Acknowledgements and Gratitude
The Mackenzie River Basin Board (MRBB) acknowledges the Indigenous Peoples who live and have lived in the Mackenzie River Basin for thousands of years, since time immemorial, from the headwaters in the mountains, through the boreal forest and tundra, to the outlet at the Arctic Ocean. The many, diverse Indigenous Peoples of this basin include: Inuvialuit, Gwich’in, Sahtu Dene, Métis, Tlicho, Cree, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Na-Cho Nyäk Dun, Sekani (Tsay Keh Dene), South Slavey, Beaver, Tahltan, Saulteaux, Kaska, Dogrib (Tlicho), North Slavey, Dane-zaa, Woodland Cree, Secwepemc (Shuswap), Salish, Ktunaxa, Nakota/Stony, Denesoline, Akaitcho, Dehcho, Northwest Territory Métis Nation, Denesuline. The ‘People and Places’ section on each sub-basin page of the SOAER website offers further details and information.
Environmental stewardship is fundamental to Indigenous cultures and ways of life. The right to maintain and strengthen this relationship is recognized in Articles 24 through 29 in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and is a premise of many modern co-created agreements. Indigenous Peoples hold vast amounts of knowledge fundamental to understanding the state of the aquatic eco-system of the Mackenzie River Basin and these ways of knowing are integral to protecting the basin and ensuring its health for generations to come.
The MRBB acknowledges and thanks past and present members of the Traditional Knowledge and Strengthening Partnerships Steering Committee, and the State of the Aquatic Ecosystem Steering Committee for their vision, guidance and hard work. The MRBB would also like to acknowledge contributions from Federal, Provincial and Territorial governments, Indigenous communities and individuals in the Mackenzie River Basin. The information and resources shared with Board and committee members was important to the quality of this work.
The words and work shared through the Tracking Change project (trackingchange.ca) are a crucial source of knowledge for this report. The Board extends a special thank you to; Dr. Brenda Parlee who led the Tracking Change project; the Indigenous members of the MRBB who participated on the Indigenous Steering Committee for the project and who served as a vital link between Tracking Change and the MRBB; and everyone involved in the Tracking Change Project with the University of Alberta.
The Mackenzie River Basin (MRB) is the largest watershed in Canada and includes parts of five territories and provinces. The Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement directs the Mackenzie River Basin Board (MRBB) to report on the State of the Aquatic Ecosystem every five years. The State of the Aquatic Ecosystem Report (SOAER) brings together the available information within the Mackenzie River Basin to help the MRBB understand and track conditions in the basin. The 2021 SOAER describes changes to aquatic ecosystem health in the Mackenzie River Basin since the first SOAER was released in 2003.
The development and publication of the SOAER serves several other purposes:
- Informs basin residents, decision makers, and Ministers about the ecological integrity of the basin using multiple knowledge systems.
- Identifies gaps and inconsistencies in knowledge and monitoring practices, and makes recommendations building on previous efforts by the MRBB and its committees.
- Guides future MRBB decisions by communicating current conditions (both in terms of health and threats) as well as changes within the basin.
- Profiles the value of Indigenous knowledge as a credible and integral component in aquatic ecosystem assessment.
- Recognizes that humans are a part of and connected to the aquatic ecosystem and that the basin represents a place of meaning for the residents who inhabit it.
- Provides a template as a living document that will grow and evolve over time.
The 2021 SOAER is presented for the first time as a braided story published exclusively on the web. The vision is to update it over time, with additional signs and signals, Indigenous knowledge from communities, in-depth analysis, and scientific information, as these materials become available.
A fundamental recognition in the development of the 2021 SOAER was the need to emphasize the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is often overshadowed by scientific information in web-based reports, publications, and other outcomes of state of the environment reporting, despite the fact that Indigenous knowledge offers a holistic understanding of environmental change and its consequences. In the past four or five decades, several methodological approaches have emerged to bring together Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge systems to improve understandings of the environment, including various approaches for “ ” knowledge systems.
A “braided approach” was chosen for the 2021 SOAER to bring together Indigenous knowledge and scientific information to inform the assessment. The SOAER JSC felt it was important to select a methodological approach that brings together Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge without comparison or integration of one knowledge system into the other. Knowledge from both systems is considered valuable and used to inform a holistic understanding of current conditions and environmental change. Although there are limitations for bringing together knowledge systems , , braiding and other approaches present an opportunity to shift how, and by whom, environmental changes are reported.
