Indigenous Empowerment through Co-Management: The Inside Story

Posted: Wednesday, June 10, 2020


Written by Graham White, University of Toronto

Behind-the-scenes accounts of movies and plays can be more interesting than the plays and movies themselves. Alas, what follows about my recently published UBC Press book, Indigenous Empowerment through Co-management: Land Claims Boards, Wildlife Management, and Environmental Regulation, lacks scandal, backstage catfights, high-flying impresarios and stories of outrageous behaviour by famous (or infamous) actors. What it does have, I hope, are interesting insights into how a book like mine came to be. It might even encourage some to read it.

Indigenous Empowerment through Co-management cover

I should begin by describing how my longstanding, burning desire to study wildlife management and environmental regulatory co-management boards in the territorial North led to this book project. Except that’s not exactly how it happened. In 1999, I had been travelling to the North and writing about its fascinating politics for more than a decade, though I had only the vaguest idea about the co-management boards that had been set up under the comprehensive land claims agreements. However, my SSHRC grant was down to fumes and it’s a very long walk from Toronto to Yellowknife. I needed a new grant to keep going. A colleague suggested that I should check out a new SSHRC grant programme on Federalism and Federations. “But I don’t do federalism,” I responded. “You’ll think of something,” he assured me. So I started to consider Northern institutions through a federalism lens (fervently avoiding the hoary non-topic, ‘should the territories become provinces?’). During a chat with my late, wonderful colleague Richard Simeon I raised the possibility of looking at the co-management boards as a new species of beast within the Canadian federal menagerie. Richard, ever-enthusiastic, said it was a great idea and I should go for it.

So I applied for the grant. To my surprise, I got it. Whereupon my first reaction was [expletive deleted], now I have to do this! But it didn’t take long before I realized that the boards actually were pretty interesting ... no, very interesting. There were a great many of them across the three territories. They had a wide range of mandates and exhibited many variations in structural and operational features . They held out the prospect that Northern Indigenous people could, for the first time in many a year, exert real influence over land and wildlife issues so important to them. They were major players in Northern politics. And no political scientist had given them more than a passing glance.

The research itself entailed reading masses of meeting minutes, annual reports, strategic plans, technical reports, correspondence, submissions from Indigenous governments and organizations, from public governments and from industry. As well, I kept a watching brief on Northern media – I found that one board or another is always in the news. But the most important and fruitful component of the research was attending board meetings and talking to board members and staff as well as stakeholders. As I’ve found in other Northern projects, after some initial skepticism – ‘who is this guy? Why is he here?’ – those in the board world proved more than willing to share their views and experiences. Sitting through long, often highly technical board meetings, not to mention coming back year after year, gave me a certain cred, though I was always quick to point out my lack of expertise in issues relating to the environment or to wildlife; I used to say that I could distinguish a caribou from a seal three times out of four. It was important to watch meetings unfold, especially the interactions involving board members and those appearing before the boards, but at least as valuable were the informal chats with board members and staff and others at the meetings during coffee and smoke breaks. As often as not the conversation would be about hockey or kids rather than board processes, but this too helped me get to know the members and staff on a personal level.

Some of the best – most enjoyable as well as productive – experiences were board meetings held in small communities where the members, staff, presenters and the camp-following academic all stayed at the same small hotel and ate at the hotel restaurant. Board meeting schedules, combined with my teaching commitments, often had me sitting in on meetings in mid or late December. This meant not only a disproportionate number of Northern-themed Christmas presents but also more than a few board Christmas parties, including one where I almost succumbed to entreaties to don a Santa suit.

Quite simply, I couldn’t have produced anything nearly as thorough (dare I say “good”?) as I did, had I not spent the time observing meetings and hanging out with folks from the boards. Documents tell only part of the story.

So was it an inordinate fondness for attending meetings and chatting up board players that led to the twenty-year gap between getting the first grant and publishing the book? Or was it a well- thought out strategy to give the boards time to mature and develop, so as to be able to provide an historical perspective on the boards? Neither was entirely irrelevant, but the real story is that I was then, and continue to be in my so-called ‘retirement’, constitutionally unable to focus on one project at a time. I had other large-scale projects on the go at the same time (not all on the North) and did churn out two substantial books and a healthy batch of articles and book chapters while the board project waxed and waned among my priorities. In short, I wasn’t goofing off. Whatever the explanation, the long period during which I worked on and off on boards meant not only that I was able to have time to reflect and thus, I like to think, to develop a clear understanding of the boards and their place in Northern politics but also to watch as they grew and matured and adapted to new opportunities and challenges. Tenure offers the wonderful gift of being able to take the time necessary to do the job properly.

When it came time to write the book, I had to confront some fundamental questions about Indigenous-state relations in Canada and about my views on this critically important topic. I had invested a lot of time in studying boards and thus had a vested interest in concluding that they are important and effective. Moreover, I liked and was grateful to the members and the staff of the boards and didn’t want to decide – and write – that their efforts and commitment were misplaced. Any yet, several astute scholars of Northern politics, whose work I greatly respected, argued that the boards – like the land claims generally – weren’t advancing Indigenous issues and indeed were harmful in that they were sucking Indigenous people and leaders ever more into Western modes of thought and behaviour at the expense of their cultures. I thought about this a good deal and in the end took the position that, imperfect as they doubtless are, the boards are important vehicles for Indigenous influence over land and wildlife in their traditional territories. Do they accord the control over their lands that Indigenous people want and deserve? No. Could their powers be substantially beefed up? Certainly. Are they a decided improvement over what went before? Unquestionably, in my view. All told, twenty years well spent; I learned a good deal, and not just about the North, made good friends and, I trust, produced a decent book.

Posted by Megan M.
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