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Paws for thought: Let's respect Indigenous knowledge and Inuit futures with nanuk.

This week, the Biennial Polar Bear Range States meeting is happening. The meeting is a gathering of government delegations from Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United States, and Russia to discuss the status of polar bears and their habitat within their respective countries. The theme this year is Indigenous relationships.


The theme is significant. Despite the historic agreement between the range states signed in 1973, it was not until 2013 that there was a declaration to recognize "the importance and value of traditional ecological knowledge in informing management decisions and acknowledge the need for the range states to develop a common understanding of what constitutes traditional ecological knowledge and how it should be used in polar bear management decisions." In 2023, 50 years after the original agreement and a decade after the declaration, it is clear that Indigenous knowledge is not adequately represented in polar bear management. There is still much work to be done. There is still not enough trust in Indigenous Peoples to manage polar bears in their own homelands, and there is clearly an inequity and level of conceit associated with not trusting Indigenous local solutions or in nations like Canada not honouring the decisions made by co-management boards established through land claim agreements or treaties.


Recognizing the importance and value of Indigenous knowledge is a step, but what does recognition look like in practice, and does it include accommodation or levels of self-determination at the community level? If Inuit, for example, implemented non-quota limitations, would these practices be respected by higher levels of government? Or what if Inuit decided that a quota system was simply having too much impact on their cultural way of life and traditional approaches to polar bear relationships? Would governments respect local approaches by those living most intimately with polar bears?


At this meeting, there will be national delegations and invited specialists. Indigenous elders, knowledge holders, dignitaries, non-government organizations, academic researchers, and observers. The presence of these diverse attendees reflects the importance of collaboration and knowledge sharing in the management of polar bears. It also provides a unique opportunity for students and researchers to learn from international dialogue and gain insights into co-management approaches. I teach a co-management class within Dalhousie University's Marine Affairs Program, and many of my graduate student colleagues will be observing the meeting, and it is a special opportunity to learn about co-management through an international dialogue.


Many of the topics on the agenda are directly related to our class discussions. On day one, a co-management colleague from Nunavut will facilitate a panel on Indigenous knowledge and co-management. In this session, there will be presentations about Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit in Nunavut, the traditional use of polar bear skins in Greenland, an overview of the Nunavut’s wildlife co-management system and results from their hearing processes. There will also be perspectives shared from Nunatsiavut and Russia.


On the second day, I am happy for the opportunity to facilitate a panel as well about regional approaches to bridging Indigenous knowledge and science and working with communities, co-management bodies, and governments. The speakers will be sharing their perspectives from Greenland, Nunavut, and Alaska. The meetings continue for two more days with the latest scientific information and extensive dialogue about polar bear human conflicts.


For students of co-management, this meeting represents a real opportunity to observe the multiple levels at which polar bears are co-governed and managed across international states, within large nations like Canada, within vast territories like Nunavut, and at the community and individual levels. Polar bears are highly managed and heavily regulated from a harvesting perspective, but the greatest threat to polar bears is the climate crisis and the melting sea ice that these bears depend on for harvesting their main food sources, such as seals.


It will be insightful to see if the range states of Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United States, and Russia spend much time discussing their efforts to mitigate climate change. If they do, there will be lots of Indigenous knowledge available about the topic, as Indigenous Peoples are monitoring the climate and are reporting increasingly dramatic changes.


There are podcasts on the Co-management Commons that relate to polar bear management if you are interested in learning more about this complex co-management situation. In this new podcast, I am talking with guest Ernie Cooper, a distinguished wildlife trade expert with a rich and varied career in the field. He provides a detailed overview of CITES and its successes, and also gives an overview of polar bear trade numbers over the past decade.

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