Module 1: The Historical Context of Indigenous Environmental Management

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Identify the Indigenous territories that you live in
  • Recognize the complexity of Indigenous cultures in Canada and the historical context that impacts our work today
  • Analyze the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action that relate to your work and personal life
  • Value learning from the past in order to inform decisions made in the present and futureReflect on how learning from the past informs current decisions for future based outcomes
  • Determine how Indigenous knowledge regards the concept of interconnectivity and how this practice can inform Land and Climate-based actions
  • Listen to the voices of different Indigenous climate leaders reflect upon the impacts of climate change in their territories


Indigenous communities around the world derive intergenerational knowledge systems, cultural wellness and governance practices from direct and enduring relationships to their home Lands and Waters. Additionally, Indigenous communities around the world experience the direct impacts of changing climate conditions, often not only needing to endure unprecedented changes to their traditional territories, landscapes and water-ways, but also the cultural practices and knowledge systems embedded in land-based relationships. Whether it be within the realm of climate adaptation or land management, Indigenous leadership and influence can enhance collective efforts towards the restoration of better-relations and practices with planet earth.

As you begin this course, it is helpful to first and foremost take time to consider your own relationship to Land and Waters. Do you know the traditional names of the territories you live on? What are the histories of these places? How does local Indigenous knowledge inform local initiatives in relation to Land management? You may also feel connected to where you live and/or the place(s) where you grew up. This connection may even have stretched over many generations of your ancestors.

It is not uncommon for non-Indigenous Canadians to not know historical contexts and facts pertaining to local Indigenous Nations as content including Indigenous knowledge, histories and relations are only now included in educational curricula. Understanding that Canada’s colonial history is important in how we re-envision the future. David Isaac and Chief Gordon Planes remind us that each Indigenous community has experienced colonization differently and not all communities are the same:

David Isaac

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David Isaac – Communities are in different places with colonization – Transcript

Chief Gordon Planes

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Chief Gordon Planes -Working in partnerships – Transcript

Indigenous-Led Climate and Ecological Modelling

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This course invites learners into deeper thinking, reflection and content pertaining to Indigenous perspectives in climate adaptation and mitigation. Ultimately, this course provides a space for learners to consider how and where Indigenous leadership can not only restore better-practice across social and political landscapes, but also heal relationships with our shared planet for future generations to come.

Indigenous community governance, shared histories, cultural practices, languages and knowledge systems come from relationships to Land and Waters. These relationships are embedded within systems of accountability, responsibility and worldviews based on values that deem all life as innately interconnected. These relationships and responsibilities have stretched over millennia, therefore locating Indigenous knowledge keepers as vital leaders within Climate and Ecological Modelling systems.

Often you might hear that Indigenous peoples have been here, in what we now call Canada, “since time immemorial.” This means that Indigenous peoples have been stewards of the land for as long as they’ve lived there. It’s a legacy we all can learn from. Within the context of extreme climate changes and unprecedented conditions, it’s important to recognize our common connections and responsibilities to the land and waters. Additionally, it is increasingly important for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous actors within the realms of climate action and management, to come together and co-create long-standing solutions that serve future generations.

Take the time to listen to Chief Gordon Planes and David Isaac reflect upon the ways in which Indigenous Worldviews and Western Sciences can learn from one another:

Chief Gordon Planes

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Chief Gordon Planes – Indigenous worldviews and western science – Transcript

David Isaac

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David Isaac-Indigenous Worldview as guiding light in tackling climate crises – Transcript

Traditional Territories and Indigenous Lands

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There are more than 630 Indigenous communities in Canada, and 203 in British Columbia alone. Each Nation maintains their own unique relationship to their homelands and waters that reflects the values of what can be described as stewardship. To this day, Indigenous communities maintain that they are a single piece within a larger interconnected web of shared life. The animals, the plants, the trees, the water-ways, the wind, the mountains, humans: all share relatives. In this way, the land is not something that can be owned, but rather, something to be cared for like a relative. From this teaching stemmed social, economic and political expressions that aligned with ethics of accountability, responsibility and shared care for the plant and all living entities.

While Indigenous communities historically lived across territories and water-ways, today, Indigenous peoples live throughout various communities in Canada in reservations, settlements, treaty lands, traditional territories or co-management areas. There is also a large population of Indigenous people residing in cities across Canada.

Listen to Chief Gordon Planes reflect on the important first step of Territorial Acknowledgement:

Chief Gordon Planes

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Chief Gordon Planes – How can professionals help Indigenous re-adaptation- Transcript
“Land has always been a defining element of Aboriginal culture. Land contains the languages, the stories, and the histories of a people. It provides water, air, shelter, and food. Land participates in the ceremonies and the songs. And land is home. Not in an abstract way. The Blackfoot in Alberta live in the shadow of Ninastiko or Chief Mountain. The mountain is a special place for the Blackfoot, and friends on the reserve at Standoff have told me more than once that, as long as they can see the mountain, they know they are home.” (Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian, p. 218.)

