Bill C-69 Fails to Deliver on Indigenous Consultation and Knowledge Systems

By Alana Wilcox

20 March 2019

Wind farm on field by mountains

Canada’s controversial new environmental assessment bill gets a failing grade when it comes to consulting Indigenous Nations and incorporating Indigenous knowledge systems and should not be passed in its current format, according a new policy review paper out of the Department of Integrative Biology.

Prof. Stephen Crawford, a Nawash First Nation-sponsored ecologist at the University of Guelph, says there is the critical need for Bill C-69 to recognize reciprocal and meaningful consultation with Indigenous Nations and to ensure the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in Canada’s environmental assessments. 

Recently passed by the House of Commons and now before the Senate, Bill C-69 repeals the current Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and strips the duties of the National Energy Board, replacing them with a new Impact Assessment Agency. Along with additional amendments, such as those to the Navigation Protection Act, this all-encompassing bill aims to enhance environmental protections and foster timely decision-making on new projects. However, the lack of a clear framework for consultation with Indigenous Nations - and its failure to ensure equal representation of Indigenous and scientific knowledge in the review and decision-making review process - severely weakens the bill.

Canada’s duty to honourably represent the Crown dates back to Anglo-Saxon England and, as such, the Canadian Government has an obligation to conduct respectful and honest negotiations with Indigenous peoples. This means that Indigenous Nations must have prior and informed consent on proposed projects affecting their rights, and should be consulted in a way that would satisfy Canada’s recent commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Crawford notes that meaningful consultation with Indigenous peoples requires not only reciprocal discussion, but also a duty to learn. First introduced by Chief Justice Lance S. G. Finch in 2012, the duty to learn concept means that the Government of Canada has a responsibility to learn Indigenous knowledge systems. Understanding and including Indigenous ways of knowing is crucial to a robust assessment of environmental impacts, yet Bill C-69 explicitly refers to the dominance of scientific knowledge, without consistent recognition of the value inherent in Indigenous knowledge. The latter blends traditional knowledge, interpretations, and practices of communities with modern understanding and opinions.

Without clear guidelines for meaningful and reciprocal consultation that respectfully acknowledges Indigenous ways of knowing, Bill C-69 cannot function, says Crawford, adding that such consultation must be both “demonstrated and fulfilled” in all environmental assessments.

Crawford’s review, which was also submitted to the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources, makes several recommendations for redrafting the bill. These recommendations include making meaningful consultations and incorporating Indigenous knowledge systems explicit requirements in all environmental assessments. To facilitate this, Crawford is currently working on a framework for the engagement of Indigenous knowledge systems in environmental management.

With such a framework established, Crawford believes that this kind of inclusive approach would save the people of Canada “from countless preventable environmental assessment conflicts, and allow the country to truly progress toward satisfying its constitutional, national, and international commitments.” 


The study was funded by the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation–University of Guelph Faculty Partnership, in conjunction with the Environment Office of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, and Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.


Read the full article in The International Indigenous Policy Journal.

Read about other CBS Research Highlights.