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(Re-)Envisioning Natural Resource Management Involving First Nations: Toward an Effective Co-Management Policy

Ethics and Public Affairs, Carleton University, Ottawa, ON K1S 5B6, Canada
Water 2023, 15(17), 3144;
Submission received: 28 July 2023 / Revised: 23 August 2023 / Accepted: 31 August 2023 / Published: 2 September 2023


In this paper, I posit a relationship between what I consider to be two distinct views of natural resource management: the reductionist and holistic views. The purpose of this comparison is to highlight the dangers of reducing environmental management to its ability to bolster a nation’s economic status. Part of the problem with this view is that it cannot take seriously the needs and desires of Indigenous persons. As such, I compare the reductionist view with the holistic view. The holistic view does not only consider the economics of natural resources; unlike the reductionist view, it aims to take seriously the needs and desires of Indigenous communities that have used natural resources in their territories since time immemorial. To illustrate the differences between the reductionist and holistic views, I examine at length the case of the James Bay Hydro Development in Quebec, Canada. I then apply these insights to an international context by utilizing the literature from Australia. The literature from both Canada and Australia implies that natural resource management involving First Nations needs to take a holistic approach to water management and policy such that the hopes, needs, and desires of Indigenous communities are not merely placated, but fulfilled.

1. Introduction

On 16 December 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a mandate letter to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault. In this letter, there are several statements regarding reconciliation and co-management opportunities with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples across Canada. Prime Minister Trudeau argues that these opportunities are necessary for Minister Guilbeault to explore and that they must be approached in consideration of the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [1]. Part of this mandate letter requires Minister Guilbeault to create a Canada Water Agency that would update outdated language within the Canada Water Act and include contemporary language regarding “Canada’s freshwater reality including climate change and Indigenous rights” [1]. Similarly, Minister Guilbeault is tasked with implementing an Indigenous Guardians Program to establish a higher number of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) [1] Creating more IPCAs and the Indigenous Guardian Program could increase the Crown’s capacity to build co-management praxis between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons.
How this co-management praxis can be implemented effectively remains unclear. History shows that Crown–Indigenous relations within environmental governance have been shaky at best [2,3,4,5,6]. It should be noted, for international readers, that this issue is not unique to Canada. For example, a recent article by Kamilaroi scholar Bradley Moggridge and colleagues highlights that within water and wetlands management in Australia, there is a lack of Indigenous knowledge being utilized in water management praxis and this needs to change [7]. Their research, similar to mine, aims to decolonize water management such that Indigenous voices are able to participate effectively in water management processes. Another recent article by Tsatsaros et al. highlights some of the similarities and differences between the lack of Indigenous participation in water management praxis between Canada and the United States and Australia [8] These sources highlight that co-management initiatives have had limited success so far. In this paper, I ask the following question: what does it take to build an effective co-management water policy in the Canadian context? On the surface, the answer is relatively simple: it seems that all it takes is to integrate Indigenous knowledge systems and management practices into already existing non-Indigenous policy structures and management practices. After all, most humans would likely agree that making the planet sustainable for posterity’s sake is useful for all. Yet, when we take into consideration things such as national or company-based economic interests, this optimistic outlook begins to crumble. We must consider, then, whether it is possible to have an effective co-management system for water policy and, if so, how we can get there.
