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Coming full circle: Indigenous knowledge & climate futures

Coming full circle: Indigenous knowledge & climate futures

“The only way to appropriately understand Indigenous Knowledge Systems or Indigenous Knowledges is to establish meaningful relationships with Indigenous peoples on their own terms.” - Deborah McGregor

What is Indigenous knowledge and how does it contribute to the achievement of UN’s Sustainable Development Goal on climate action? How can the integration of Indigenous knowledge contribute to climate change futures? What is the Indigenous climate strategy?

Throughout her career, Deborah McGregor has focused her research and teaching on Indigenous knowledge systems and their applications in diverse contexts -- including water and environmental governance, environmental justice, forest policy and management, and sustainable development. An Anishinaabe from Whitefish River First Nation, Ontario, her understanding of Indigenous ways of knowing has been informed by lived experience while living and working on Anishinabek territories.

“Anishinaabe research is a form of reclaiming our stories and knowledge through personal transformation while in the pursuit of knowledge. As Anishinaabe people, we have our own worldviews, philosophies, ways of being, and research traditions that account for our relationships and existence in the world,” says McGregor.

As Canada’s Research Chair (2016-2024) on Indigenous Environmental Justice (IEJ) Tier 2, McGregor’s multidimensional research has shared the “Indigenous climate change futures” desired by Elders, youth and other knowledge holders through authored and edited books, peer-reviewed journal articles, workshops, podcasts, videos, and numerous presentations in Canada and abroad.

In 2021, McGregor was also appointed as the inaugural director of York’s Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Languages (CIKL). The Centre hosts Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers and students engaged in these areas of scholarship and facilitates knowledge production and dissemination centered on Indigenous knowledges, languages, practices, and ways of being.

“CIKL has offered a generative space within and beyond York University to advance Indigenous scholarship, research theories, methodologies and practices supporting a keen understanding of the goals and aspirations of Indigenous Peoples. The Centre has also fostered collaborations and partnerships with Indigenous Peoples and others in creating an ethical space for dialogue on how research relationships can be envisioned, negotiated, and practised in support of Indigenous futurities,” notes McGregor.

Besides the IEJ project, McGregor holds a SSHRC Insight Grant on Indigenous Climate Change Futures: Envisioning Well-Being with the Earth with Lisa Myers and Alan Corbiere. The project defines what it means to "live well" from a self-determined Indigenous perspective and focuses on the Anishinabek concept of mino-mnaamodzawin (well-being with all life) as a framework for envisioning Indigenous-derived climate futures for the benefit of not only Indigenous peoples but of all society and the natural world.

McGregor is part of a SSHRC Partnership Grant on Conservation Through Reconciliation led by Robin Roth from University of Guelph. The project critically investigates the state of conservation practice in Canada and supports efforts to advance Indigenous-led conservation in the spirit of reconciliation and decolonization. She serves as co-lead of the project supporting the establishment of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and the transformation of existing protected areas.

In 2022, SSHRC initiated a digital marketing campaign on Real Insight, Real Impact, Real Purpose featuring social sciences and humanities researchers investigating and shedding light on topics of concern to Canadians -- including economic vulnerability, climate change and environment, pandemic and wellness, reconciliation and cybersecurity, and how their research is leading to solutions and contributing to shaping a positive future for Canadians and the world. McGregor’s compelling work on sharing Indigenous environmental knowledge is recognized for providing the space needed to mobilize Indigenous knowledge so they can advocate for a self-determined climate future.

In 2023, EUC co-hosted a keynote panel on "Indigenous Knowing and Climate Futures" with Candis Callison, Naomi Klein and Deborah McGregor as part of Congress 2023. As a champion of Indigenous knowledge systems (IKS), McGregor emphasizes that Indigenous knowledge is not just “knowledge” but a way of life, something that must be “lived” in order to be understood.  Accordingly, appropriate and effective inclusion of Indigenous knowledge requires recognition of the systems that support it, which in turn necessitates support for Indigenous self-determination.

In a recent event at Michigan State University (MSU)’s Amplify STEM  Initiative 2024, McGregor further spoke on Indigenous Knowing and Climate Futures focusing on incorporating Indigenous peoples’ longstanding knowledge systems and perspectives into climate change governance and promoting environmental justice. She discussed the integration of Indigenous knowledge in various fields, such as environmental and water governance, highlighting how Indigenous perspectives can provide unique and sustainable solutions.

Reflecting on her work experiences and participation in global climate assessments, she emphasizes the importance of land acknowledgments (“understanding what is happening, what the earth is trying to tell us, and listening to the language of the land itself”) and advocates for the involvement of Indigenous voices and knowledge in global assessments and policymaking processes to create more effective and unbiased solutions.

An alternative vision for sustainable futures involves self-determined Indigenous environmental justice. It builds upon a distinct understanding of Indigenous environmental justice which asserts that the components necessary for Indigenous environmental justice are Indigenous knowledge systems, legal orders, and conceptions of justice that have existed for thousands of years. - Deborah McGregor

Further sharing her experience contributing to environmental assessments and the challenges posed by some of their criteria prioritizing other types of research over Indigenous knowledge, she notes that “this exclusion results in significant gaps in understanding and addressing climate change impacts on Indigenous communities. She observes that only a few Indigenous led climate strategies have been implemented in Canada, primarily by the Assembly of First Nation (AFN), Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and AFN-BC.

“Humans are the cause of climate change while they also hold the key to changing the course of destruction we all face. We need to turn to the natural world for guidance,” she adds. In discussing Indigenous climate futures, she prompts us to consider these questions: “Do we love our future generations? How will our work benefit future generations? What kind of ancestors will we be?”

McGregor has written widely about Indigenous Knowledge Systems and environmentalism in Canadian and international publications. She has published 2 co-edited books, 2 journal special issues, 85 refereed articles and book chapters, 6 peer reviewed reports, and 55 non-refereed publications (conference proceedings, manuals, book reviews, articles) and 82 commissioned research publications. Recently, she was a co-author of For our future: Indigenous resilience report (2024) that draws on Indigenous knowledge, perspectives and experiences and explores multidimensional and intersecting aspects of climate change impacts and adaptation.

This July 2024, McGregor will be starting her new post as Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Indigenous Ways of Climate and Water Sustainability for Planetary Health and Well-being  at the University of Calgary. As the CERC in Indigenous Ways of Climate and Water Sustainability for Planetary Health and Well-being, McGregor will generate understanding of, and build support for, Indigenous leadership in Earth-based reconciliation and justice, focusing on climate change as the overriding symptom of the planetary health crisis. Her CERC research program will include the creation of unique, co-developed and co-generated knowledge aimed at identifying solutions that promote planetary well-being and justice, for people and for all life.

In accepting the award, McGregor resolves not to simply import existing work to a new context. “I am open to sharing my experience from working around the Great Lakes in a way that other people might want to hear, find useful, learn from, and hopefully that sharing leads to are mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationships,” she remarks.

We would like to say Chi-miigwech (a big thank you) to Professor Deborah McGregor for her research and teachings at York! She has also been designated as Distinguished Fellow to the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York University. We wish her all the best in her future endeavours at the University of Calgary while continuing her collaboration with folks at York and other institutions with whom she has worked with throughout the years!