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COSEWIC Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge (ATK) Process and Protocols Guidelines

These guidelines were produced solely for use by COSEWIC

Approved by COSEWIC in April 2010


When available, guidance on the process and protocols used to gather ATK from Aboriginal persons or communities will be provided by that community.
However, when such guidance is not established, the ATK Sub-Committee (ATK SC) of COSEWIC recommends the use of the COSEWIC ATK Process and Protocol Guidelines described herein.
Furthermore, initial contact information will be provided to contractors by the ATK SC of COSEWIC.

Purpose of the COSEWIC ATK Process and Protocols Guidelines

These guidelines outline an approach as well as specific steps to facilitating access to and the gathering of the available Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge (ATK) as well as the incorporation of that knowledge into the COSEWIC species status assessment process. These guidelines are intended to be comprehensive such that they meet the requirements of diverse Aboriginal groups (cultures, organizations, councils, communities, TEK oversight committees, etc.).

Description of ATK:  ATK is based on the knowledge of the relationships between humans, wildlife, spirituality, environmental conditions, and land forms in a defined locality and, frequently, over lengthy time periods. ATK is the term used by the COSEWIC ATK SC and others to describe the complex and unique knowledge and knowledge systems held by Aboriginal Peoples. Bringing together ATK and Western Science knowledge will benefit species by providing another perspective for COSEWIC’s wildlife species assessments.

Approach to receiving ATK:  Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge is a significant gift given by the Creator. When it is shared, ATK should be treated with respect and integrity and used only for its intended purpose, in this case, for the benefit of that particular species. The receiver is expected to follow these guidelines when receiving gifts of knowledge and information from ATK Holders.

Ecosystem Approach: ATK is typically interconnected and interrelated to information about multiple wildlife species, including humans, within the habitat, community or ecosystem. For this reason, and through the advice of Elders and ATK Holders, the ATK SC supports an ecosystem approach that considers ways to incorporate this into the existing wildlife species assessment process.

The Eight Steps of the COSEWIC ATK Process and Protocols Guidelines

  1. Community Approvals
  2. Ethics Review 
  3. Completion of any Required Permits
  4. Acquisition of Participant’s Prior Informed Consent
  5. Interview with ATK Holder(s)
  6. Information Review  with ATK Holder(s)
  7. Integration of ATK into species status report
  8. Post Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting Communication with ATK Holders

Guiding Principles of theCOSEWIC ATK Process & Protocols Guidelines

The ATK SC is guided in carrying out its functions by the following principles. The ATK SC recommends that contractors also abide by these same principles.

  1. Subject to the terms of self-government and land claims agreements, Aboriginal communities are presumed to be the primary bodies to facilitate access to ATK in the assessment and classification of species at risk. Access is subject to local laws, protocols and practices.

  2. In order to use Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge in the assessment and classification of species at risk, permission must be secured from the ATK Holders of such knowledge.

  3. Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge used in the assessment and classification of species at risk is to be treated as public knowledge only with the approval of the ATK Holders of such knowledge. It is to be organized and presented in a culturally-appropriate, timely and thorough manner, and - to the extent possible - in such a way as to be comprehensible by both Aboriginal and non-aboriginal persons.

  4. ATK is to be given equal recognition and value with western Science and Community Knowledge.

The Development of the COSEWIC ATK Process and Protocol Guidelines

Working Group Members: from the ATK SC:
Norma Kassi (Lead)             Josephine Mandamin
Gabriel Nirlungayuk             Donna Hurlburt
Dan Benoit

With support from the COSEWIC Secretariat:
Gloria Goulet                         Neil Jones

   1)  The COSEWIC Secretariat was directed to prepare and distribute information from available sources to initiate discussion.

   2)  The Process & Protocol Working Group met on August 2nd and September 8th, 2006, via teleconference, to prepare draft recommendations. 

   3)  The Draft ATK Process & Protocol Guidelines were approved by ATK SC members at their September 26 & 27, 2006 meeting in St. Andrews, NB.

   4)  Facilitated workshops were held in 2008 and 2009 in which Aboriginal Elders and ATK Holders reviewed the Draft ATK P&P Guidelines and provided advice and guidance. Their input has been included in versions of the draft.

