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Clifford Atleo (Niis Na'yaa/Kam’ayaam/Chachim’multhnii) banner

A viewpoint paper by a group of Simon Fraser University (SFU) researchers recently published in The Lancet Planetary Health highlights the importance of recognizing the relationship between the health of the planet and human health. To address climate change and global health inequities, they recommend an anti-colonial, anti-racist and reciprocal approach.

Co-author Clifford Atleo, Jr. (Niis Na'yaa/Kam’ayaam/Chachim’multhnii) is a Tsimshian (Kitsumkalum/Kitselas) and Nuu-chah-nulth (Ahousaht) professor of resource and environmental management (REM) at SFU. Atleo is interested in how Indigenous communities navigate/adopt/resist neoliberal capitalism while working to sustain their unique cultures and worldviews. He is particularly interested in how Indigenous communities and leaders assert agency within the confines of settler colonial politics and economics.

The paper, On the possibility of decolonizing planetary health: Exploring new geographies for collaboration, with SFU colleagues Dawn Hoogeveen (lead author), Lyana Patrick, Tim Takaro and Maya K. Gislason; SFU students Angel M. Kennedy and Maëve Leduc; and professor Margot W. Parkes from the University of Northern British Columbia, was recently published in The Lancet Planetary Health.

The authors call for the amplification of Indigenous knowledges and governance systems that inform the understanding of the interconnectedness between health, environment and Indigenous relationships and responsibilities to place. They recommend a two-eyed seeing approach to planetary health—with one perspective from an Indigenous lens and the other from Western thought and science.

We spoke with professor Atleo about his research.

How did the collaboration with colleagues come together? What made you decide to write this article?

A lot of the teaching and research we do is centred around Indigenous peoples and priorities with respect to health (personal, community and environmental) and the impacts of resource extraction. These priorities often focus on local issues, but planetary-scale issues are having increasingly greater impacts on local communities. The impacts of climate change are no longer abstract and far off in the future. In the last few years in British Columbia, we have witnessed record-breaking forest fire seasons, “heat domes,” and “atmospheric rivers,” all of which have been devastating for people, our more-than-human relatives, and the land.

How should university-based researchers approach two-eyed seeing—using both Indigenous and Western knowledge—in their work? What are the first steps?

Two-eyed seeing was introduced by Mi’kmaw elder Albert Marshall as a method of utilizing the strengths of both Indigenous knowledges and Western scientific methodologies. It has been adopted widely, but we also urge researchers to engage with local Indigenous communities to co-develop approaches that are place-based. I believe that the first steps to building respectful research partnerships with Indigenous peoples must be taken with humility and a focus on reciprocity to work toward outcomes that are mutually beneficial. Gone are the days of extractive research. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, but relationships are key to respectful, reciprocal and relevant research.

Your work aligns well with SFU’s critical research priority, community-centred climate innovation, specifically valuing two of its research streams: Indigenous knowledges; and Sustainability. What does community-centred climate innovation at SFU mean to you?

I am currently working on two research projects related to community-centred climate innovation. The first is a project funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, with co-authors Dawn Hoogeveen and Lyana Patrick. The project investigates Indigenous community responses to COVID-19 amidst the impacts of climate change. We are working with leaders from the Stellat’en First Nation, Nadleh Whut’en Band, and several nations of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council who have been managing multiple, interrelated crises impacting the health of their communities and lands. Our research findings and outputs centre our Indigenous partners’ perspectives and priorities, with the hopes of better management and inter-governmental relations in the future.

The second project I am working on is funded by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions with co-investigators Jonn Axsen (REM, SFU) and Zuomin Dong (mechanical engineering, University of Victoria); and the Skidegate Band Council in Haida Gwaii and member nations of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. This project is looking at the feasibility of converting marine vessels to using cleaner propulsion options such as electric, hybrid, hydrogen, biofuels, etc. I am excited about this project because Indigenous communities are part of the leading edge of this research. We hear lots about electric cars, but so little about boats and ships. Several of our research partners already generate their own clean local energy and are eager to tackle the other aspects of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. This project is unique because it  centres Indigenous community priorities at the outset, considering social science, economic and engineering challenges.

What does the vision of decolonizing planetary health look like in the wider British Columbian context? Are there examples of best practices or successes? 

Success always feels incremental. We take steps forward, and we take steps back. B.C. is the first—and only—province to pass United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) legislation, which it did in 2019—but it is still struggling to implement it meaningfully. First Nations are still in court and issues like the Trans Mountain and Coast Gas Link pipelines or old growth logging at Fairy Creek still dominate the news. B.C. generates more than 90 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources, yet it also lags many other provinces in overall emission reductions. B.C. needs to commit to moving away from harmful extractive industries and respect Indigenous land ownership, which would require a massive paradigm shift and a genuine implementation of the UNDRIP Act.

You have a multidisciplinary approach to research, first asking the question, and then undertaking the research to find answers. What are some of the other questions you are hoping to research and find answers for?

I will be working with some fellow REM colleagues on a nature-based solutions project soon and will also be embarking on more research looking at Indigenous forestry management practices as well as Indigenous economic alternatives to capitalism. The core tenets of capitalism that demand incessant growth and wealth accumulation are simply not sustainable. I am encouraged to continue working with Indigenous communities who are leading positive change, despite hundreds of years of colonialism.  

Is there anything else you would like to add that we have not asked about?

Indigenous research is inter- and transdisciplinary. I am always excited to work with Indigenous knowledge holders and my academic colleagues in health sciences, engineering, economics and business to push the boundaries of what is possible to work toward what is truly sustainable. Now, more than ever, it is important for us to find ways to work together.

For more on Clifford Atleo’s research listen to his interview Supporting Indigenous Self-Determination Through Research on the Below the Radar podcast.

Learn more about community-centred climate innovation.


SFU's Scholarly Impact of the Week series does not reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the university, but those of the scholars. The timing of articles in the series is chosen weeks or months in advance, based on a published set of criteria. Any correspondence with university or world events at the time of publication is purely coincidental.

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