Working with Indigenous communities has interested Dr. Neil Rooney since 2006, when he began post-doctoral studies with Dr. Stephen Crawford at the University of Guelph helping to develop fish habitat management plans for First Nations communities. In 2009, he accepted his current faculty position in the School of Environmental Sciences, University of Guelph, a position that is sponsored through a partnership between the university and the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation and Saugeen First Nation - known together as the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. In his role, Dr. Rooney devotes a portion of his time to reviewing and providing expert advice to the Saugeen Ojibway Nation on environmental assessments for proposed developments in their Traditional Territories, an area approximately 20,500 km2 in size extending north and west of Arthur, Ontario. The environmental assessments may be related to road construction, expansion of landfills, dam removals, aquaculture, and the creation of subdivisions, to name a few.
When asked what interests and inspires him in his work with First Nations, he speaks of the depth and breadth of knowledge that exists in the communities as well as the potential for First Nations to determine the course of environmental management in their own Traditional Territories. He recognizes that the Canadian government has not always consistently engaged with First Nations with respect to environmental management but he also sees more and more First Nation communities engaging with the Crown in a meaningful way. For instance, communities bringing their own knowledge and experience to environmental management issues as well as the expertise of Western scientists, such as Dr. Rooney, that they hire as consultants.
Dr. Rooney recognizes that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are more likely to share environmental values than they are to find common ground on how to uphold those values. There may be agreement that environmental sustainability is important, for example, but the process by which Western science and Indigenous knowledge will provide the answers to sustainability related problems is not as clear. He says “If we started with identifying what aspects of the environment we as a collective value, then the best process to adopt would follow more easily”. Fortunately, collaborations such as the one between Dr. Rooney and the Saugeen Ojibway Nation are helping to show the way.