Listen to the interview with Coralee Miller as she reflects upon the ways climate change impacts her traditional territories.

Coralee Miller

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Coralee Miller – Impact on Traditional Territories – Transcript

Traditional territories

Traditional territories are areas that an Indigenous community traditionally inhabited. While they may include reserves as part of the larger territory, they are often geographically larger and may include large urban centres such as Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto etc.

City Traditional Territories
Vancouver Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh
Edmonton Nehiyaw (Cree), Denesuliné (Dene), Nakota Sioux (Stoney), Anishinabae (Saulteaux) and Niitsitapi (Blackfoot).
Winnipeg Anishinabe (Ojibway), Ininew (Cree), Métis, Oji-Cree, Dene, and Dakota
Toronto Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples

Listen to Indigenous Voices David Isaac and Chief Gordon Planes reflect upon the changes taking place in their traditional territories:

David Isaac 

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David Isaac – Indigenous knowledge systems & fire management – Transcript


Chief Gordon Planes

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Chief Gordon Planes -Learning from the past – Transcript

Co-management areas

Co-management areas in a Canadian context typically refers to “agreements between government agencies and representatives of Indigenous peoples to jointly make land use and resource management decisions about a tract of government-controlled land (e.g. protected areas) or resource (e.g. fishery).” They include large parcels of land that are often adjacent to the areas denoted by treaty. They often focus on management of wildlife or forestry resource extraction.

Co-Management in the Nisga’a Territory

The Nisga’a government and the Province of British Columbia have established a shared interest in making sure that the Nisga’a lands are well managed.

Learn more about:

Nass Area Strategy
Parks within Nass Area


Listen to this brief clip with Janis Brooks as she unpacks the importance of Understanding Cultural Difference:

Janis Brooks

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Janis Brooks – Western Time Driven vs Indigenous Values – Transcript

Land acknowledgements: Purpose & Practice

Land or territorial acknowledgements are opportunities for individuals, collectives and institutions to deepen their critical thinking in relation to whose traditional territories they may be currently occupying. They help us say that we recognize that historically the land we are on was cared for and inhabited by Indigenous Nations and that those Nations still have responsibility to the land. Today, territorial acknowledgements are a common practice, often heard before meetings and events or presentations, however it is helpful to move beyond reading a scripted version and instead explore the deeper meaning and purpose of this practice.

Land acknowledgements help us remember that there are governance structures and cultural practices that exist which we must pay attention to in our work with any particular Indigenous community. Simply said, land acknowledgements are a way for non-Indigenous peoples to thank Indigenous peoples for allowing us to be here and to use this land and show respect to the people that are from the community and tied to the earth in perhaps a different way.

Listen to Chief Gordon Planes discuss the concept of Environmental Currency and Seeing through Different Eyes when engaging with climate mitigation work:

Chief Gordon Planes

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Chief Gordon Planes – Environmental Currency – Transcript

Beyond Words: Developing your Personal Practice

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Take the time to familiarize yourself with the names of the traditional territories you are currently located on; including the names of the Nations and languages of these places. Consider how you and your family are in relation to these lands and Indigenous Nations. Start to develop your own statement and or reflection that you can use next time you are invited to open a space in your professional or personal lives.

Developing your own practice is an opportunity to challenge colonial norms that inform how we think about histories and relations to place. Additionally, they are meant to provide opportunities for individuals to contemplate their own personal responsibilities to the Lands that they live on. Beyond basic rhetoric and or reading a scripted version of a land acknowledgement, it is often welcomed to instead share your own thinking and cultivation of your own practice.

Read the Royal Roads Land Acknowledgement.

Finally, it is important to know the difference between Land Acknowledgement and Land Welcome:

Land Acknowledgement

Can be done by anyone, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. These are opportunities to acknowledge with respect the names and Nations of the Lands and territories they may be on.

Land Welcome

Can only be done by Indigenous communities and appointed individuals. They are a welcome to their territories and an invitation to self-locate on their lands in a way that reflects values of respect, reciprocity and care.

Indigenous peoples in Canada

The broad term “Indigenous” includes First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-Status peoples in Canada. This means that within communities, there could be multiple Nations, multiple language groups and different cultural practices. Their cultures are dynamic and always changing, including the ways in which they might operate in modern society. Recognizing this diversity is essential when working with Indigenous peoples.

