The Grizzly Bear Spirit and Traditional Knowledge versus Western Society:

One of my daughters, Andrea, who is a lawyer, has drawn my attention to a religious freedom case between a ski resort development in BC and a First Nation, the Ktunaxa. I have read only brief notes on the case but will summarize it as such: the Ktunaxa say the resort would desecrate land where their sacred Grizzly Bear Spirit lives. The BC government say that adequate accommodations to native concerns have been made and has approved construction of the resort. The matter is now before the Supreme Court of Canada.

It is beyond the scope of my legal expertise and of this blog to comment on the legal details – I am content to leave that to the respective lawyers and the Supreme Court. What relates this matter to a physics blog is a more long standing issue relating to a concept called “Traditional Knowledge”. Here, as well, my depth of knowledge is severely limited. However, from reading some brief sources retrieved online, I think I can find something that is grist for my mill.

One of the sources my daughter suggested I read was work by Frances Widdowson. Widdowson was a “…contract employee of the Department of Resources…” [Frances Abele, Traditional Knowledge Practice, Arctic, vol.50, No. 4 (December 1997) p.iii-iv]. While an employee Widdowson wrote an article critical of the “Traditional Knowledge Policy” of the Government of the Northwest Territories. According to Abele, Widdowson should have resigned. Widdowson was “suspended for one week as punishment for her public criticism of government policy”.

Right away, at that my point in my reading, I was sympathetic to Widdowson, even though Abele is technically correct. Whistleblowing by people on the “inside” of organizations can perform a valuable service to those outside – not just in government but in any organization.

Widdowson’s criticism was published: Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, The Aboriginal Industry’s New Clothes, Policy Options (2002). In this article she and Howard describe a meeting in Yellowknife, NWT of the “Federal Environmental Assessment Review of Broken Hill Properties (BHP) Inc .’s proposed diamond mine in the Northwest Territories.”

I will attempt to summarize Widdowson’s and Howard’s main points: At the meeting, according to Widdowson’s and Howard, the case of the First Nation’s representatives to explain and promote Traditional Knowledge was inadequate, from a purely “Western” scientific and engineering point of view, to add anything materially useful to the discussion of whether or not the mining should proceed.

In fact Widdowson and Howard go even further and compare the government (and Aboriginal representatives) to the naked Emperor in the fable of the “Emperor’s New Clothes”. In that story the Emperor was declared naked by a child – the position occupied by Widowson and Howard in this story.

They then launch a polemic on what they think is wrong with the whole situation. To quote from their paper: “Never in history has the cultural gap between two sets of peoples coming into contact with one another been wider.” And further on: “It is this gap, not ‘cultural loss’, that is at the root of Aboriginal dependency and all the related social problems in Canada’s native population and throughout the industrialized world” (emphasis mine).

It was at this point in declaratory hyperbole that I lost sympathy with Widdowson and Howard. The problems of Canada’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples are complex enough that a few paragraphs of hyperbole by Widdowson and Howard are not going to provide the solution. They go on to attack the “Aboriginal Industry” (their term).

There may well be (and probably are) bureaucrats and others who exploit issues affecting Aboriginals to make money for themselves – i.e. an industry. Furthermore, there is an obligation on the part of groups such as the Aboriginals appearing before a committee, such as the above Environmental Assessment, to provide articulate explanations of their positions.

I think, though, that all people interested in dealing rationally with issues like the Aboriginal situation in many parts of Canada need to step back and examine, and re-examine, ourselves and the basic premises – the accepted paradigms – that form the foundation of our thinking.

On the diamond mine, I presume the business proceeded because we have Canadian diamonds. I hope any and all Native concerns were dealt with fairly and sensitively. Stepping back though, what is the need, point or value of diamonds? They have some industrial use, but beyond that, romance, intrinsic beauty…? These are objectives that ought to be weighed fairly if producing them resulted in undermining a culture or homeland.

Back to the Grizzly Bears – one of the analogies raised in objecting to the ski resort was along these lines: What if a religious site of Christendom was to be demolished for a commercial venture? To that one could add, indeed, what if a casino and spa was to be promoted at Mecca or Medina?

The point being that we show the same level of respect for Native spirituality and religion as we would likely show to our own established religions. Granting recognition and respect to First Nations claims does not preclude development and mutual benefit in general.

More to the point, from my perspective, society is an ongoing, evolving, human invention – a contract we make with ourselves and have the power to update and change. Making the updates sometimes results in revolution because not everyone agrees on the updates…

In reality we are a piece of the universe, a part of our environment, a product of our history – which we continually have to discover and understand. There is no doubt in my mind that the last several hundred years of human endeavour have been the most fruitful, exciting and progressive in our history as a species. I think of things like the development of the scientific method, free speech, democracy, the concept of human rights, hat does not preclude the need to recognize and respect the thousands of years of human knowledge, revelation and experience – including that of our First Nations people.

With all due respect to the supreme Court, I would say, let the Grizzly Bear Spirit have his place – there are literally hundreds of good ski hill sites in BC.

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