Aboriginal and Indigenous Research


Cities & Environment Unit engaging Aboriginal communities in the community planning process

Founded in 1993, the Cities & Environment Unit (CEU) is a research group based in the Faculty of Architecture and Planning. The group consists of community planners, architects, urban and landscape designers. Under the guidance of the Unit’s founder, Frank Palermo, their goal is to connect Dalhousie, along with Planning & Architecture to communities locally, nationally and abroad.  

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Frank’s mission is to learn by doing, to work with communities to push the boundaries of conventional planning in ways that are mutually beneficial. The CEU is enriching the practice of community planning through the development of new models and approaches to this work.

One model that has received considerable accolades is the First Nations Community Planning Model. The Model, developed in partnership with Wagmatcook First Nation, is recognized as a best practice both nationally and internationally for community-based, comprehensive planning. Since their inception, the CEU has partnered with 45 First Nations, a dozen tribal councils, and Aboriginal organizations across nine provinces. Currently they are working with First Nations in Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and here in Nova Scotia.

Community planning with First Nations helps communities work towards their future by focusing on positive change. CEU ensures that their approach to community planning, and especially working with First Nations, is comprehensive, community-based and action oriented.

A comprehensive approach indicates that planning is not one project or one idea about community development. It highlights how all aspects of a community are connected; a community’s physical organization is inherently tied to social, economic, environmental and cultural realities. Linking these elements together creates opportunities for positive change though planning and design that can unite different sectors and people together.

A community-based planning process involves meaningful engagement with community members. Youth, Elders, Band staff, and community members at large are actively involved in the research, design and implementation of their Comprehensive Community Plan (CCP). An action-oriented method focuses on implementing kick-start projects, an immediate way to begin making a “difference on the ground”. Kick-start projects are a way for community members to see how their CCP can take shape in their community and instill a sense of pride and ownership. A number of these projects have also involved bringing students together with First Nations communities to design and construct projects.

Community planning is a way for First Nations communities to feel empowered to determine their own futures. Building a knowledge base here at Dalhousie and working with First Nations in the field is both gratifying and challenging work. The CEU is proud to be engaging in this research and fieldwork and continuing to build capacity within First Nations communities.


Looking at Indigenous/Settler relationships

When it comes to honouring existing treaties and developing contemporary social, political, economic and legal relations with Indigenous people, “there is much that Canada can and should learn from New Zealand,” says social anthropologist Dr. Brian Noble. For the past thirty years, Noble has studied Indigenous/Settler relationships, and worked to find openings for appropriate reconciliation and positive resolution between Indigenous people and the State.

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He recently returned from a sabbatical at the University of Otago, where he worked alongside scholars involved in the bicultural process of bringing Maori and New Zealand settler people (Pakeha) into strong nation-wide relations.

Now back at Dalhousie, he hopes to apply what he learned about New Zealand’s historical application of treaties – in particular the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi – as well as their stance on contemporary legal and political relations to his interdisciplinary research and work in Canada.

Framing the conversation

Where New Zealand’s Maori and Moriori people have a largely shared language, Canada has more than 100 First Nations groups, speaking 60 different languages.
Responding to this diversity, Canada devised a number of specific treaties during the colonizing period, each with distinctive elements and obligations appropriate to its people. Treaties on the East Coast address trade, where those in Ontario and further West focus on land-sharing.

“To achieve reconciliation, we have to start by asking ‘what is the conversation we are in?’’’ says Noble, paraphrasing Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Since 2010, Noble and his graduate students have been collaborating with BC’s Secwepemc people to advance a territorial relationship which highlights Secwepemc authorities relating to food sources, water and large-scale development. A paper on this research was presented at the Canadian Indigenous Symposium at the University of Otago in May 2013.

The application of a treaty is as important as the agreement itself – when treaties or other Constitutional rights aren’t honoured, the consequences can be seen in movements like “Idle No More” and the Tsilqot’in Nation v. Canada case. The Tsilqot’in case centres around a government-approved development proposal in unceded aboriginal land. Noble’s research into the “now-archaic” political and legal thought informing the jurisprudence in this case will be offered as a scholarly counterpoint prior to the Supreme Court of Canada Hearing in November 2013.

He is also currently working on projects with Dalhousie scholars in law, sustainability and sociology and was Committee Chair for 2012’s “Joining the Conversation: An Inventory and Report of Indigenous Peoples Research Engagement at Dalhousie University.”