It should be made clear that, while my interests lie in water management, I often draw from other kinds of environmental management. This is because cases that appear to be far removed from water, like diamond mining in the Northwest Territories or hydroelectric development in Quebec, are closely linked to water management. For example, diamond mining companies that prospect for minerals in a lake can petition the federal government to de-fish the lake so that they can access the resources [6]. Another significant point of analysis related to water management is dam construction and the disregard for Aboriginal territory in constructing hydroelectric infrastructure [5,9]. Further, these kinds of cases, mining and dam construction, highlight the relatedness of economic priorities and co-management plans. They highlight the disconnect between building a co-management plan that proposes the integration of Indigenous knowledge and environmental values (along with the values of non-Indigenous persons who respect the land) and an effective co-management system that realizes what is being proposed.
The proposal/realization distinction is a useful way to frame and explore, for example, the privatization of water that undergirds national and company-based economic interests when discussing a co-management approach for two reasons. First, an effective co-management approach to policy must show how different groups understand a natural resource within a specific context. It is useful to note that this is the proposal side of the equation in the proposal/realization distinction that I made in the previous paragraph. Later on in the paper, I discuss what it means to realize an effective co-management plan. This involves adequately engaging with views that situate private and non-profit ideas of water to understand their importance to management. Secondly, I argue that engaging with the privatization of water in Canada allows one to notice the power imbalances that are present within disparate conceptions of water. Noticing these power imbalances reveals how those who do not hold the dominant ideology of capitalism (often Indigenous Nations/groups and non-Indigenous advocacy groups) have seen their views disenfranchised through nefarious policy (which I elaborate on below). These power imbalances must be explored if an effective co-management policy is to emerge.
To examine how these power imbalances arise and what they entail, I will posit a relationship between what I consider to be two distinct views of natural resource management: the reductionist and holistic views. I acknowledge that this is not a unique approach to discussing these kinds of issues. However, the urgency of transforming water management to ensure Indigenous persons have self-determination over resources that are in their territories is important and merits a comprehensive analysis that describes, in depth, a reductionist approach that focusses on privatization and a holistic approach that is comprehensive and acknowledges Indigenous needs and desires. In the first section, I will look at the reductionist view of natural resources, which asserts that management practices can be reduced to their capacity to gain profit for a nation or company and that this is central to a management plan. A reductionist view of natural resources can placate environmental concerns by offering to include Indigenous or non-Indigenous environmental activist worries within corporate or national policy. However, subscribers of this view’s main priorities lie in profit, and so these concerns are only secondary and need not be considered to a great extent or at all. In other words, a reductionist can propose that a nation or company will deal with environmental concerns without meaning to realize any action that ameliorates the concerns. This is why, I argue, the literature needs to highlight the difference between co-management and effective (or, perhaps, realized) co-management. A holistic approach to natural co-management recognizes the relationship between non-Indigenous economic concerns and Indigenous (and some non-Indigenous) environmental concerns and goes beyond merely placating these worries.
The holistic view acts contra to the reductionist view by questioning how economic concerns exacerbate power imbalances within environmental management by upholding colonial regimes that seem to acknowledge environmental concerns but do not contribute to a future in which these concerns are assuaged. In the second section, I develop the holistic view by incorporating a variety of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholarship. In the final section, I argue for an effective co-management approach to water that is in line with the holistic view of natural resource management. In the final section, I draw on lessons learned throughout the paper and situate the article in a global context by acknowledging the work of Erin O’Donnell and colleagues and their conception of a cultural water paradigm in Australia, which they describe as being able to assist “Indigenous-led, holistic water management” [10]. I end this paper on a hopeful note. I argue that water, similar to Métis scholar Zoe Todd’s work on fish, is a site of engagement wherein we can use the incompleteness of different kinds of knowledge to build a more holistic water policy [11]. In doing so, Canada and other Settler nations can move beyond the reductionist view of water, that upholds privatization and colonial legacies, toward a decolonial management praxis that respects all.