Elders / ATK Holder Workshops’ locations and dates include:

  • Ontario Elders Workshop, Thunder Bay, ON, February 2008;
  • West Elders Workshop, Edmonton, AB, March 2008;
  • East / Quebec Elders Workshop, Halifax, NS, October 2008;
  • North Elders Workshop, Rankin Inlet, NU, July 2009.

   5)  The version of the Draft COSEWIC ATK Process and Protocol Guidelines  required a review from Elders and ATK Holders before implementation by COSEWIC and the COSEWIC ATK SC. 

  • Elders Review Meeting, Sault Ste. Marie, ON, October 2009.

List of Appendices

Appendix 1.    Acronyms used in this document and in Species At Risk Act
Appendix 2.    Examples of Aboriginal Protocols Resources
Appendix 3.    Examples of Ethics Review Resources

The Eight Steps for the gathering and incorporation of ATK into the assessment of wildlife species by COSEWIC

Step #1 -  Community Approvals
The approval process for conducting an ATK gathering project is hierarchical. Also, it requires information be provided to participants throughout. 
a.) Produce a Project Information Sheet (print 2 sides, so result is a single sheet)

  • Purpose of the project (1/2 pg); (including a statement “Discussions on this species will not to be considered part of a Consultation process.” It will also include the date of the Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting)
  • the COSEWIC ATK principles (taken from this guidelines document) (1/2 pg);
  • the potential risks and benefits of participation for the community and/or ATK Holder(s) and the species (1/2 pg);
  • contact and follow up information ie. COSEWIC and SARA websites (1/2 pg)

b.)  Produce a Legal Considerations Information Sheet(s) containing

  • methods for ensuring Aboriginal rights to Ownership and Control of their information and protection of ATK.
  • method for sharing of government information to the public via ATIP (Access to Information and Privacy). Therefore, only non-sensitive information should be provided to government representatives.

c.) Initially, heads of First Nations, Inuit and Métis nations or communities will be approached by members of the ATK SC (or the national Aboriginal TK Holders network) providing the required information described above to seek approval to contact the relevant community group or member (such as an ATK Oversight Committee where established). The ATK SC can also ask whether there is any process and protocol guidelines or ethics review processes already in place. The ATK SC can also ask if there is a member of the community to act as a project liaison who could assist with identifying relevant ATK Holders in the community. The liaison could also facilitate Aboriginal language translation when required.

d.) From ATK SC members and/or the COSEWIC Secretariat’s ATK Coordinator, the ATK project contractor will then be provided with the contact information along with basic knowledge such as the Aboriginal group’s cultural practices, language(s) and traditions. This information is needed to ensure they approach the ATK Holder in a respectful, culturally-appropriate manner, recognizing they are equal partners in the information sharing process.

e.) The contractor will contact the ATK oversight committee or relevant community group contact to seek approval for approaching the ATK Holder(s). If approved, the contractor will be provided with specific instructions for contacting and meeting with ATK Holder(s).

Step #2 -  Ethics Review
Since ATK gathering projects involve human participants, an Ethics Review may be required. The review may be used to ensure research participants are treated respectfully, that their knowledge is appropriately recognized, and that the project adheres to the principles stated in the COSEWIC ATK Process and Protocols Guidelines.

The Ethics Review of the ATK gathering project may be launched automatically during the Stage #1 Approval Process where Aboriginal organizations or communities have the capacity, or by the COSEWIC ATK SC.

Step #3 – Completion of any Required Permits
The COSEWIC Secretariat’s ATK Coordinator and/or the ATK SC will assist the contractor to identify and apply for required ATK project / research permits to meet the requirements that may exist in provinces, territories, Wildlife Management Boards, Aboriginal organizations and communities.