Responsibility for shared futures

Noble organized the popular 2012 MacKay Lecture Series “Reconciliation: Responsibility for Shared Futures,” featuring experts Michael Asch and John Borrows. A second gathering of these scholars, as well as Political Philosopher James Tully, is slated for Spring 2014.

Noble is heartened by the response to this series, as well as the positive trend in enrolment in Indigenous studies in the ten years he’s been teaching. He believes this has to do with increased exposure, through social media, to movements like “Idle No More."

“Students today want answers to these questions,” he says. Next up, Noble will serve as co-investigator on a $2.5 million SSHRC-grant project on the work of American anthropologist Franz Boas.


Dalhousie Centre for Water Resources Studies working with remote communities in Nunavut

Imagine relying on trucks to bring your drinking water and take your wastewater away. If you live in Nunavut, that’s something you experience every week. “Delivery and collection usually happens every two days,” says Lisbeth Truelstrup-Hansen, a Faculty of Engineering professor at Dalhousie University. “If there is a holiday or a truck breaks down, everyone plans their water usage accordingly.”

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Truelstrup-Hansen is one of several Dalhousie Centre for Water Resources Studies researchers working with the Government of Nunavut to address water availability and wastewater management in Canada’s northern-most territory. Through a five-year project, which began in 2009, she and her colleagues are characterizing the performance of current lagoon and wetland wastewater treatment systems, evaluating health and environmental risks, and testing strategies to improve the performance of passive treatment systems.

In addition to Truelstrup-Hansen, this multidimensional research team includes fellow Faculty of Engineering professors Graham Gagnon, Robbie Jamieson and Craig Lake; Heather Castledeon from the School for Resource and Environmental Studies; Daniel Rainham from the Environmental Science program; and numerous graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and undergraduate research assistants.

Given that Nunavut is essentially isolated from the rest of Canada, this undertaking has been quite an eye opener for both residents and researchers, according to Gagnon. “Often when researchers meet community members, it is the first time they’ve experienced such remoteness. Our team has received great openness and collaboration by the local communities. This makes for a unique synergy, which makes the project very exciting.”  

Researchers have also collaborated with the Nunavut Research Institute to establish a water quality laboratory in Iqaluit. This has facilitated expedite analysis of wastewater and drinking water samples, and offered invaluable training opportunities to Nunavut Arctic College’s Environmental Technology Program students.

“The remoteness of these communities has made it a challenge to conduct research related to water and wastewater systems in Nunavut,” observes Jamieson. “Our partnerships with the Government of Nunavut and individual communities we are working in are critical to the success of the research program.” He further reflects. “It is important that we ensure community members understand the value of the research. We want them to know how it will contribute to and improve public health and long term environmental protection.”

The team has taken every opportunity to engage community members throughout the process. Examples include a three-day water science workshop in Coral Harbour for young people and participating in radio station call-in shows – a vital source of information and communication among northern communities – to report their findings.

“A person’s environment greatly affects their quality of life,” says Truelstrup-Hansen. “I believe that if we can contribute to improve some important aspects, from an environmental point of view, that is a good place to be in.”

Overall, support from the community has been strong, and the team intends to continue their research and maintain partnerships with the Government of Nunavut long after the project has been completed.

“Dalhousie is well placed by having the team in Nunavut doing the research,” says Gagnon. “We are fortunate to be working in a unique field in that the research encompasses not only water engineering, but social domains, government, and community dynamics. It’s an exciting niche to explore.”


Fish-WIKS: Working towards fish sustainability

Dr. Lucia Fanning, Professor of Marine Affairs in Dalhousie’s Faculty of Science, works to ensure that all critical stakeholders are involved in coastal and marine management. As Principle Investigator for Fish-WIKS (which stands for Fisheries – Western and Indigenous Knowledge Systems), Dr. Fanning collaborates with the Assembly of First Nations and the Government of Nunavut through a partnership project called, “Exploring Distinct Indigenous Knowledge Systems to inform Fisheries Governance and Management on Canada's Coasts”.

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The research strives to improve Canadian fisheries policy decision-making by understanding western and indigenous knowledge systems. Key priorities include researching how knowledge is acquired, valued and shared as a result of differing worldviews.