2. Reductionist View

The reductionist view of natural resource management is the view that specific institutions have regarding monetary values that are useful for company or government financial growth. Framing this kind of management plan as reductionist can help scholars consider how the view fits within certain ideologies like capitalism or colonialism without being equated to them wholesale. In other words, categorizing public and private ownership as distinct management plans under the title of reductionism helps them to avoid being tied to specific forms of social organization while capturing the goal of accumulating capital that is central to these institutions.
To situate the reductionist view, I will discuss the history of HydroQuebec and its dam developments in Northern Quebec. HydroQuebec developments have had a profound impact on Quebecois governance and identity. The province of Quebec is peculiar in Canada. It is primarily French-speaking, and its governance is often framed in nationalistic tones [2]. These nationalistic tendencies toward governance undergird Quebec’s approach to federal politics; with the help of French leader Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, Quebec was recognized as being able to represent itself in international forums, much to the disproval of the Canadian federal government [2]. Yet, international relations are not the only important aspect of building a legitimate state—there also needs to be public services that can build GDP and trade agreements. Quebec’s strategy to increase its capacity to engage in international relations was to invest in public services that “have evolved from instruments of economic nationalism to commercial organization with a growing focus on international trade” [2]. This strategic endeavour has been a way to bolster the province’s economic interests.
How the economic interests of Canada and Quebec differ will not be discussed in this paper, since this falls outside of the scope of environmental management. What I aim to show with this case is that the province of Quebec has used a public service, like HydroQuebec, to secure funds that could bolster its international trade and economic nationalism. Thus, how the environment has been managed in Quebec can be reduced to its capacity to bolster the province’s economic status in the international arena. It should be clarified that, while the government of Canada has lots of power in terms of monetary policy within provinces, the provinces themselves control state-owned enterprises [2]. Quebec Minister Gérin-Lajoie, in 1965, was interested in extending this kind of domestic policy to foreign policy for Quebec such that the province could be completely in charge of its economic interests as they regard their publicly owned enterprises. However, during the 1980s, after the Washington Consensus, there was an increase in the privatization of public service goods in Canada [2]. In Quebec, this meant that many previously public enterprises were absorbed into a conglomerate called Investissement Quebec [2]. Importantly, though, HydroQuebec remains a public enterprise, and so it remains a useful point of analysis for how provinces can use their control over land to increase their economic robustness.

2.1. History of HydroQuebec

Since the end of the 19th century, the hydroelectric industry in Canada has been dominated by oligopolies [2]. In Quebec, these include companies like Shawnigan Water and Power as well as Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company. HydroQuebec emerged in 1944 to compete against Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company [2]. The way that HydroQuebec exists today dates back to the early 1960s. During the 1960s, Quebec was following other provinces by creating a public hydroelectric monopoly, modeled after the Hydro-Electric Power Company that arose in 1905 within the province of Ontario (and is now called Ontario Hydro) [2]. Other provinces, like Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba, and British Columbia, all created their monopolies for hydroelectric companies around this time. There were multiple reasons for the creation of these monopolies, including “a popular movement against the alienation of natural resources by foreign interests, the desire of provincial governments to use electricity to support and nurture their secondary industrial sectors, a reaction against the high tariffs applied by private producers, and the fact that private oligopolies favoured the lucrative US markets over the sparsely populated Canadian urban regions and rural areas” [2]. The last point is important, considering that HydroQuebec aimed to provide electricity to all Quebecois. Similarly, rejecting foreign investment in natural resources was integral to Quebec nationalist policy at the time, which operated under the slogan “Maîtres Chez Nous” (“Masters of our own home”) [2]. It is useful to note that “Maîtres Chez Nous” is wrongfully translated in Bernier and Khalfaoui’s article as “Masters won their home”. The sentiment of owning one’s home plays into the nationalist economic rhetoric that pushed Quebec’s governing officials to seize control of an industry that private monopolies removed from the public’s hands.
The formation of HydroQuebec also helped to solidify the Quebecois identity. The 1970′s slogan for HydroQuebec was “We are all HydroQuebecois” and helped to form a national identity that was unified and not unambiguous like the designator “French-Canadian” [2]. Part of why this unifying identity was important was due to the government’s plan to perform a “symbolic ‘conquest’ of Quebec’s northern territories, through the large dam projects undertaken in the 1970s, which contributed to the integration of these remote geographic areas into a redefined collective national imaginary” [2]. Developments of projects in both the James Bay area and Manicouagan River reinforced that Northerners were also Quebecois. Further, these projects also helped signal to the rest of Canada and the world that Quebecois were more than just working-class citizens and could produce ingenious forms of engineering. For example, Quebecois engineers opted to use 735 kV voltage lines when constructing dams instead of the accepted 420 kV lines that most other engineering projects in North America were using during this time [2]. Increased technological success came for HydroQuebec with the establishment of a nuclear program [2]. Needless to say, there were antagonisms from Indigenous and non-Indigenous Quebecois who were increasingly showing concerns for the environment. As such, HydroQuebec had to become better at strategically dealing with environmental issues.

