The Moose is Loose! - Comprehensive Research as a First Nation Research Strategy

The Moose is Loose!
Comprehensive Research as a First Nation Research Strategy
By Terry Tobias (November 6, 2000)
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Prior to five years ago few First Nation communities in BC had experience with doing cultural research aimed at meeting practical needs in their dealings with outside interests. There were exceptions for sure, among them the Gitxsan and the Nishga with their court cases, and the communities in the Peace River country who did land use and occupancy research to help stop an unwanted pipeline. The situation changed drastically after the Court of Appeal ruled in Delgamuukw. Its recognition of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en interest in their territory meant that the provincial government had to figure out how it could legally infringe on aboriginal rights and title. One of the things it did to this end was to create the Traditional Use Study (TUS) programme. In addition, Delgamuukw gave increased impetus to the British Columbia Treaty Commission (BCTC) process.

The BCTC does not make research a condition for being at the table. However, with the availability of TUS funding there has been an explosion of indigenous research across the province. To date there has been an enormous amount of resources directed towards TUS, and the majority of aboriginal communities have been involved.

Unfortunately, the TUS policy guidelines which instruct First Nations how to design and conduct the research were ill-conceived. Five years ago I spent a couple days meeting with the people in Victoria who were at that time drafting the guidelines. I was asked by the Ministry of Forests (MOF) to review them and make recommendations for improvement.

MOF's response to my recommendations made it clear that the whole TUS program was in for a very difficult time. I was convinced that the government's policy guidelines inadvertently invited First Nation people to fail in their research endeavours. There have of course been some TUS success stories, but these have been in spite of the guidelines, not because of them. The majority of interim TUS research product I have seen is not likely to serve First Nation interests well when push comes to shove on allocation issues. When negotiations reach the point of talking about who gets access to what on your territory, the niceties are put aside, and reliability of data comes under ruthless scrutiny.

As communities began to struggle with how to conduct their TUS mapping, the research department of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs in Vancouver started getting a lot of calls from member communities, requesting assistance. The UBCIC asked if I would help by drafting something they could provide to communities by way of guidance. The UBCIC and Ecotrust Canada jointly published the material as a guidebook, Chief Kerry's Moose.

The take-home message of Chief Kerry's Moose is that if you are going to interview your elders and harvesters, and produce land use and occupancy maps for your nation, settle only for good quality maps. There are many examples from across the country, where First Nation research has failed to meet nations' needs because of poor quality. Similarly, there are examples where good quality research, even when incomplete, has made a difference.

I am not going to talk here about what quality looks like, or how to ensure your research products will end up serving you well with outside interests; that is the subject of the guidebook. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this discussion, quality of data and research product is the key. Also important is the idea that each new research project must build on the strengths of the previous research the community or nation has done, and that ideally, there is an overall long-term research strategy in place.

That overall research strategy might simply be a commitment to what is referred to as comprehensive research. I have elsewhere defined this to mean the following:

"A research strategy that links a number of key research products together to produce data which prove that mapped land use and occupancy information represents living cultural systems, and that the museum approach to First Nations' cultural research is not valid."

And I've defined the museum approach as:

"Industry and government's typical interpretation of mapped First Nation cultural features, which is that they represent isolated remnants of a dead or dying tradition, instead of representing parts of living cultural systems."

By way of exploring this idea of comprehensive research, I am now going to talk about a case study called the Trilateral research. The driving force behind that research is a community of 500 Algonquins who live in mid-northern Quebec, called the Algonquins of Barriere Lake (ABL). The ABL have always been highly dependent on the resources of their territory for their survival. In the 1980s, they witnessed an accelerating destruction of their resources and landscape caused by outside interventions like logging operations, hydro flooding, and tourists taking their moose, which is the staple food item in the community.

As a result, the community decided to pursue comprehensive land claims and started to undertake the mapping research required to qualify to start the process. However, the ABL leadership soon realized that trying to negotiate a land claim with the federal government could be a big mistake. They were concerned that in the many years it takes to settle a claim their entire territory could be clearcut and all the moose killed. And they were concerned that at the end of the settlement they would owe the government many millions of dollars in loan funding. So the Algonquins changed strategy and decided to negotiate a legal agreement with both the province of Quebec and the government in Ottawa. They finally did get Quebec and Ottawa to sign what's called the Trilateral Agreement, in 1991.

The whole point of the Trilateral Agreement was to undertake the research needed to construct an integrated resource management plan (IRMP), and then to formulate the plan itself. This was then to become the foundation of a negotiated co-management agreement governing all activities on the community's 10,500 square kilometre territory. The Agreement committed all parties to develop a plan based on principles of sustainable development. The plan was to guarantee that the Algonquins will always have the option to pursue their traditional activities. The intent of the Agreement was to combine the best management practices of Western science and Algonquin traditional environmental knowledge.

The research needed as the basis on which to formulate an IRMP was conducted over a three-year period and cost hundreds of thousands ofdollars. There were numerous studies done, and these can be broken down into two categories: the "indigenous side" and the "Western management" side.

