.

Relationship between Indigenous science methods, methodology and Western science methods for selected case studies classified as research and monitoring

The results of our study provide important insights for researchers and practitioners. There are many pathways to bridging Indigenous and Western sciences that can help to inform a wide diversity of research questions across multiple ecological and hydrological scales. In addition, is the importance of Indigenous knowledge holders and Indigenous communities. 

It is important to note that these approaches are contextual, place-based, and operationalized through a variety of research practices. Compiling a collection of case studies is a crucial first step in support of further understanding such important nuances and associated ethical research practices (e.g. free, prior and informed consent).

Similarly, a closer examination of the bridging and weaving process will be essential to identify examples that support the co-existence of knowledge systems, and seek to ‘remedy, rather than reinforce, existing power relations; respect differences, instead of suppress them; and uphold, as opposed to diminish, their unique strengths’ (Reid et al., 2021).

Read the full research article: “Bridging Indigenous and Western sciences in freshwater research, monitoring, and management in Canada” in Issue 2:3 of Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

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