2.2. Reductionist Analysis

This brief history of HydroQuebec exemplifies at least two things about the reductionist view of natural resource management. First, it has a focus on ownership. In this paper, ownership refers to how states and companies use legal instruments to frame natural resources as things that can be “owned or leased” [12]. In the next section, when discussing the holistic view, I will talk more about some of the harmful policies in the Canadian context that have contributed to the symbolic and structural harm that Bourassa’s conquest of Northern Quebec territories has caused James Bay Cree members. Bourassa’s supposed conquest of Northern Quebec is reflective of the idea of accumulation by dispossession. Accumulation by dispossession is the idea that governments or corporations will move to a geographical area where a resource has not been exploited, build the infrastructure to extract the resource, and once the land has been emptied or a resource has been sufficiently exploited, the government or corporation will move elsewhere to continue the process [13]. Not only does accumulation by dispossession have a profound impact on the land, but it also impacts the cultures that are tied to the land that has been exploited [6,14]. For example, companies will often name their lands using Indigenous languages, effectively colonizing their land and their cultures [6]. However, sometimes the impact on the community is more economic: community members will not be hired for jobs, or they will be hired for less prestigious jobs [15]. This point will be expanded on in the discussion about the holistic view. The reductionist view also points to a utilitarian framework of resource management; even if the thing that links notional institutions and private industries with the environment is not about profit motives, it is the case that there is some sort of cost–benefit analysis going on, and these kinds of links provide a narrow account of how resources should be managed.
The second interesting thing about the HydroQuebec case is that it simultaneously shows how a nation or company’s management of resources is at once protectionist and expansionary. The HydroQuebec case demonstrates that nationalist economic regimes tend to be protectionist. What this means is that in developing and accumulating more resources that contribute to company or government financial growth, the institution will attempt to protect these assets from being taken away by competing bodies. For instance, to combat foreign or internal investment that detracted from the public ownership of land, the province of Quebec developed HydroQuebec to protect its environmental resources and keep profits for their own interests. This case also shows how nationalist economic regimes are expansionary. When HydroQuebec attempted to expand to New Brunswick to co-opt hydroelectric development in the neighbouring province, the people of New Brunswick protested against their government’s decision to accept an offer. Since the province of New Brunswick did not want public backlash, they ended up rescinding their deal with Quebec. Similarly, Ontario Premier Doug Ford rejected HydroQuebec’s advancements in Ontario [2]. These protectionist and expansionary ideas are crucial to understanding what I have called the reductionist view of natural resource management. Companies or states that fall into this camp can be reduced to how well they can protect or gain profit. They can be considered an economic failure if they do not succeed at either of these things.
As mentioned in the introduction and earlier in this section, companies or states that fall under the reductionist view can propose some way to assuage worries about the land or people that are exploited by this approach to management. But these strategies are merely placating and are not actual attempts to realize any kind of change to how management is conducted. Therefore, I propose we look at a second way of viewing natural resource management—one that I call the holistic view. This view is better able to take into consideration how management practices affect both the land and people without these aspects being seen as detrimental or strategically hindering to company or state financial growth.

3. Holistic View

Unlike the reductionist view of natural resource management, the holistic view encompasses a wider range of worries, such as Indigenous approaches to land and water. For example, it can take into consideration the distinction that Métis scholar Max Liboiron outlines as L/land [16]. For Liboiron, “land” is used to denote Euro-philosophical visions of what land can or should be used for. Placed in the context of HydroQuebec, it reflects an idea that supposedly barren lands in Northern Quebec can be conquered and used for capital accumulation. Land with a capital “L” is a broader and deeper look at what the Land encompasses. It requires more than looking at how to use Land to accumulate profits. It shifts human relationships with the Land from one of exploitation to one of relationality and accountability [16]. Cree scholar Dwayne Donald argues that “this form of relationality is …an ethical stance that requires attentiveness to the responsibilities of being in relation” [17]. For Liboiron and Donald, responsibility is synonymous with obligation and is a way for users of the L/land to give gratitude to the world for providing human and other-than-human animals with gifts of “water, relatives, food, or Land for short” [16]. Essentially, framing this view of natural resource management as holistic reflects the comprehensive obligations that natural resource managers have to the L/land, and these obligations go beyond the mere economic interests of nations or corporations.