Step #4 – Acquisition of the Participant’s Prior Informed Consent  (PIC)
As part of the community approvals process described above, ATK Holders will be asked to sign a PIC form. The form must include information required to make an informed decision on whether to participate in the ATK gathering project. The purpose of the project and all stages from interview to incorporation of their ATK into the species assessment process will be clearly described in plain language.  ATK Holders can request the PIC form be translated to their language. The PIC form is used to signify their understanding of the purpose of the project and how it may affect them and the species under consideration. However, signing the PIC form does not affect an ATK Holder’s right to withdraw their contribution from the project at any stage prior to the Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting where the species status will be assessed by COSEWIC. However, it is recommended to do by the date that is 3 months prior to the meeting. The date of that meeting, and the subsequent 3 months prior target date to revise or remove ATK, will be indicated on the Project Information Sheet.

Step #5 – Interview with the ATK Holder(s) 
Interviews may be one-on-one or in a group setting. They may be conducted in a place where the ATK Holder(s) are most comfortable. This may be in their own home, a community building, a public location such as a coffee shop or when feasible out on the land. To aid in the discussion, contractors will provide maps and accurate photos of the species and ensure they are available during the interview. Particularly for group settings, biologists may be invited to visit the community and share information from related relevant research projects.
To address ATK Holder ownership, control and protection of ATK, the contractor will transcribe interview notes/tapes information as quickly as possible so that notes and records can be returned or destroyed as soon as possible.

The interview will also include questions to identify the ATK Holder’s experience and species expertise. Answers to such questions, along with community and ATK SC member recognition of the ATK Holders expertise, will function as a verification process to ensure acceptability of the ATK by the contractor or ATK SC. 

Step #6 - Information Review 
Information Review with ATK Holder(s).

All original interview notes & tapes (audio and video) will remain in the community to avoid intentional and unintentional dissemination of raw data. The contractor will take only the relevant information and produce a summary for the ATK Holder(s) review and approval. The contractor will take only the approved summarized version of information that has been approved by the ATK Holder or community.

Sensitive information on the location of a species or its habitat may be important for COSEWIC assessments. If COSEWIC considers that restricting the release of the information would be in the best interest of the species, COSEWIC can advise the Minister of the Environment to withhold such information in the published status report. (SARA s.124)

ATK Holders will review and approve the summarized version of the ATK before it is included in the status report.  Biologists may be invited by the community to visit the community to review the collective information from the project. ATK Holders have the right to refuse to give approval at any stage prior to the Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting where the species status will be assessed by COSEWIC. However, it is recommended to do so by the date that is 3 months prior to the meeting. The date of that meeting, and the subsequent 3 months prior target date to revise or remove ATK, will be indicated on the Project Information Sheet.

Step # 7 - Integration of ATK into species status report
Content of the ATK reviews will be incorporated in the species status report by the status report writer. ATK content of Draft Status report is then reviewed by ATK SC and ATK Review Team during the review of the draft status report. Report writer then incorporates suggestions into the report in consultation with the SSC Co-chair.

Step #8 - Post Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting Communication with ATK Holders
Within one week of the end date of the Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting, an email, or letter when necessary, will be sent to all ATK Holders who were involved in the ATK gathering for the species that were assessed at that Wildlife Species Assessment Meeting. Similar to media releases, this email or letter will indicate the decision made by COSEWIC regarding their recommendation of status.

Appendix 1 – Acronyms andGlossary of terms used in these guidelines and in SARA

For the meanings of terms in this Appendix, refer to the section entitled Definitions and Abbreviations on the COSEWIC/COSEPAC website (

  • Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge Subcommittee
  • Area of Occupancy
  • Assessment Criteria 
  • Best Available Information
  • Canadian Range of Occurrence 
  • Canadian Wildlife Species at Risk
  • CDC: Conservation Data Centre
  • CESCC: The Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council
  • CITES: The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species
  • COSEWIC: Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
  • COSEWIC Candidate List
  • CWDC: The Canadian Wildlife Directors Committee
  • CWS: Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment Canada. 
  • Data Deficient (DD)
  • Designatable Unit (DU)
  • DFO: The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
  • Endangered (E)
  • Extinct (X)
  • Extirpated (XT)
  • Genetically Modified Organisms
  • Imminent Extirpation or Extinction
  • IUCN: World Conservation Union (formerly known as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature)
  • Jurisdiction
  • Living Document
  • NACOSAR: The National Aboriginal Council on Species at Risk
  • Native Wildlife Species
  • Natural Range
  • Non-government Science Member
  • Not at Risk (NAR)
  • Population
  • Re-introduction
  • Special Concern (SC)
  • Species Specialist Subcommittee (SSC)
  • SSC Candidate List
  • Status Assessment:
  • Status Report
  • Threatened (T)
  • Wildlife Species