The concept of “braiding” or “weaving” knowledge systems has gained traction in many jurisdictions in recent decades, including areas within the Mackenzie River Basin. Broadly, a “braided approach” involves bringing together Indigenous knowledge and scientific information as multiple lines of evidence, like the strands of a braid. When the different strands are brought together, opportunities are created to develop deeper understandings of the observed events and their consequences, beyond what could be achieved through one knowledge system alone. The “braided approach” used to guide the 2021 SOAER consists of a three-part braid, where the strands represent Indigenous knowledge, science, and the co-created story about the Mackenzie River Basin as told through the two knowledge systems. Although this approach is not without its limitations, it served to elevate Indigenous knowledge alongside science for the development of the SOAER.
The 2021 SOAER is a summary of the information that was deemed by the project team to best contribute to telling the braided story of aquatic ecosystem health in the Mackenzie River Basin. It was intentionally built to be suitable for web presentation and can be updated and expanded in the future with new and more detailed information.
A conceptual framework was used to direct assessment efforts among the major components of aquatic ecosystem health and the major pressures facing local and Indigenous communities. This framework includes several signs and signals organized by the four indicators: (1) water quantity, (2) water quality, (3) habitat and species, (4) and health and wellbeing. This framework was developed prior to starting the work on the 2021 SOAER and was the result of extensive research and consultation efforts by the MRBB.
The methodology used to collect, analyze, and present data in the aquatic ecosystem assessment was developed and implemented over five phases of the project. Details on each individual phase of the project are provided in the methodology report that is available upon request from the MRBB. The key elements of the approaches to analyzing data, assessing information with respect to the degree of change and to braiding information from science and Indigenous knowledge are summarized below.
Data Analysis and Interpretation
Materials for Indigenous Knowledge and scientific information relevant to the indicators of aquatic ecosystem health were reviewed, with a focus on materials published since 2003, when the first SOAER was released. For Indigenous knowledge information, identification of key patterns and trends was primarily determined based on whether more than one Indigenous knowledge holder or community shared the observation. Key patterns and trends presented in scientific publications were chosen based on their relevance to the signs and signals in the conceptual framework, their significance for ecosystem health and the degree to which the results were deemed to be representative for the respective sub-basin.
Scientific data were analyzed for a few selected signs and signals that represented key questions and concerns for Indigenous communities and where data were available basin-wide and readily accessible. These were stream flow and lake level data from Water Survey of Canada, water quality data from Environment and Climate Change Canada, and land cover (Government of Canada 2020, source for sub-basin statistics on website). Results of basin-wide data analyses on two additional signs and signals (climate, snow mass) were available from external contributors.
The selection of some signs and signals for analysis followed a structured process of prioritization. The main prioritization criterion was the basin-wide availability, accessibility, and comprehensiveness of information on signs and signals from both Indigenous Knowledge and science. As a result, some signs and signals were selected for analysis, as discussed above, others received less focused assessment (e.g., aquatic macroinvertebrates), or were omitted for this phase, e.g. groundwater quality and quantity.
Focus on Change
Although the SOAER does not make explicit comparisons to previous science or publications, the Indigenous Knowledge used to inform the assessment is focused on observations of environmental change over time. Much of the scientific data in the assessment, such as water flow and levels and climate data, can be interpreted to show changes as well. The SOAER JSC therefore decided that this SOAER would primarily illustrate changes in ecosystem health signs and signals where enough information or data was identified, while also providing a snapshot of the current state of the Mackenzie River Basin.
For the 2021 SOAER, new or raw information or data was not collected. As such, an extensive literature review was undertaken for the signs and signals selected in all of the sub-basins and a few available, basin-wide datasets were analyzed for changes over time. The literature review was completed for both Indigenous Knowledge and science, and although by no means exhaustive, it has highlighted where there could be information gaps of importance that could help to inform future research and areas of focus.
The project team analyzed the observations informed by local and Indigenous knowledge and scientific information to determine Health Index ratings. The ratings were the result of qualitative assessments of published information and available data, as listed below.