Job’s Garden

To contrast the nationalist economic position of the province of Quebec in the reductionist section, I will discuss the same case, but from an alternative perspective. I will be looking at the documentary Job’s Garden, which details Elder Job Bearskin’s reaction to the James Bay dam developments [5]. I need to clarify at the outset that I am not making any claims about James Bay Cree’s knowledge or customs. Rather, I am using this public documentary to detail how the province of Quebec disregarded the Cree people by building dams on their ancestral territory in an attempt to conquer the North and build larger hydroelectric power reserves. What Job’s Garden highlights is that there is a difference between what water means to the state and First Nations groups. This point lies at the heart of the struggle with considering what an effective co-management system is or could be. One thing to inquire at this point is how cooperation can occur between the state and Indigenous groups. This is explored at length near the end of the paper. Robert Bourassa’s comment that any water that goes to the sea is wasted reinforces the idea that, to the government, water should be controlled and used for economic development. Yet, this strong focus on the profitability of resources brings into question the fiduciary responsibilities, or obligations, that the government has to the L/land. It is paramount that the government aligns itself with the holistic view such that future generations can also enjoy the L/land.
Job’s Garden, a documentary made for the Indians of Quebec Association and the Inuit Association of Northern Quebec, begins by asserting that the Cree have lived in the James Bay area on the Grand River for countless generations. Then, the main tension of the documentary is announced: the province of Quebec’s proposal to build the largest dam (comprising many smaller dams at different points on the Grand River) in North America. The creation of the dam would cost CAD 10B and result in about 6000 m2 of land being flooded [5]. None of this was asked for by the Cree or Inuit of Northern Quebec, whose lands the dams now reside on. The documentary then turns to Elder Job Bearskin, who argues that the province of Quebec has robbed the Cree people of their lands since they did not permit them to build the dams. Bearskin, talking to a young Cree man who moved to the South to be educated in White man schools, explains how the L/land in Kanaaupscow (a small town located on the Grand River) is like a garden that is composed of all its relations; the plants, animals, water, fish, and humans all rely on each other to flourish. Building the dams will and has already disrupted these relationships. Yet, the future of the garden is not the only concern here. Bearskin worries about the capacity of children to be able to use the L/land as past generations have. All of this is/was at stake with the dams, which aimed to flatten the land around the Grand River with gravel pits [5].
The documentary then shows a group of young people discussing the disruption of the dams to Cree ways of living and what this means for development on the Grand River. The young people see the development of the dams as an injustice to the Elders, whose subsistence comes from the L/land. They articulate that they are shocked by the development of the dams and that the province of Quebec should be taken to court for wounding the L/land [5]. They also question whether the Cree people would be employed to work on development projects related to the dams. This worry is not unfounded. It was observed in mines operating in the Northwest Territories that Indigenous persons were hired for lower-paying positions and that companies did not meet their hiring goals for Indigenous persons [15]. This point is articulated by a Cree woman in the documentary who asserts that the only jobs that Cree persons would/could obtain on dam projects are low-paying jobs [5].
Contrasting these worries by Elders and young Cree members, the White workers in the documentary seemed to think that they were not causing any harm. One White worker says that the only things that use the land are beavers and Cree and that “the Indians do not even live here anymore” [5]. Another worker articulates that he does not believe the dam will impact the Cree at all or the animals that they hunt. Yet another White worker says that Cree life will change regardless of the James Bay dam project and that the price of inconveniencing the Cree now is the price to pay for the benefit of Southern Quebecois. Finally, another White worker says that the Grand River is completely barren, without any animals; that the trees were not originally there before the Ice Age; and that, since the Ice Age, nothing has grown in the James Bay area. All of these thoughts are spoken in contrast to the James Bay Cree community members living off of the L/land that the developments impacted.
The comments by the White workers highlight why the James Bay development projects are good cases to show the differences between the reductionist and holistic views of natural resource management. As mentioned briefly in the prior section, a reductionist takes a utilitarian approach to the problem and justifies their position by arguing that even though a few people live off of the land and will be worse off because of the development projects, the rest of the province will be greater off because of it. Reducing the problem to economic (dis)advantage misses out on nuance and showcases how the White workers did not appreciate the Cree way of life or the L/land.
The tension between the White workers and the James Bay Cree over the James Bay dam development has a long history with roots in the Indian Act. I will not be giving a full account of this act here, as that is beyond the scope of this paper. However, if readers are interested, they can look at [18]. The Indian Act is a paternalistic legal instrument that has sought to control almost all aspects of Indigenous peoples’ lives—“from defining Indian status, to banning all traditional ceremonies and forms of governance; from forcing children into residential schools, to limiting any off-reserve movement of status Indians without a pass from the Indian agent; and much more” [18]. The Indian Act, up until 1951, prohibited Indigenous persons from hiring attorneys to help mitigate land claims issues [18]. Yet, even in contemporary times, with the opportunity to hire litigators, opposing Treaty violations is an arduous process. The Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led think tank at Toronto Metropolitan University, has labeled attempts to mitigate government and company interference with Treaty rights as death by 1000 papercuts [18]. While the duty to consult emerged in 2004/2005 after the Crown settled three distinct cases (Haida Nation v British Columbia, 2004; Taku River Tlingit First Nation v British Columbia, 2004; Mikisew Cree v Canada, 2005), the uncertainty of the federal title over the land should have been enough to acknowledge Cree ways of living during the James Bay development projects [19]. Again, and much to the dismay of First Nations, even contemporary cases between the Crown and First Nations result in long drawn-out legal processes since First Nations are required to “try to deal with hundreds of referrals for consultations”, and as a result, “critical financial and human resources are used” [19]. All of this is to say that, even within contemporary natural resource management consultation strategies, it is unlikely that the James Bay development would have ended differently or that the reductionist views about how to utilize resources for profit would have been overcome. As such, part of the holistic view of natural resource management is recognizing the historical and contemporary implications of the reductionist view in tandem with the harmful policies that have bolstered its presence and arguing that it is incomplete. A holistic understanding of natural resource management recognizes the various aspects of a resource that connect it to a community beyond its monetary value. Now it is appropriate to ask what it means to build an effective co-management policy involving First Nations.

