The First Sixteen Podcast - EP 003

The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s new podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada’s agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.

Episode 003 - The science of reconciliation! Bridging Indigenous knowledge with agricultural science

In discussion with two agents of change in the world of agricultural science, we explore a new and brilliant way forward.


Emily Missyabit McAuley: You have to be very open-minded and also have an open heart, you have to be ready to experience that change, which can be very uncomfortable and should be, it's uncomfortable to learn new hard things. And when I'm uncomfortable, I congratulate myself because I say, Hey, I'm learning something new.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: Welcome back to the First Sixteen. I am Sara Boivin-Chabot.

Kirk Finken: I’m Kirk Finken. Yes, today, we are learning something new.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: I’ve been looking forward to this episode, because I wasn’t there when the interviews were recorded. And I understand that it was with two real agents of change.

Kirk Finken: Absolutely. You know what it’s like to be in the same room with someone who you know that they are breaking new ground and you’re witnessing them doing it? It’s exciting. I can hardly contain myself.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: I’m really curious now.

Kirk Finken: I spoke with two Indigenous scientists, both working in the field of agriculture. They are part of a growing cohort of young Indigenous professionals who are expanding and redefining science.

Emily Missyabit McAuley: Hi. I’m Emily Missyabit McAuley, Indiginikaas.

I am the Senior indigenous science liaison officer for the Science and Technology branch.

And you are listening to The First Sixteen.

Kirk Finken: Emily is a member of Lake Manitoba First Nation. She is of mixed race. Her mother is Ojibwe and her father is a Settler from North Bay. She was born and raised in Algonquin territory in Ottawa. She not only walks in two worlds of her cultural identity, she walks in two worlds of knowledge.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: She is the perfect person to have liaison in her title.

Kirk Finken: Exactly. I almost think she should have it as her middle name.

Kirk Finken: Emily, thank you so much for sitting down to discuss your work with us. The big question I have for you is what is the difference between Indigenous knowledge and Western science?

Emily Missyabit McAuley: It's a really good question. It's probably the question I get asked the most.

Knowledge or science tends to be community-based and driven. So it's knowledge that's held by a community that has been living in a relationship with their land for so long -- and they've been observing and recording and that could be recording orally through oral histories as opposed to writing it down in a scientific notebook -- but they've been observing and recording and making hypotheses and refining those hypotheses and passing on the most effective ones to the next generation for thousands of years.

And so then on the other side, you have Western science, which is also a method of understanding the natural world around us and all of the interactions within it.

The difference I find is that Western science, especially tends to -- and not just tends to -- we instruct our students to place humans outside of the natural world.

So I was in ecology and evolution for years and years and years. And any time that you would try to make a metaphor for an animal behavior and why that behavior might be seen in humans -- that was a big no-no.

You shouldn't be extending the results of your animal behavior studies to humans.

But in an Indigenous world view, humans are part of that natural world.

So when we talk about what is the difference between Indigenous knowledge and western science or Indigenous science and western science, it's actually the world view that's different.

The world view is that humans are a part of nature and that we have relationships with everything in our environment, including animals, plants, inanimate objects, other humans.

Those are all part of an interrelated set of connections that are very place and land-based and specific.

So Western science tries to do this thing where we'll try to extract the meaning of a single variable, and so that we can predict the effect of humidity and how that will affect plant growth, no matter where you are on the surface of the planet, right.

Indigenous knowledge is more concerned about... We've been hunting here since time immemorial, the elders are telling us that the meat is looking different, and therefore there's something in our environment that we need to understand, and it's very local specific, and its indigenous knowledges. So each one of those communities will have their own knowledge system.

Kirk Finken: Okay, so in your experience, are there some common ground to in those two world views?

Emily Missyabit McAuley: I think that the world views align when we are working towards the same goal, so a lot of the time, Indigenous communities are going to be on various paths to certain goals that they want to get to, whether those are socio-economic, cultural, environmental, scientific.

The times when those two world views align are when our Western scientists and our Indigenous scientists are walking on the same path towards the same goal...

That's the simplest way I can think of putting it. So I absolutely think they're compatible, it's just a matter of finding those places where there's a common goal or understanding.

Kirk Finken: You are part of a growing number of Indigenous scientists and public servants. It’s an important shift that’s happening. And we need more Indigenous people in the public service.

Emily Missyabit McAuley: I think indigenous peoples in Canada have had decisions made on their behalf for a very long time.

I think we talked earlier about including Indigenous peoples in the analysis of research results, for example.

The issue that you can have when you don't do that is that if you don't have the cultural understanding or the specific local context of why you might be getting those results. Then you might make recommendations, like policy recommendations for indigenous communities that don't actually fit.

The reason that we need to have more indigenous peoples in the sciences and in the public service is so that those Indigenous peoples with those local knowledges and those lived experiences can make decisions within the context of those understandings of that knowledge that they already possess through their lived experience as Indigenous peoples in Canada.

So when you talk about having a representative public service, that's what you need.

I would like to see us continuing to support Indigenous STEM students. And the reason I feel so strongly about this is because the youth, the Indigenous youth today that I'm working with are so incredibly impressive.