Indigenous Research Componests Western Management Research Components
Alienation Mapping Economic Study of Forestry, Tourism and Other Industries in the Region
Maps of Algonquin Harvesting Sites Review & Analysis of Existing Information Relating to Natural Resources on Territory
Maps of Algonquin Cultural Sites Marten Habitat Study
Measures to Harmonize Beaver Habitat Study
Maps of Algonquin Place Names Moose Habitat Study
Genealogy Study Moose Population Study
Harvest Study Forested Riparian Zone Study
Traditional Ecological Knowledge Study -
Social Customs Study -

The indigenous side research components all share two characteristics. First, they depend primarily on data, information and knowledge that, for all intents and purposes, could only be acquired from living Algonquin Indians. Second, the kinds of things they considered--the contents of the reports--had never been regarded by provincial agencies as worthy of consideration in any management decisions concerning Algonquin territory. All of the indigenous and western management research components, when combined, have this in common: they help to describe, explain, and provide contextual material to help understand peoples' relationships to the Algonquin territory and its resources. And here I'm including all people and all interests in the land: Algonquins, governments, third party interests. The whole point of compiling the research is to acquire the baseline of information needed to develop a management plan. And the whole point of the management plan is to protect Algonquin interests in the context of a regime that also accommodates others' interests as much as possible.

So we have to expand my earlier definition of comprehensive research. That earlier definition (above, top of page 2) was given in the specific context of First Nation's land use and occupancy mapping, the subject area of Chief Kerry's Moose. It characterizes the indigenous side research, and does not pertain to the Western management side components. For the purposes of our discussion here, we need to encompass both.

Comprehensive research is based on a strategy that generates the research products that can be synthesized into a baseline of data and information, which can then be incorporated into an integrated resource management plan. The individual research components must contribute to an understanding of how the various user groups that have an interest in the territory relate to and use the resources of the territory. The point of the management plan itself is to allow managers the ability to make decisions that support environmental sustainability, and to predict the consequences of their decisions.

Of particular interest to First Nations of course, is the enhancement of title and rights. The problem with current regional planning processes is that they prejudice against aboriginal rights by virtue of the fact that what is brought to the table are existing resource inventories and studies--the Western science side research components--that generally speak for the interests of various user groups, but not for those of aboriginal peoples. What is missing at venues like the Lands and Resources Management Plan (LRMP) tables is the indigenous side research.

The Trilateral Agreement's emphasis on indigenous side research, and the marriage of that research to sound ecosystem-based science, is one of the things that, a decade ago, made it unique. Today, however, other First Nations are also committing themselves to arrangements that are intended to produce comprehensive research for the purposes of comanagement and enhancement of rights. The Heiltsuk Nation for instance, is currently driving a process called the Heiltsuk Cultural Landscape Assessment, and their political commitment to it is not tied to the outcome of Treaty talks or their LRMP table or anything else. It has emerged as part of their vision for themselves, regardless of what outsiders do. The kinds of indigenous side research the Heiltsuk are engaged in or planning are similar to what the Algonquins did.

Unlike the Heiltsuk, most First Nation communities do not have any kind of comprehensive research agreement in place. This brings me to one of the key points I want to make. The Algonquin experience cannot be held up as a practical model for other communities that want to obtain a comprehensive indigenous side research package. It did, after all, acquire all that research in only three years because it had an unprecedented level of funding. I believe however, that there is another model emerging; one that is available to any community that wants comprehensive indigenous side research. In fact, I'll go out on a limb here and say the precedence of this model is probably inevitable, given the political-economic realities imposed by external governments, and given the imperatives of having quality research in hand.

The emerging model would seem to be based on a handful of broad mega-principles:

  1. the community or nation's political commitment to comprehensive research is not dependent on the existence or outcome of any particular framework agreement or process;
  2. research of a national scale uses similar methodologies and meets the same high standards;
  3. each research component is done well, according to best practices;
  4. each research component builds on the strengths of all previous research; and
  5. each research component helps to explain or demonstrate some aspect of the community's relationship to its territory and resources.

Some people will think it is naive to be proposing that a community can acquire quality comprehensive research without big funding or a framework agreement in place. My optimism is based on a number of things, including what I've seen as increasing commitment to quality research by First Nation leaders.

Regarding the time frame, whether you have your baseline research package together in three years or ten years, the point is that the need for good research is inescapable. Enhancing title and rights requires it. Management of your resources and territory requires it. Self-government requires it. In addition, even having a single quality piece of research in hand can help move the yardsticks forward in concrete ways. Having two or three complementary pieces of research can blow the socks off the people sitting across the negotiating table. When it's quality work, every bit strengthens your position.

Regarding the funding issue, it seems to me that there are many First Nation communities across the country who have over the past two decades obtained enough research dollars to have acquired a solid research package by now. I know of communities that have done three mapping projects over the years--each mapping the same or similar categories of data--but decided not to use the maps in negotiations because of poor quality. Some of those communities have recently finished their fourth mapping endeavour, and are delighted at the resulting successes at the negotiation table. There are communities that have conducted as many as three harvest studies over the years, and are now engaged in their fourth because the quality of the previous work wouldn't stand up to rigorous scrutiny. There has been so much indigenous side research done in First Nation communities over the last couple decades that it boggles the mind. I really believe elders and others when they say "We've been studied to death." If exposure to research could literally kill people, research might be rated as the number one cause of death among aboriginal peoples in this country.

The root of the problem has been that because funding arrangements have not provided training dollars, and the "how-to" manuals attached to the funding have been misguided, the quality of research product seldom meets the needs of First Nations. This in my estimation, has been the case with the TUS program. My overall point here is that if you could replay the tape and spend the same amount of research dollars, but this time use a research strategy based on the above five mega-principles, many communities would now have a sound baseline of comprehensive indigenous side research. Imagine where your Nation would be five or six years from now if from this point on every research initiative you undertake were to follow best practices, and complement both the efforts of your sister communities as well as previous research that your own community has done. Your nation would be in a much better position to take the initiative with government and industry, and much more able to respond to the initiatives of government and industry.