4. Effective Co-Management

Huitema and colleagues argue that an effective co-management policy values “sharing the rights, responsibilities, and power between different levels and sectors of government and civil society” [20]. This definition prima facie meets the demands of the holistic view of natural resource management. For example, applied to the case of HydroQuebec, it can pull many great insights about what governments can do in the future to mitigate social and environmental harms. The case shows that there are various forms of power on display (national economic interests and foreign investment) and at different levels of society (government and dam workers not portraying accurate representations of who uses the land). In an effective co-management framework, it would be impossible not to give legitimacy to the needs of the James Bay Cree members.
Part of an effective co-management praxis that is not highlighted in the quotation is that it also requires collaboration [20]. Collaboration requires framing Indigenous persons as more than stakeholders. This kind of collaboration is in line with decolonization and reinforces the idea that Indigenous persons have Treaty rights that represent legitimate claims to the L/land. As such, the White worker’s comment about unsettling the few for the majority becomes unacceptable since, to achieve this, a certain groups’ rights would be disparaged. The workers’ comments are indicative of a failure to collaborate with and treat Cree members as stewards of the L/land. As such, an effective co-management approach goes beyond a top-down policy paradigm and moves toward collaboration. For example, local stewards can be Indigenous or non-Indigenous folks who have a relationship with the natural resources. Researchers can come from public or private institutions. Government agencies (municipal, provincial, or federal) can also be a part of this collaborative exercise. Foreign intervention is trickier, but it is possible to have ethical foreign investment in a natural resource if, for example, corporations follow the ethical guidelines for free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) laid out by Indigenous-led think tanks like the Yellowhead Institute or the UNDRIP [19] The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) defines FPIC in the following way: “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous Peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them” [21].
An effective co-management system also examines the context and embeddedness of a resource. Context refers to an analysis of “the problem or resource situation (i.e., discretion, progression, mobility, and boundary) as well as the social conditions (i.e., culture, power, salience, scale, space and infrastructure, and resource decision structure)” [22]. Thus, it is paramount for industries and governments that plan development projects to understand the ecological factors of a natural resource as well as the social components of resource use in an area. For HydroQuebec workers, this would require understanding the importance of the Grand River to the James Bay Cree. It would also mean gaining a better understanding of the L/land distinction mentioned earlier and how this distinction permeates development projects like the James Bay dam developments. There cannot be an effective co-management plan if there is not a way to reconcile development with the social conditions in which a resource exists. For example, in the case of HydroQuebec, a different approach would take into consideration how Elder Job Bearskin describes Kanaaupscow as a garden and that the use of gravel to flatten the L/land would disrespect the things that grow and utilize the garden. Understanding the centrality of a resource for a community’s flourishing is of paramount importance when considering how to shape a policy. Developing natural resource management policies in this way will move environmental policies beyond the reductionist view, where the environment can be used indiscriminately to a resource that should be given respect based on the way that it is interacted with by all its relations. At this point, it is useful, then, to take a global approach to this inquiry to see if an effective co-management plan has been achieved outside of the Canadian context. Placing this inquiry in an international context will be more broadly useful for policy analysts and natural resource management in Canada as lessons learned from elsewhere could be applied locally.

