Margaret Wente's now infamous October 25th column, What Dick Pound said was really dumb - and also true, appears to have based almost entirely on the research of Marxist scholars Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, whose views are discussed briefly in this National Post profile from Saturday, November 1st. These two have been around for awhile, and in fact are given credit for instigating a debate over the usefulness of employing indigenous "traditional knowledge" in policy making for Nunavit and the NWT. This is how they got their start:
Northern organizations, governments, and governments-in-waiting have been formally and informally attempting to incorporate “traditional knowledge” into policy deliberations for some time. A public debate about this practice began in fall 1996, when Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard published criticisms of the Government of the Northwest territories’ (GNWT) Traditional Knowledge Policy and of the requirement that traditional knowledge be incorporated into environmental assessments. Widdowson was at the time a contract employee of the Department of Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development (Howard and Widdowson, 1996). As the controversy developed, she was suspended for one week as punishment for her public criticism of government policy.
In the Canadian parliamentary tradition, public servants do not have the right to publicly disagree with the policies they are hired to implement. Employees who find themselves in fundamental disagreement with the decisions of elected officials have two options: they may work from within to bring about a change of policy; or, failing this, they must resign. As private citizens, they may—and should—criticize government policy freely. Widdowson should have resigned before speaking publicly, but at least her action stimulated public discussion of some very important questions (GNWT, 1993; Howard and Widdowson, 1996; Berkes and Henley, 1997; Howard and Widdowson, 1997; Laghi,1997; Stevenson, 1997).
Now, I won't go too deeply into a critique of their thinking (I'm hardly qualified), other than to point out a couple of things. Firstly, as I suspected, Widdowson and Howard employ some variant of the theories of Lewis H. Morgan. But this stuff is science from a 100 years ago, long since discarded:
Ms. Widdowson's work has been roundly criticized by other scholars in relying on a long-discredited theory of evolutionary stages of development through which every society must pass in the long march of "progress."
Secondly, even the National Post story notes that their version of Marxism is "outmoded", and in fact these two points go together. Morgan's theories of cultural evolution lingered on in Marxist circles long after they had been superseded in the broader anthropological community.
A quick glance at their views on traditional knowledge is interesting in light of Wente's story, however.
On one side of the debate are its instigators (Howard and Widdowson, 1996, 1997), who have argued that TEK is unscientific and should not be made a mandatory part of environmental impact assessments because it is spiritually based. Their argument is twofold. First, they object to the mandatory inclusion of TEK in impact assessments because they consider that it implies "the imposition of religion" upon Canadian citizens (Howard and Widdowson, 1996: 34). Second, and more importantly with regards to the present argument, they suggest that TEK is unscientific, since "spiritualism is obviously inconsistent with scientific methodology". They conclude, therefore, that TEK "hinders rather than enhances the ability of governments to more fully understand ecological processes", since there is no way in which "spiritually based knowledge claims can be challenged or verified" (Howard and Widdowson, 1996: 34).
Well, this seems a profoundly blinkered attitude. If there is no way that traditional knowledge can be "verified", then this suggests that, for example, Inuit societies have managed to survive in the arctic through mere luck, and that the gradual adaption of the dog-sled and igloo was not the result of innovation, trial and error, but instead just happened.
And this is surely implausible.
It should also be pointed out (and has been, but I can no longer locate the source document), that every culture possesses traditional knowledge of the environment it has grown up in. If we were to attempt to develop policy for rural Saskatchewan, it would be entirely uncontroversial to consult with local farmers re the climate and wild-life around them. Why does the same thing become controversial when the knowledge we are trying to get at is partially embedded in native myths and stories?