Indigenous Land Stewardship program applies old solutions to modern problems

There's a growing recognition that traditional Indigenous knowledge will be needed to help mitigate the climate crisis, and Justin Sidon wants play a part in that.

Sidon grew up fishing Sockeye salmon along the Fraser River as a member of the Sto:Lo First Nation, and is now one of seven people enrolled at the new Indigenous Land Stewardship program at Vancouver's Native Education College.

Its aim is to help people like Sidon, 30, build on traditional ways of sustainable land and resource management and share them with decision makers looking for help preserving ecosystems in the face of climate change.

"It's just ... applying an old way of thinking to this modern world," he said. "I'm definitely hopeful. I think deep down as a human being … you know we depend on a healthy environment."

'Take what you need' 

Indigenous land stewardship places healthy ecosystems at the heart of healthy communities and economies. For example, that means not harvesting plants and animals to the point where the land can no longer produce those resources without ecological degradation.

"You know growing up I was always told that, just take what you need and somewhere along the lines people lost sight of that," said Sidon.

The one-year program at the college comes at a time when local governments and even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are saying that Indigenous knowledge is needed to combat climate change and its fallout.

In August, the IPCC published a report on how climate change was impacting the ability to produce food around the globe. It formally recognized how Indigenous and local knowledge can help overcome the combined challenges of climate change, food security and biodiversity conservation.

On a smaller scale, in September in B.C., the province announced it was using traditional Indigenous knowledge to help preserve Garry Oak meadows on Vancouver Island through prescribed burns.

Justin Sidon

Dawn Morrison, a member of Secwepemc First Nation who studies traditional food systems such as hunting and gathering, is teaching a course on Indigenous environmental knowledge at the college. She says Indigenous people, through their history and knowledge, need to be involved more in the fight against climate change.

"We have the oldest living memory of what it means to live sustainably in place and to adapt," she said.

Only 7 students so far

The Indigenous Land Stewardship program has space for 20 students and administrators hope to fill those spots in coming years, but officials acknowledge that it can be a struggle for potential students to come and afford to live in Vancouver and study for a year. Officials are developing an online version of the program.

The program also relies on federal funding to operate, something that a previous version lost more than a decade ago.

Now, the curriculum has been updated to include how Indigenous knowledge can help with climate change. Instructors like Chenoa Cassidy-Matthews, a member of the Sachigo First Nation in Northwestern Ontario who studies global Indigenous health, says the program is needed now more than ever and hopes it will grow.

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now — the same can be said for this program," she said.