International Context

Erin O’Donnell and colleagues, looking at water management in the Australian context, analyze a potential cultural water paradigm that functions similarly to what I have called the holistic approach to natural resource management. The realization of the cultural water paradigm highlights that the insights from this article are not only relevant to Canada but are also relevant to the world more broadly. The cultural water paradigm has four components [10]. The first component centers on cultural water (i.e., water as it relates to a community’s capacity to self-determine; the community’s relationship with water (e.g., sociocultural connections), and other culturally relevant indicators) [10]. The second component centers on environmental water (i.e., the socioecological concerns related to the water) [10]. It is useful to notice the similarities between Liboiron’s conception of Land and the cultural water and environmental water components of the cultural water paradigm. Both Liboiron’s conception of Land and O’Donnell and colleagues’ ideas of cultural and environmental water focus on being in a relationship with the Land that is centered around an ethic of responsibility to all those who have a relation with the Land. The third component is commercial water (i.e., financial considerations regarding the economics of water—especially as they impact the relevant communities that have a relation with the water) [10]. Finally, the fourth component is household water (i.e., water that is used in the home for sanitation and hygiene purposes such as clean drinking water. An important consideration of household water is also how water relates to population health) [10]. O’Donnell and colleagues characterize their cultural water paradigm as holistic and empowering for First Nations communities [10]. The cultural water paradigm is critical for concepts like aqua nullius—the idea that Settlers can exclude “Indigenous Peoples from ownership and control over water” [10]. At its core, aqua nullius is an exploitative concept that argues that the pre-contact use and governance of water was negligible and inconsistent with Settler ownership. Aqua nullius begins with the assumption that water, pre-contact, did not belong to anyone and hence could be exploited in ways that are acceptable to Settlers. According to O’Donnell and colleagues, aqua nullius is “intertwined with globalization, neoliberalism, and extractive capitalism” [10].
O’Donnell and colleagues apply their paradigm to two cases located in the Murray–Darling Basin (MDB) in Australia. I will describe these cases briefly. The first is about the Nari Nari Tribal Council and their partnership with Australian government officials—the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder—to improve water management in a way that meets the socioecological needs of all [10]. The reflective management plan took into consideration the 50,000-year history that the Nari Nari Indigenous Peoples have been socially, spiritually, culturally, and economically responsible for the water in their region of Nari Nari Country, Gayini Nimmie Caira, on the Lowbridge Floodplain [10]. In the second case, similar to the James Bay Cree, water regulations and infrastructure were put in place without consulting the Tati Tati Indigenous peoples [10]. The Tati Tati requested the removal of the infrastructure and to instead use traditional knowledge to help manage the water. They argued that their knowledge would maintain water health by “reducing the amount of organic material entering the water way” [10]. The cultural paradigm applied to the first case might say that aspects of natural resource management related to the L/land have been respected; the cultural water was acknowledged in the sense that there was recognition of the 50,000-year history of the Nari Nari in the MDB and that they have a spiritual and cultural connection tied to the L/land. The environmental water is also respected due to the L/land being managed in a way that respects the socioecological needs of all. However, in the case of the Tati Tati Indigenous persons, much like the James Bay Cree, work still needs to be done to give respect to Tati Tati Indigenous knowledge and management plans. As noted in the introduction of this paper, Aboriginal Australian scholars like Bradley Moggridge and his colleagues argue that the representation of Aboriginal voices in Australian water governance still needs to increase [7]. One way to accomplish this is to recognize Aboriginal Australian relationships with the L/land through the cultural water paradigm.
Exploring co-management in the Australian context points to what is missing in Canadian co-management praxis. What is essential to effective co-management is to pay attention to how history has shaped approaches to environmental management. For example, the Nari Nari Tribal Council’s 50,000-year history was honoured by governmental authorities responding to Nari Nari ways of interacting with the L/land and management practices. An effective co-management plan recognizes the illegitimacy of concepts like terra nullius, which disenfranchise First Nations communities. These aspects go beyond context and embeddedness, collaboration, and recognizing power imbalances. It is a commitment for industries and governments to understand how history has contributed and given legitimacy to these power imbalances and disrupted collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons. It involves corporations and governments realizing that they have historically disenfranchised and marginalized Indigenous persons and that this has resulted in their exploitation. This exploitation has also contributed to the destruction of the L/land through complex processes such as accumulation by dispossession. In essence, effective co-management moves beyond exploitation frameworks that are rooted in colonial history. Effective co-management disrupts (see [18] for conversations about disruption) the reductionist view of resources that are rooted in these histories and moves toward meaningful collaboration and co-management.

