Legitimacy on stage: Discourse and knowledge in environmental review processes in Northern Canada


  • Thea Luig University of Alberta


discourse, legitimacy, political ecology, environmental policy, public participation


Based on ethnographic fieldwork, this paper investigates the interplay of discourse and knowledge within a context of structural power during public hearings for the environmental review of a proposed pipeline project in Canada. Despite much improved provision for Aboriginal participation in political and economic decision-making, negotiations between the Canadian government and northern Aboriginal people are often described as frustrating and unsatisfying by individuals involved in them. Analyzing formal procedures of the hearing process as well as interview data, I argue that legal adaptations and participatory processes are wrapped in a discourse conforming with international demands to respect Indigenous rights, but, in fact, are orchestrated in a way that favours the alliance of the state, corporations, and administrative professionals, thus ruling out effective influence on the part of local Indigenous people. Northern Aboriginal groups respond to these challenges by utilising discourses from international human rights and environmental movements as a tool to legitimise land-claim and self-governance demands, thereby attempting to transform articulations of identity into political and economic capital. As I will show, although the public discourse of the different agents involved is framed in symbolism that suggests mutual understanding and aims to generate support from the wider public, modes of knowledge production anchored in science/technology versus primary experience continue to de-legitimise one another, therefore precluding an efficient dialogue. Uncovering these mechanisms, anthropological work might add to the means for Indigenous groups to lessen their structural disadvantage in their efforts for more local control within processes that are designed to perpetuate existing hierarchies.