There could be different governance practices and different histories and ties to land, place and memory. The history of Indigenous peoples is complex. Knowing one Indigenous community does not mean that we know them all. Each Nation and community is unique, as are the people within them.

“Native cultures aren’t static. They’re dynamic, adaptive, and flexible, and for many of us, the modern variations of older tribal traditions continue to provide order, satisfaction, identity, and value in our lives.” (Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian, p. 265)

Listen to David Isaac reflect more upon the notion around dynamic Indigenous cultures:

David Isaac


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David Isaac – Culture is not static – Transcript

Indigenous Terminology in Canada

When speaking about Indigenous groups in Canada, it is important to correctly distinguish between Aboriginal, Indigenous, First Nation, Métis, Inuit and Non-Status.

Section 35 (2) of the Constitution Act, 1982, defined “Aboriginal peoples in Canada” as including “the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.” However, the term Indigenous is more widely accepted across diverse communities. One reason is that the prefix ab means “away from” or “not,” so aboriginal actually means “not original.” Indigenous comes from the Latin word indigena, which means “sprung from the land; native.”

It is important that when possible to learn and use the specific names of each unique and different Nation. Examples: Cree or Nehiyaw, Ojibwe or Anishinaabe, Coast Salish or W̱SÁNEĆ, Métis or Michif; along with their specific Nations.

Governance structures: An Introduction

As we begin to learn about Indigenous governance within the realm of Land-management and climate action, it is important to also learn about distinct and different governance structures of First Nations communities in Canada. The first are elected band councils and the other is hereditary leadership.

Working with Community

When working with a community over time, including multi-year projects, it is important to also consider the ways in which leadership could change over time. Familiarizing yourself with local governance is a helpful step in grounding your work in local governance and protocols. Keep in mind that some communities do not have hereditary leaders and may rely solely on the guidance of elders to complement the elected band councils. The best thing to do is to ask in the community what the governance structures are, perhaps by visiting the band council to begin relationship-building, and asking if there is a group of hereditary leaders that you should be talking to as well.

Listen to David Isaac reflect upon the ways in which relationships with Indigenous communities and leadership require ongoing consent and cultural awareness:

David Isaac

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David Isaac – Community leadership cant be reduced to who invited you – Transcript

Indigenous peoples and environmental management

“Indigenous peoples have used Indigenous knowledge to inform decisions about environmental management for millenia.”

In 2019, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs passed resolutions that stated Indigenous peoples were in a climate emergency. Around this time some municipalities started making these declarations as well and talking about the need to do something. The AFN decided to host a national gathering in 2020 and invited thought and climate leaders from across the country to discuss the issues. They shared lessons learned in the National Climate Gathering Report, noting the interrelationship between “The Three C’s: Colonialism, Capitalism and Carbon” and calling the current situation “a people problem, not a climate problem” (pp.6, National Climate Gathering Report). The report highlighted strong linkages between climate action and the health and wellbeing of communities.

Indigenous peoples’ strong connection to the land has been passed down across the generations through intergenerational transfer of knowledge, language, culture and land-based protocols embedded in ceremonial practice and systems of governance. It guides their interactions with all living things in the environment. Their environmental responsibilities cannot be separated from who they are; they must be looked at holistically. Humans, non-Indigenous and Indigenous alike, are a part of the environment and we are all connected to each other.

We all have a responsibility to protect our shared planet.

Centering Indigenous Leadership

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Indigenous communities have been monitoring and adapting to environmental change for time immemorial, yet the Report noted that “adaptation required in response to the changing climate represents a form of colonial deja vu” (pp. 21, National Climate Gathering Report).

The report also states that unless current climate mitigation and adaptation procedures include and centre Indigenous expertise and knowledge, then they risk the perpetuation of colonial structures. Indigenous approaches to climate adaptation and ecological modelling are integrated, multidimensional and complex.

For example, when addressing issues such as food security, Indigenous approaches would also account for traditional food systems, cultural practices, language and knowledge pertaining to these practices. Responses to climate change need to be systems-based, holistic solutions and “First Nations possess a deep and holistic understanding of the root-causes of the climate crisis”, which naturally positions them “as active leaders in the drive to avert catastrophic climate change” (Sadik, T. et al, 2021).

While separate Indigenous groups may make unique decisions that respond to emergent climate-related issues in their communities – reinforcing recognition that Indigenous peoples are diverse – it is very likely that they all draw on the same worldview that, as humans, we are inextricably interconnected with the world around us and our decision-making to respond to climate change needs to be broadly and holistically defined and acted upon.