5. Conclusions

Engaging with Indigenous (and non-Indigenous groups that do not condone the reductionist view) values and accepting the incompleteness of the reductionist view will move Canada toward a more acceptable and holistic form of co-management regarding natural resource management. Grappling with the holistic view of natural resources can have a profound (re-)orientation of how we approach policy. For example, in reconnecting with her Métis roots while conducting fish research in the Arctic, Zoe Todd writes:
Fish are simultaneously many things: food; sentient beings with whom humans share territory; specimens of study and regulation in wildlife co-management regimes; citizens and agents in legal governance relationships… Across these sites [of active engagement], human-fish relationships inform and capture memory, stories, teaching, and philosophies. I also learned that human-fish relations can act as ‘micro-sites’ across which fish and people, together, actively resist and reshape colonial logics and processes within Inuvialuit territories. Just as humans can shape and experience the colonial encounter, so too can animals [11].
I have used this long quotation for hopeful purposes. Similar to Todd, I see water as a microsite of engagement wherein we can use the incompleteness of various kinds of knowledge to build a more holistic water policy. In doing so, Canada can move beyond the reductionist understanding of resources, framed by an idea of accumulation by dispossession, toward a decolonial praxis that respects all.
At the beginning of this paper, I introduced the mandate letter that Justin Trudeau wrote for the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault. In this letter, it was mandated that Minister Guilbeault create opportunities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons for co-management. Some of these opportunities include building a Canada Water Agency, which requires updating the language within the Canada Water Act that reflects Indigenous values and co-management praxis. What I have aimed to show in this paper is that, so far, co-management in Canada has yet to be conducted effectively. Rather, natural resource management has been practiced through a top-down approach that does not realize its co-management potential. Instead, there have only been proposals for the inclusion of Indigenous values. To move beyond merely proposing the inclusion of Indigenous voices, there needs to be a development of an effective co-management policy approach to natural resource management. In this paper, I have attempted to show what this looks like by describing what I take to be two contrasting views, the reductionist and holistic views, through an examination of the James Bay dam development. The benefit of a holistic view is that it moves beyond the merely economic interests that the reductionist view is focused on and asks policymakers to examine the power differentials and history of colonial violence in environmental management. To broaden these insights for an international audience and to show the global reach of their implications, I brought in the literature from the Australian context to highlight that work is being conducted globally on developing a holistic form of water management. Examining and disrupting deeply entrenched colonial violence will be useful for building a holistic policy that allows for Canadian natural resource managers (and natural resource managers from other nations built upon colonial foundations) to understand how resources are used by all their relations and develop an effective co-management approach to policy.


This research received no external funding.

Data Availability Statement

All the data used in this article are publicly accessible.


The author thanks Vida Panitch at Carleton University for providing helpful comments on the initial draft of this paper.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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