- Minimal or No Change: near ‘normal’ or natural conditions with minimal impacts on ecosystem health and people; represented by the following situations:
- no change in the published observations, data or level of concern among Indigenous communities or local residents for a given indicator;
- minor degree of change, such as non-significant changes in scientific data (p>0.05); and
- good or ‘intact’ conditions in aquatic ecosystems, indicated by the absence of or minimal impacts from land development (e.g. minimal or no forestry, mining, or oil and gas activity).
- Moderate Change: altered conditions from a ‘normal’ or natural state, resulting in some level of change to ecosystem health and people, including the following situations:
- heightened concern or published observations of some level of change by Indigenous communities or local residents for a given indicator. The changes are reported by more than two Indigenous communities or in more than two locations within a sub-basin;
- any significant trends in scientific data analysis, but only at a few locations; and
- significant trends in scientific data analysis, but not with any anticipated impact on the health of aquatic life.
- Significant Change: significantly altered conditions from a ‘normal’ or natural state, resulting in significant changes to ecosystem health and people.
- widespread changes in signs and signals across the sub-basin, as indicated by changes reported by more than three Indigenous communities or in more than three locations within a sub-basin, or as indicated by scientific data showing changes in many locations;
- significant trends in scientific data with clear impact on aquatic life, such as reduced or extirpated fish populations; and
- high degree of impacts from land development.
Braiding Indigenous Knowledge and Scientific Observations
Written summaries of the aquatic ecosystem assessment were prepared collaboratively by the project team for each of the six sub-basins. A “braided approach” to bring together Indigenous knowledge and scientific information across knowledge systems was used, consistent with the following elements described by Tengo et al (2017):
- Local and/or Indigenous knowledge and science data were assessed to identify points of divergence and convergence. Findings through one knowledge system were not used to validate findings from the other. In cases of divergence, understandings from both knowledge systems were reflected;
- One way of knowing was not privileged over the other; and
- Data was described using accessible terminology and language to promote readability.
Decision making during the braiding process was based on consensus within the SOAER JSC. Through consensus decision making, issues were identified, discussed, and debated leading to an agreed upon path forward. In addition and where appropriate, decisions were made through professional judgement of researchers.
A Health Index Rating (e.g. Minimal or No Change, Moderate Change, Significant Change) was determined across knowledge systems for the individual signs and signals and indicator categories used in the assessment. In cases where the individual ratings differed across the knowledge systems, both ratings were preserved to reflect the divergence (e.g., “Moderate to Significant”).
The SOAER website contains the findings of the assessment, presented by sub-basin, reporting on the findings for each indicator, where scientific evidence and Indigenous knowledge are braided.
The Delta Braid originates from the Beaufort Delta Region and is a rare form of art still practiced today. This beautiful form of appliqué is ribbons of geometric patterns made from layers of multi-coloured bias tape and seam bindings. Used for generations to distinctly decorate parkas and dresses, artists originally used fur or skins to create the intricate patterns. When fur traders arrived in the region, they brought colourful European fabrics and threads, enabling artists to embellish their patterns with bright colours. Each Delta Braid is unique and tells a story about the history of its artist and how they choose to create this cultural piece of art. (NWT Arts) https://www.nwtarts.com/region/inuvik
Information Gaps and Recommendations
Information gaps for the signs and signals selected and analyzed in the 2021 SOAER are presented in the table below. The informational gaps exist primarily because, 1) the information does not exist or was not available within the public domain or 2) the data was available but was not summarized or analyzed for the 2021 SOAER. Filling these information gaps will likely require the involvement of Indigenous communities, and provincial, territorial and federal government agencies, either through agency staff, grant programs or collaborative initiatives. Academia and other research institutions may help answer research-type questions.
The 2021 SOAER is informed by Indigenous knowledge and information previously collected and publicly reported. There is a clear need to meaningfully engage and work with Indigenous communities in all parts of the basin to better understand Indigenous knowledge, observations, and concerns regarding the basin’s aquatic ecosystems. At minimum, opportunities should be provided to meet with Indigenous communities to determine their research priorities and protocols for documenting Indigenous knowledge, and communities should be provided with support and resources to document their knowledge through community-based monitoring programs, on-the-land programs, and other initiatives. Outcomes of an engagement process may help to address the information gaps identified below and contribute to or supplement the information presented in the 2021 SOAER.