They are... not as displaced as me. They have connections to their culture. They're proud of it. They're not afraid to talk about it. And they're also educated. So they walk in both worlds.

Kirk Finken: That’s true. But, is it not also true that we need to see more Western scientists embracing Indigenous ways of thinking?

Emily Missyabit McAuley: Yes, I think it's absolutely important to sensitize Western scientists to the Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous world views.

The entire western scientific system that we've built up has been based on one very narrow world view that really comes from a small group of elite academics, it's a very old school world view,

And so all of our scientific funding and the way that we disseminate our results and the way that we choose which projects are funded are all based in that same system as well.

And so if we want to change the way that we do science in the way that we think about the world, we need to change that science system, and that starts with the people within it.

So... I absolutely think so, and that's what I spend the majority of my time doing is training Western scientists how to better partner with Indigenous scientists and... Not the reverse – not yet.

Kirk Finken: So, Sara, you’re a biologist, a Western-trained scientist. How do you feel about this?

Sara Boivin-Chabot: She's absolutely right. Science, which I adore, has long been a mixed medium of "impartial", euro-centric, male perspective." The opening up to diversity is happening and it is high time. Indigenous science seems to be based on a lot of empirical observations and I really like the idea that knowledge is linked to place, to territory, that we cannot completely take it out of context.

Kirk Finken: I really like the thinking that humans are part of nature.

Kirk Finken: (TO EMILY) So, Emily, you do realize that you are an agent of change? What would you like to see? What is the change you seek?

Emily Missyabit McAuley: You know what I'd like to see is... As much as I've spoken about the Western scientific system and the way that it's been built, I'm still a western scientist. And I still love western science. I think it's very, very exciting

And I think that we actually have an incredible department full of incredible scientists who are extraordinarily knowledgeable.

What I would like to see is our scientists beginning to form local, long-term relationships with Indigenous communities and peoples in their areas, and beginning on that path of relationship building and starting to understand each other a little bit more.

That's what I'd really like to see.

So, I really do believe in that you can learn a lot from trees.

The way that a tree operates is that every single leaf just has a very simple set of rules that it needs to follow. When it gets too close to another tree, that leaf is not going grow any more leaves out of it. And that's how you avoid trees becoming inter-tangled and pulling each other down.

Emily Missyabit McAuley: Let's just try doing something different, right. And make those deep connections that only happen after you've had a thousand conversations with somebody and you've gotten to know them really well, and you build that trust and you can actually have those genuine conversations that lead to actual meaningful change.

I think that's what we need to concentrate on. And what is it going to look like? I think that's something that we're going to co-develop with our partners.

And that's what I'm here to help guide us towards...

Sara Boivin-Chabot: That’s so inspiring! This sort of thinking gives opens up a whole new dimension to science. But, you also said that you interviewed another Indigenous scientist. And he is doing applied research?

Kirk Finken: Emily actually introduced me to him. His name is Dr. Kyle Bobiwash. He’s an entomologist, an assistant professor and the first Indigenous Scholar in the University of Manitoba’s Department of Entomology. And his focus is on the heavy lifters in the food system -- pollinators.

Kirk Finken: Dr. Bobiwash, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. By virtue of your work, I know you have given a lot of thought to this question of melding of Indigenous knowledge and Western science. Can you share with us where you are at in your journey?

Kyle Bobiwash: You know I've always thought that these two things were very tightly linked.

Especially getting all these lessons from grandparents and parents and learning about ecosystems and the environment and animal behavior. But then also being able to just turn right around and start looking at the Ecology even as a young child interested in ecology, behavior distributions and all these really important science aspects.

So when somebody asks me you know, “What is a really solid melding of these two ways of knowing, these two ways of being?”. You know, I can see them happening.

I see like perfect cases where this has happened. But a lot of times Indigenous peoples are not involved.

As an ecologist you're thinking about the entirety of the system. Of course you're missing a lot of the angles -- spiritual angles, the social angle, the economic angles. But even without those there's still that ethos in ecology that you might see a kind of Indigenous science or Indigenous ways of knowing.

Kirk Finken: Can you give me some concrete examples of the successful melding of Indigenous knowledge and Western science?

Kyle Bobiwash: So if there's a concrete example that I would talk about I haven't seen it yet. Because, to this day, I'm fairly critical of the approaches that a lot of people take still right.

I think sometimes things can be too -- I don’t want to say too science-y or too indigenous-y -- but they're focused on these things still in a very separate manner.

Kirk Finken: So, you are saying that you are not seeing it yet?

Kyle Bobiwash: So I think it's one of these things that you know I haven't seen a good example.

And that's why I'm kind of wanting to be more involved. Because I really want to reach out to other people with other perspectives and other expertise to really start crafting that perfect example.

There're examples of places that are getting it. You know a lot of times I could still see, oh, I would do this differently or do that differently or I don't even want to be involved with this because this is not pushing the cutting edge on science or the cutting edge on Indigenous sovereignty or not pushing any of those cutting edges.

So it's kind of we're just redoing everything. And that's important too.

