Last month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Bill Nye, the television star-turned-progressive advocate for putting science at the forefront of public policy. In Trudeau, Nye saw a kindred spirit; the prime minister’s government has loudly and often touted itself as vastly more deferential to science than its conservative predecessor — or, for that matter, President Trump. From carbon taxes to fight climate change, to billions of fresh budget dollars for scientific research, to pricey initiatives aimed at poaching genius academics from foreign universities, Trudeau’s administration is eager to be seen as one that “believes in the importance of scientific knowledge to create a better society,” as his science minister told Parliament.
This quest to demonstrate scientific seriousness has an aesthetic dimension, too, with the “Science Guy” summit but the latest episode. In 2016, Trudeau sought to win geeky hearts with some (supposedly) impromptu oratory on the wonders of quantum computing at Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, while his decision last year to appoint former astronaut and “science and technology advocate” Julie Payette as governor general was framed as one more proof of purpose. Payette would proceed to raise eyebrows when, in one of her first speeches, she mocked creationists, astrologists, climate skeptics and quack medicine, but this was hardly off-brand. “I applaud the firmness with which she stands in support of science and the truth,” replied the prime minister.
Yet that commitment to scientific truth sits in tension with the other marquee promise of Trudeau’s term — aboriginal reconciliation. In order to herald the new era of respectful coexistence with Canada’s indigenous population that Trudeau purports to want, his administration must make concessions to aboriginal belief systems that exist as explicit alternatives to what some now call “Western science.”
The tension is best encapsulated in Trudeau’s Bill C-69, a complex piece of legislation designed to revise the process through which the Canadian government grants approval to natural-resource projects such as pipelines, dams and mines — a matter of great importance amid growing stagnation in Canada’s energy sector. In the words of Trudeau’s environment minister, the revised law “will make it mandatory to consider Indigenous traditional knowledge alongside science and other evidence” when assessing future projects, a move that the legislation rationalizes with the greater reconciliation goal.
“Traditional Indigenous knowledge,” which usually includes the historic observations, collective memories, generational teachings and spiritual beliefs of aboriginal communities, is a complex anthropological discipline, but it is not science. As the minister’s words suggest, Bill C-69 treats it as something distinct and apart from “scientific information and data,” and it is listed as an independent variable for Ottawa regulators to contemplate alongside things such as “economic feasibility” and “environmental effects” when scrutinizing project proposals.
Some might reply that aboriginal knowledge can surely be a kind of anecdotal science, or at the very least, be incorporated into a larger scientific system of evidence gathering and deliberation. Yet such thinking is specifically rejected by advocates of traditional aboriginal knowledge. When Quebec’s deputy environment minister suggested traditional indigenous knowledge could be best used to assist or complement scientific data, he was blasted by aboriginal policy experts for perpetuating a “hierarchy of knowledge” and “the history of justifying inferiority in relation to Western societies.”
Traditional aboriginal knowledge can certainly be criticized on substance. Scholars Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, whose 2008 book, “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry,” offers harsh criticism of reconciliation policies, dismiss the concept as wisdom “by terminological fiat,” since traditional knowledge — which Bill C-69 empowers, but does not define — can be seen to purport relevance merely by existing. Its arguments often take the form of what science-minded progressives such as Payette or Nye would scorn as superstition, mythicism or naturalistic fallacy in other contexts, yet for the greater social good, such reactions must be suppressed.
Common interests can nevertheless align. In the case of Bill C-69, it’s clear that many of the bill’s non-indigenous backers assume more aboriginal involvement in assessment of energy projects will bias Ottawa’s decision-making in a greener direction. In other settings, however, such deference can yield more illiberal outcomes.
Last year, Payette’s predecessor as governor general was forced to apologize after saying, in the context of celebrating Canadian immigration, that aboriginals “were immigrants as well, 10, 12, 14,000 years ago” — a mainstream archaeological conclusion that nevertheless contradicts traditional indigenous creation myths. A few months later, two Supreme Court judges sided with the Ktunaxa Nation in their legal claim that their freedom of religion would be violated if a ski resort was allowed to be built in British Columbia’s Kootenays region, where they believe the Grizzly Bear Spirit lives. In 2014, an Ontario judge ruled against hospital authorities in declaring an aboriginal mother had a right to pull her cancer-stricken daughter from chemotherapy treatment and use traditional medicine instead.
The notion that Canada’s indigenous peoples deserve policy restitution for centuries of abuse and neglect is a sympathetic one animating much of the Canadian left at the moment, from the prime minister on down. Yet it is also an agenda that will inevitably require humbling sacrifice by members of that same political faction — namely, secular, white progressives accustomed to insisting that the modern scientific method is the only valid tool of determining truth or falsehood, and judging with mockery and contempt anyone who claims otherwise.
Such is the looming conflict of any progressive party that purports to be both furiously technocratic and endlessly open-minded: To what extent can a governing coalition survive that favors investing billions on science while insisting that science is but one valid belief among many?
Canada will soon find out.