Indigenous knowledge related to changes in climate, snow and ice cover, and wetlands
Meaningfully engage Indigenous communities to understand and document observations and concerns related to changes in climate, snow and ice cover, and wetlands.
Scientific data regarding degree of historical changes in wetland cover
Conduct research to develop and validate methods to assess changes in wetland cover over time.
Scientific assessments of the status of riparian forests
All, except Peace Basin
Develop and validate remote sensing methods to assess riparian areas.
Statistics regarding the number of people who consume wild foods versus store-bought foods
Analyze existing data for NWT communities, Conduct community surveys, verify with Stats Canada if raw data are available by community.
Regional scientific analyses of benthic invertebrate data
Develop reference conditions models based on CABIN data, as done in BC; analyze long-term datasets for representative stations across the sub-basins, if available.
Indigenous knowledge related to ice quality and thickness and scientific knowledge regarding ice thickness
Meaningfully engage Indigenous communities to understand and document observations and concerns related to changes in ice quality and thickness. Analyze existing ice thickness records in key locations (e.g. Inuvik, Yellowknife, Fort Chipewyan) and link with community-based ice monitoring programs, where possible.
Indigenous and scientific knowledge regarding ice breakups and –freeze up dates for lakes and rivers
Meaningfully engage Indigenous communities to understand and document observations and concerns related to changes in the timing of ice breakup and freeze up. Analyse existing information in Water Survey of Canada records and link with community-based ice monitoring programs, where possible.
Summaries of effluent volume
Peel, Mackenzie Great Bear, Liard, Great Slave
Summarize effluent volumes and pollutant loads from available data bases.
Summaries of water allocations and water use
Peel, Mackenzie Great Bear, Liard, Great Slave
Summarize data from available databases.
Ground-validated wetland mapping
Peel, Mackenzie Great Bear, Liard, Great Slave
Develop and validate the available remote sensing methods.
Peel, upper watershed
Add water quality sampling in upper Peel watershed.
Indigenous and scientific knowledge regarding changes in fish stocks
Peel, Mackenzie Great Bear, Liard
Meaningfully engage Indigenous communities to understand and document observations and concerns related to changes in fish stocks. Analyze available scientific data for fish stocks and link with community-based fish monitoring programs, where possible.
Driving factors for increased ion concentrations in surface waters basin-wide
Conduct research into trends in ion concentrations and driving factors.
The goal of the 2021 SOAER is to present the braided story of aquatic ecosystem health in the Mackenzie River Basin and to provide a template for an evolving SOAER over time. This report is therefore neither complete nor comprehensive. However, it provides a platform for the MRBB and its partners to add more information in the future. Opportunities to contribute could entail, for example, Indigenous knowledge from more communities and about more signs and signals, results of in-depth analyses of available scientific data, updates to presented information using more recent data, summaries of available information in various databases, and place-based insights and assessments on a local scale.
In addition to presenting existing data and information, the SOAER has identified knowledge gaps that can guide the collection of additional information from Indigenous knowledge and science sources in the basin. Filling these gaps will provide a greater understanding in the ecosystem assessments across signs and signals and sub-basins. It may even clarify more connections between signs and signals and basin-wide patterns in aquatic ecosystem health. Finally, it is hoped that the approach of braiding knowledge in the 2021 SOAER will encourage Indigenous knowledge holders and scientists to increase collaboration in the pursuit of a holistic understanding of the basin’s ecosystems.