Appendix 2 – Examples of Aboriginal Protocols Resources

Alberta Traditional Knowledge handbook

West Kitikmeot/Slave Study (WKSS)
A set of guidelines for researching Aboriginal Knowledge was developed by the study for these projects: Tuktu & Nogak Project, Caribou Migration and the State of their Habitat, The Habitat of Dogrib Traditional Territory: Place names as Indicators of Biogeographical Knowledge and TK Study on Community Health.

The Convention on Biological Diversity - source for multiple documents on guidelines and protocol development

GNWT Traditional Knowledge policy
Traditional_Knowledge_Policy.pdf   and

GNWT Traditional Knowledge Policy Implementation Framework and ENR Traditional Knowledge Plan

Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute (GSCI) - Gwich'in Traditional Knowledge Policy and Research Guidelines and a Research Agreement Framework
Building Relations with First Nations: A Handbook for Local Governments – by the Union of BC Municipalities and the Lower Mainland Treaty Advisory Committee.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. earch-Relationships-Res earchers-Guide.pdf

Igloolik Research Institute

Mackenzie Valley Impact Review Board
_Traditional_ Knowledge_Guidelines.pdf

Gwich'in Environmental Knowledge Project

The Inuit Bowhead Knowledge Study - by Nunavut Wildlife Management Board

Links to international sites for policy development (see Australia and New Zealand, etc.) – by the Panel on Research Ethics

Mi’kmaw Research Principles & Protocols – by the Mi'kmaq College Institute of Cape Breton University
Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment, (1996). Protocol For Review of Environmental and Scientific Research Proposals

Australian Broadcasting Corporation. (1999) Ethics and Codes of Conduct
Protocols and Principles for Conducting Research in an Indigenous Context. University of Victoria, Faculty of Human and Social Development

Emery, A.R., 2000. Guidelines: Integrating Indigenous Knowledge in Project Planning and Implementation. Prepared by KIVU Inc. for the World Bank and the Canadian International Development Agency.

Management of Social Transformation Programme and Centre for International Research and Advisory Networks Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge

Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Industry Canada Intellectual Property and Aboriginal People: A Working Paper.

Hansen, S.A. and J.W. Van Fleet, 2003. Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Property: A Handbook on Issues and Options for Traditional Knowledge Holders in Protecting their Intellectual Property and Maintaining Biological Diversity. Prepared for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

Marles, R. J., C. Clavelle, L. Monteleone, N. Tays and D. Burns. 2000. Aboriginal Plant Use in Canada’s Northwest Boreal Forest. Natural Resources Canada. 368 pp. 
Note: This is a book that summarizes the uses of plants in the Northwest; it is useful because it provides a detailed introduction on the collection of ATK (in the broader sense) from Aboriginal Groups and demonstrates one way to handle “verifiability” of the individuals that communicated the information.

BC Metis Assembly of Natural Resources. 2009. Metis Nation British Columbia
Consultation Guidebook.
Assembly of First Nations. 2007. OCAP - Ownership, Control, Access and Possession, First Nations Inherent Right to Govern First Nations data   

Appendix 3 - Examples of Ethics Review Resources

  1. Guidelines for Scientific Activities in Northern Canada, DIAND, 1976
  2. Ethical Principles for the conduct of research in the North, 1982
  3. Dene Nation: participatory research process for Dene/Metis communities, 1993
  4. ITK background paper on negotiating research relationships, 1994
  5. Kahnawake Code of Research Ethics, 1997
  6. James Bay Cree Board of H&SS, code of research ethics, 2001
  7. Tri-Council Policy Statement (MRC, NSERC and SSHRC 1998)
  8. Ethical Principles for the Conduct of Research in the North (ACUNS 1998)