I think we're at a stage where we really need to play catch up because indigenous peoples have been neglected for so long.

So a lot of these things might seem a little bit boring especially to somebody younger, somebody involved in the science, it might be a little bit more tame. But I think that work still needs to be done.

Kirk Finken: What about in your own work?

Kyle Bobiwash: So it really doesn't exist in my work yet and I think we often think about this Indigenous knowledge as a “old timey thing” and I think what I am hoping to present indigenous knowledge as is something that is constantly created.

Kirk Finken: What are you hoping to achieve with your work with bees?

Kyle Bobiwash: What I'm hoping to do with my work on bees is really to bring kind of these tools that we use and bee science and bee biodiversity work out to communities to allow them to really start crafting and start monitoring and start evaluating their own bee populations out there.

And as those students as those communities really start to gain a little bit of knowledge and better understanding of the bees right they might develop their own common names for these bees they might start developing words in their respective languages for these bee behaviors and all these things

There's so much out there in terms of science that you know Indigenous peoples from all over the place have been seeing and are seeing. We know that there's a lot of scientific background and basis for that but there's not a lot of incorporation of that into new Indigenous traditional knowledge.

There's a lot of thinking about you know the big birds the big game animals and species like that but we don't often think of the more intricate relationships that we have all sorts of tools to study now in science.

So that's where I'm trying to hope to bring a lot more communities involved -- just kind of give them the tools and really let them to start crafting ways to really think about the best ways to conserve and best ways to monitor these species

Kirk Finken: How can we attract more Indigenous students to become scientists in agriculture?

Kyle Bobiwash: Well, if you think of all the faculty of Ag. Well these are a bunch of hillbilly hick farmers. Why would an Indigenous person ever want to go there? Especially when we hear all these things all this potential racism that happens in rural areas. It doesn't get a lot of people excited.

So one of the things I'm really trying to do I know I developed a new Indigenous issues and food systems course where we're really thinking about food systems and agriculture at a more broad scale.

We're not thinking of agriculture as just a means to get a job or a means to benefit the economy through economic development and exporting of grains or something.

We're really thinking about it as this you know human based system that not only supports your economic well-being but it supports the ecosystems around it and supports the health of those people it supports the spiritual well-being of a person by allowing them to better take care of this planet that they're on through advances in the techniques of managing a lot of these agricultural landscapes or these wild landscapes.

The goal across the university is to get Indigenous experts in their field so whatever field that might be -- in my case its entomology, bees or ecology -- but really you know somebody that's tightly linked or potentially broad enough or generalized enough to really fit into the faculty and start thinking of new and different ways where we can start either supporting indigenous peoples building capacity with Indigenous youth or really just making the university and these university programs a more recognizable place for indigenous students and I think that's something we don't often consider right.

Kirk Finken: What do you think we need to consider or reconsider in order to move forward?

Kyle Bobiwash: One of the key terms is really you have to start thinking about what agriculture actually means. The culture of food, the culture of land right. It is really being this caretaker land manager that benefits humans, right.

And I think that's probably amongst the most common the most important lessons across all Indigenous groups here in North America is this responsibility that we have to everything around us whether it's those people around us the animals around us the inanimate objects or these ecosystems and these ecosystem functions around us.

We have a responsibility to maintain them.

Kirk Finken: Responsibility is a key tenet in the Indigenous world view, yes?

Kyle Bobiwash: Only through meeting those responsibilities will we allow those species those functions to actually be responsible for us as well.

So there's this two way street that I think we need to recognize and by, you know, potentially developing a program that, I can say, is agro-ecological in its methodology but also really multi perspective in terms of Western Indigenous perspectives, rural and urban dwellers perspectives.

All these components really need to be wrapped around to really start thinking about how we can better design our food system. We need to make sure that the people are who are setting policies whether they're small time agricultural policies or large scale economic development policies are really doing this for the benefit of everybody and not just for you know the balance sheet that happens overall in Canada.

Kirk Finken: What do you mean by that?

Kyle Bobiwash: I think the balance sheet needs to incorporate these you know social emotional well-being, the health outcomes, just the availability of food.

I've moved to more of a transitional area in Winnipeg. And already you see it's a lot different. The grocery stores are further away. You see people going to convenience stores to get their groceries a lot more frequently.

So something like this that in some departments we talk about them and in particular classes. But again these are these huge problems for a lot of people not being able to access farms or access you know quality nutrition. Again, all these things need to be wrapped together in in any discussion when we're talking about agriculture or food system.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: Well those interviews just shifted my world view in a wonderful way.

Kirk Finken: N’est ce pas?!

Sara Boivin-Chabot: And with information like that, you know what to do, right?

Kirk Finken: I think I do.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: Try something new.

Kirk Finken: Absolutely. This episode of The First Sixteen is brought to you by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Sara Boivin-Chabot: And it is brought to you by us, Kirk and Sara.

Kirk Finken: Your soon to be favourite public servants. (I just had to get that in there.)

Sara Boivin-Chabot: I think Emily is my favourite public servant.


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Episode 003 - The science of reconciliation! Bridging Indigenous knowledge with agricultural science

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