Mackenzie River Basin Board Members, Committee Members and Secretariat Support (2012 – 2021)
The vision and thinking around parts of this project started years before the production of this web-based report. The lists below include past and present Board and committee members. We apologize to anyone who was missed. Our sincere gratitude goes to:
Current Members of the Mackenzie River Basin Board, TKSP Steering Committee, SOAER Steering Committee and MRBB Secretariat (March 2021)
MRBB Government Member: Andrew Wilson
MRBB Government Alternate: Carmen de la Chevrotière
MRBB Indigenous Member: Chief Gerry Cheezie
SOAER Steering Committee Member: Gongchen Li
TKSP Steering Committee Members: Chief Gerry Cheezie and Karin Smith-Fargey
MRBB Government Member: John Fahlman
MRBB Government Alternate: Susan Ross
MRBB Indigenous Member: Vice Chief Joseph Tsannie
SOAER Steering Committee Member: Jeffery Sereda
TKSP Steering Committee Member: Vice Chief Joseph Tsannie
Government Member: Ted Zimmerman
Government Alternate: Sean Moore
Indigenous Member: Lana Lowe
SOAER Steering Committee Member: Lucie Thomson
TKSP Steering Committee Member: Lana Lowe
Government Member: Heather Jirousek
Government Alternate: Emma Seward
Indigenous Member: Corrine Porter
SOAER Steering Committee Member: Emma Seward
TKSP Steering Committee Member: Corrine Porter
Government Member: John MacDonald
Government Alternate: Nathen Richea
Indigenous Member: Leon Andrew
SOAER Steering Committee Member: Jennifer Hickman
TKSP Steering Committee Member: Leon Andrew
Environment and Climate Change Canada
Government Member: Nadine Stiller
Government Alternate: Patrick Cherneski
SOAER and TKSP Joint Steering Committee Chair: Bradley Summerfield
TKSP Steering Committee Member: Sharon Reedyk
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada
Government Member: Matthew Spence
Government Alternate: Nicholas Mitchell
TKSP Steering Committee Member: George Lafferty
Parks Canada Agency
Government Member: Jonah Mitchell
Government Alternate: Laurie Wein
MRBB Executive Director: Paula Siwik
Past members of the Mackenzie River Basin Board, TKSP Steering Committee, SOAER Steering Committee and MRB Secretariat (as of March 31, 2012)
MRBB Government Member: Robert Harrison, Brian Yee
MRBB Government Alternate: Tim Toth
MRBB Indigenous Member: Cleo Reece, Darren Calliou
SOAER Steering Committee Member: Robert Harrison, Brian Yee, Cleo Reece,
TKSP Steering Committee Members: Tracy Howlett, Cleo Reece, Darren Calliou, Martina Kreiger, Andrea Westaway
MRBB Government Member: Bob Carles, Jim Gerhart
MRBB Government Alternate: Gary Neil
MRBB Indigenous Member: Don Deranger
SOAER Steering Committee Member: David Espeseth, Gary Neil
TKSP Steering Committee Member: Don Deranger, Jeff Olson
Government Member: Lynn Kriwoken
Government Alternate: Pieter Bekker
Indigenous Member: Vera Nicholson
SOAER Steering Committee Member: Vera Nicholson, Pieter Bekker, Celine Davis, Kevin Reiberger, Stephanie Hazlitt, Heike Lettrari
TKSP Steering Committee Member: Vera Nicholson
Government Member: Jon Bowen
Government Alternate: Robert Truelson
Indigenous Member: Sharon Peter
SOAER Steering Committee Member: Tyler Williams, Sharon Peter, Veronica Huggart, Ellen Ward,
TKSP Steering Committee Member: Sharon Peter, Veronica Huggart
Government Member: Ray Case, Shannon Cumming, Erin Kelly
Government Alternate: Meghan Beveridge, Robert Jenkins
Indigenous Member: Sonny MacDonald
SOAER Steering Committee Member: Andrea Czarnecki, Ray Case, Erin Kelly, Jennifer Fresque-Baxter, Nathen Richea
TKSP Steering Committee Member: Sonny MacDonald, , Shannon Cumming (Champion), Bea Lepine, Jennifer Fresque-Baxter (Chair), Dr. Ray Case
Environment and Climate Change Canada
Government Member: Mike Norton, Richard Smith, Cheryl Baraniecki
Government Alternate: Mike Renouf
SOAER Steering Committee Member: Lynne Quinnett-Abbott (Chair), Cecelia Wong, Mike Norton, Christine Best,
Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada
Government Member: Trish Merrithew-Mercredi, Kathryn Bruce, Mohan Denetto
Government Alternate: Teresa Jourdie, Robert Jenkins, Jennifer O’Neill, Mike Roesch
SOAER Steering Committee Member: Dinah Elliott, Trish Merrithew-Mercredi (Champion), Carole Mills (Chair), Greg Bereza, Kathryn Bruce
Government Member: Ward Chickoski, Teressa Laforest, Chantal Roberge
Government Alternate: David Muddle, Mary Frances MacLellan-Wright
MRBB Executive Director, Don Pittman
MRBB Secretariat, Jenny Ferone