“We are in a genuine collaboration with academics, The First Nations and Inuit partners to enhance decision-making capability for managing fishery resources in Canada,” Dr. Fanning explained. “To facilitate this partnership, Dalhousie and the Assembly of First Nations have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) outlining how we’ll jointly investigate these knowledge systems to better manage fishery resources. The ultimate goal is fisheries sustainability.”

Dr. Fanning credits the reputation of the Marine Affairs Program as an objective, applied research unit, along with the caliber of the Fish-WIKS team, as key reasons why First Nations representatives felt at ease with the MAP partnership.

“I’ve worked with diverse stakeholders in the past and I see all stakeholders as having important roles to play,” said Dr. Fanning.

Fish-WIKS ensures research is policy-relevant by designing research questions in partnership with non-academic partners, including the Assembly of First Nations.

Having secured Dalhousie’s first partnership grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) in 2012, Fish-WIKS is setting the groundwork for research to come. The group has employed four First Nations community liaison officers at partner sites across Canada. These officers raise awareness of Fish-WIKS in their communities and report community needs to Fish-WIKS. Eventually, the liaison role will expand to include participation in and support of Fish-WIKS research at partner sites.

With its emphasis on knowledge mobilization and capacity building, Fish-WIKS funds four masters and four doctoral students. To date, two doctoral scholarships and one masters scholarship have been awarded to Indigenous recipients, and the team expects all Fish-WIKS masters scholarships will fund Indigenous students.

“We support students from across Canada in order to share capacity building,” explained Dr. Fanning. “We hope these students contribute to future decision-making in fisheries management.”

Fish-WIKS will conduct research in four Canadian locations: Tla-o-qui-aht, British Columbia; Nipissing, Ontario; Repulse Bay, Nunavut; and Eskasoni, Nova Scotia. Fanning and other Fish-WIKS researchers will tailor investigations to questions of relevance to those communities.

Fish-WIKS represents a first-of-its-kind collaboration in Canada.

“Looking at the interplay of traditional knowledge systems and western knowledge systems, the academic literature often prioritizes one form of knowledge over the other,” explained Dr. Fanning. “Fish-WIKS is about valuing knowledge systems equally and identifying how they both can be used to manage fisheries sustainably.”


A diversity of approaches: First Nations property law and land management

As First Nations continue to develop systems of self-governance for their lands and resources, many are challenging the idea that there is one “right” approach to building the local property law and land management regimes that suit their needs and objectives.

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As Jamie Baxter, an Assistant Professor at Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law explains, “First Nations are currently under a lot of pressure to harmonize their community land laws with standard provincial and federal rules that apply to buying, selling, leasing and regulating land and natural resources. In part, this trend is an outgrowth of past failures by Canadian institutions to recognize community laws as legitimate sources of legal norms. But First Nations also face mounting pressure from international movements that would prefer land law reform to look more or less the same around the world.”

“My research explores the impressive diversity of property laws and land management regimes that First Nations are using to govern their lands at the community level. I study the major influences – global, national, and local – that are driving legal changes and how they impact resource governance and economic development. You can’t understand these changes without understanding the broader legal and political contexts that shape them.”

Property law: a surprising area of legal change

“It can be discouraging to see the many ways that laws about lands and resources contribute to the inequalities First Nations continue to experience in Canada,” says Jamie. “I got interested in First Nations property law because it struck me as one area where communities are often leading legal change through local practice – sometimes using the available legal structures and sometimes in spite of them.”

“It’s also surprising to find these innovations emerging in an area like property, which we tend to think about most of the time in terms of values like uniformity, stability, and preserving the status quo. I find those underlying tensions fascinating.”
Thinking about law like language

“Much of my work is comparative, because I want to understand how First Nations property laws are evolving differently from each other and why communities are making their particular choices. I have started to think a lot about the similarities between property and language: both can be highly adaptive to local context, and both need translating in some cases to be useful and effective,” contends Jamie. “This analogy with language is becoming more familiar to property law scholars, and it’s an idea that I think has particular force when applied in First Nations.”

Meeting the needs of communities

Jamie’s work in this area carries at least two main impacts for communities: First, understanding local changes in First Nations property laws can help to confront the conflicts that arise when multiple legal systems strive to coexist and interrelate. Second, where there are lessons and good practices to be shared from comparative study, this work can help to support First Nations as they pursue legal change and self-governance.