Traditional Knowledge

What is traditional knowledge?

Indigenous peoples in the Northwest Territories (NWT) have sustained and supported themselves since time immemorial through traditional knowledge and the skills developed to successfully live on the land. Traditional indigenous knowledge is a valid and essential source of information about the natural environment and its resources, the use of natural resources, and the relationship of people to the land and to each other. This knowledge has been recognized by the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT), in the development of its Traditional Knowledge Policy 53.03 in 1997, and in more recent planning documents like the Traditional Knowledge Policy: Implementation Framework from the GNWT and the Traditional Knowledge Implementation Plan from the Department of Environment and Climate Change.

Traditional knowledge can be defined as:

"…knowledge and values, which have been acquired through experience, observation, from the land or from spiritual teachings, and handed down from one generation to another" (Traditional Knowledge Policy: Implementation Framework, p. 1).

Traditional knowledge has helped guide the development and implementation of Northern Voices, Northern Waters: NWT Water Stewardship Strategy (the Strategy) and has played an integral part in water stewardship decisions:

  • "The appropriate use and consideration of all types of knowledge, including traditional, local and western scientific, are an integral part of the Strategy and related initiatives” (p. 6 of the Strategy).
  • “Traditional knowledge provides valuable information and important guidance for all stewardship actions” (p. 27 of the Strategy).

Integrating traditional knowledge into water management and monitoring

Developing and implementing processes and protocols that promote the use of traditional knowledge in ways that help ensure activities respect community values was an important aspect of the Water Strategy's original 2011-2015 Action Plan. In the NWT Water Stewardship Strategy: Action Plan 2016-2020 and the current NWT Water Stewardship Strategy: Action Plan 2021-2025, the use of traditional indigenous and local knowledge is further promoted and supported in regulatory processes, research, and monitoring and within the implementation of bilateral water management agreements.

Official languages of the NWT

The Northwest Territories (NWT) is the only political region in Canada which recognizes 11 official languages.

Of these, nine are Indigenous and belong to three different language families: Dene, Inuit, and Cree. Indigenous languages are most frequently spoken in smaller communities throughout the Northwest Territories. English and French are the other two official languages.

A map showing the official languages of the NWT (produced by the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, GNWT), is shown below and demonstrates the geographic relationship in the NWT between indigenous languages, land claim settlement regions, and resource management processes. Click here or on the map to expand the map.

Official Languages of the Northwest Territories
Official Languages of the Northwest Territories

Traditional knowledge protocols

The protection and maintenance of traditional knowledge is essential to Indigenous communities and many organizations have developed protocols for traditional knowledge sharing during research and monitoring activities. Traditional knowledge is peer reviewed by the people providing input and contributes to a greater understanding and analysis of the environment. The use and application of traditional indigenous knowledge and oral history in the courts is considered valid in law in Canada.

Government of the Northwest Territories Traditional Knowledge Best Practices Summary outlines eleven (11) best practices for gathering and applying traditional knowledge in the North:

  1. Understand and acknowledge the value of traditional knowledge.
  2. Establish and apply appropriate definitions of traditional knowledge.
  3. Ensure the protection of sensitive information.
  4. Adhere to community-based protocols.
  5. Ensure community engagement.
  6. Ensure informed consent.
  7. Ensure local ownership and control of information.
  8. Interpret and present traditional knowledge in the appropriate cultural context.
  9. Provide benefits for the use of traditional knowledge.
  10. Follow formal research licensing guidelines.
  11. Establish clear communication and reporting links.

As part of the implementation of the Water Strategy, an inventory of all traditional knowledge protocols developed by Indigenous governments or organizations began in 2011. The protocols listed below were compiled:

Ongoing work to develop and implement processes that promote the use of traditional indigenous knowledge in ways that help ensure water stewardship activities respect community values will continue.

Using traditional knowledge when making water management decisions

Other examples of traditional knowledge use in the Northwest Territories water management and monitoring decision making include:

  • Northern River Basin Study: “The NRBS Board negotiated a formal agreement with the Grand Council of Treaty 8 First Nations for researchers to collect information and chronicle the traditional environmental knowledge of many native peoples residing within the basins.” 
  • Peace-Athabasca Delta Environmental Monitoring Program: “The design of the monitoring program will incorporate the most current and best understanding of both western science and traditional ecological knowledge.” (Environment Canada) 
  • Environmental Impact Assessment: The Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act (MVRMA) outlines: “In exercising its powers, the Review Board shall consider any traditional knowledge and scientific information that is made available to it” (MVRMA s. 115.1).
  • Regulatory Boards: “The LWBs [land and water boards] use traditional knowledge to make decisions on preliminary screenings, in setting the terms and conditions of water licences and land use permits, and in the review and approval of some plans required under licences and permits” (2010 NWT Environmental Audit).
  • Renewable Resource Boards: “Local and traditional knowledge is used to identify management issues, plan research and develop management plans” (for wildlife, protected areas, land and water use permitting) (Gwich’in Renewable Resource Board).
  • Land Use Planning Boards: “Traditional knowledge is used in land use planning to set land use zones and to identify particular conditions that must be adhered to for certain land uses” (2010 NWT Environmental Audit).