A Future-based Peoples

Finally, Indigenous approaches to Land management and climate mitigation accounts for cumulative impacts that have happened over time and through collective memories. Indigenous governance practices not only account for present-day decisions but how these decisions influence and or impact the future. Often you might hear the term “seven generations”, which means that Indigenous peoples not only think about their relationship with the land in terms of what is happening today, this year, or for this generation, but for at least seven generations into the future. Indigenous peoples not only look back into the past for lessons to inform the present, but to inform all decision making now and into the future, to ensure that nature will continue to flourish and provide for ourselves and our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren.

Listen to Chief Gordon Planes reflect upon traditional Indigenous governance systems in relation to climate mitigation, environmental co-management and land-based communities:

Chief Gordon Planes

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Chief Gordon Planes -Indigenous asset management cycle of life – Transcript

Interconnectedness with the Land

Indigenous place names often derived from the community’s deep connection to the land and displayed that meaning. Here are some examples:

The word Kamloops comes from the Secwepemc word Tk’emlúps, meaning “where the rivers meet” and refers to the convergence of the North and South Thompson rivers.

Kitimat is Tsimshian for “people of the snow”

Assiniboine River is Assiniboine for “cooking, placing hot stones in the water”

Tuktoyuktuk “reindeer that look like caribou”

Moosejaw originated from a Cree word that means “warm breezes”

Food, too, is not just about sustenance for Indigenous peoples. Food is about ceremony, culture, transfer of knowledge, cultural skills such as harvesting and fishing, and caring for the land. While non-Indigenous people may look at food security more as an economic issue, Indigenous peoples consider food – and the types of environmental decisions that affect it – to be inextricably linked with all that they are. One choice made to cut trees down near a river, for example, can affect salmon stocks and the ability to feed a community, but also to carry out cultural ceremonies and more.

Watch these video clips to learn more:

Chief Gordon Planes

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Chief Gordon Planes – Introduction – Transcript


Red Tide: Indigenous Climate Action Summit 2018

Interconnected | The Effect of Climate Change on Indigenous Nations

Indigenous Communities Are on the Front Lines of Climate Change | Hot Mess

“When it comes to the matter of land, one of the key questions is: ‘What is the proper use of land?’ This is both an historical and a contemporary consideration in Native rights.” -Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian, p. 226

Guiding frameworks

Within the context of Canada, many non-Indigenous communities are ready to take up the work to reconcile with Canada’s colonial histories and heal relationships with Indigenous Nations and their home territories.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

“Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was created through a legal settlement between Residential Schools Survivors, the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit representatives and the parties responsible for creation and operation of the schools: the federal government and the church bodies.

The TRC’s mandate was to inform all Canadians about what happened in residential schools. The TRC documented the truth of Survivors, their families, communities and anyone personally affected by the residential school experience. This included First Nations, Inuit and Métis former residential school students, their families, communities, the churches, former school employees, government officials and other Canadians.

In 2015, the TRC published a report which laid out 94 Calls to Action that Canadians should undertake. In moving forward in the spirit of reconciliation it is important for individuals, as learners, professionals, and Canadians, to understand this history and implement the Calls to Action that apply to us.

To learn more about the Report and Calls to Action Visit these following sites:

  1. Truth and Reconciliation Commission
  2. TRC Website
  3. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is an international declaration that “constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world.” The UNDRIP outlines unique human rights as it pertains to Indigenous communities across the globe.

The first of the UNDRIP’s 46 articles declares that,

“Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(4) and international human rights law.”

In the words of the Assembly of First Nations, UNDRIP “contains strong language affirming our inherent right to self-determination, highlights the urgent need to respect and promote our rights affirmed in Treaties and commits the Government of Canada to an action plan that includes measures to combat and eliminate all forms of violence and discrimination[1], including systemic discrimination.” The UNDRIP was adopted by 144 countries, with 11 abstentions and 4 countries voting against it. These four countries were Canada, the USA, New Zealand, and Australia. Since 2009 Australia and New Zealand have reversed their positions and now support the Declaration, while the United States and Canada have announced that they will revise their positions.

Read the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The federal government adopted UNDRIP in 2016 and The Province of British Columbia was the first provincial/territorial jurisdiction in Canada to adopt UNDRIP in 2019. B.C. has introduced legislation (Bill 41) to ensure that all policy and practice comply with the legislation.

Listen here to what local Indigenous Youth have to say about the significance of UNDRIP in their lives:

Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC)

UNDRIP included within it a concept called Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC). “FPIC is about the right of Indigenous peoples to participate in decision-making about issues that impact Indigenous peoples.”[2]

To learn more about UNDRIP, read Implementing The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the section called “UN Declaration and Resource Development”, which explains more about FPIC.



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Indigenous Knowledges and Perspectives on Climate Adaptation Copyright © by Royal Roads University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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