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Indigenous Knowledge, Land-Based Programming, And The SDGs: Towards A Sustainable Future

By Peter Greenland

In 2015, the United Nations member states adopted the 17 Sustainable Global Development Goals (SDGs) to take action on global issues, including poverty and inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, and peace and justice. Addressing and acting upon these issues is becoming increasingly important to everyone. However Indigenous groups have been tackling these issues since the colonial era. In the modern era, land-based programming of all kinds has become increasingly organized and can serve as a way of tackling these issues.

Land-based programming is a popular approach for many reasons, particularly because it aligns with holistic approaches that many indigenous philosophies contain. Due to their unique worldviews on environmental and social health and the resiliency to thrive despite historical barriers created by colonization, Indigenous land-based programming practitioners are often unseen leaders in sustainability. Many must conform and westernize the language surrounding their conceptual approaches to their work, often for funding purposes. This can result in the true nature of the work remaining unseen by many.

I have learned this from my own experience and conversations with people doing frontline and administrative work on land-based programs. One example that comes to mind began with an event in 2018 in the Northwest Territories, called the Midway Lake Youth Gathering. On the surface, the goal of this land-based youth gathering was to support the health of our community by addressing many challenges, such as: low high school and post-secondary completion rates, lack of mental health services, disconnection from culture and identity, high rates of suicide, substance misuse and addictions, and experiences with various forms of violence. The gathering was held on the land for holistic reasons, not only for healing: It is important to stress that these definitions do not fully capture the indigenous philosophies incorporated in the programming.

This project’s objective was to meet the recommendations of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission while supporting the mandate of the NWT On The Land Collaborative. From an SDG perspective, the project’s objective would meet SDG 3: ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all. While both objectives are true, practitioners switch between definitions of project objectives and goals with relative ease. This is because the Indigenous Knowledge that informs land-based programming is holistic and helps communities move towards all SDGs in some shape or form. This is evident in the spin-off effects of the Midway Lake youth gathering that eventually led to additional SDG outcomes being supported, beyond the project’s original goals.

The Midway Lake Youth Gathering led to the creation of an organized group called the Western Arctic Youth Collective (WAYC) in 2020. Despite being a new project the collective is already helping our region create more employment, programs, and partnerships. The Midway Lake Youth Gathering has already made impacts in the region that help meet Goal 11 (sustainable cities and communities), Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), Goal 17 (partnerships) and Goal 8 (decent work and economic growth). Eventually, I believe this will lead to more SDGs being met as well. This success is because Indigenous Land based Programming is holistic, inter-sectional and so much more than the objective goals that we define it by.

While initiatives like the Western Arctic Youth Collective are numerous, they can be hard to find if folks don’t know where to look. My hope is that the value of these types of programs and the indigenous philosophies behind them become more widely known, understood and accessible. The indigenous knowledge behind land-based programming has a lot to offer the world and sustainable development. While the specific projects will be catered to individual and immediate sustainable development goals, I urge people to look at the larger narrative taking place. This work, as a whole, will help to ensure the resolution of poverty and inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, and peace and justice, in a good way.


Peter Greenland is a participant with the Indigenous Global Leadership Program, implemented by ACIC and the Northern Council for Global Cooperation, which brings together 20 Indigenous youth from across Canada to share their perspectives as youth changemakers, learn about global issues and the Sustainable Development Goals, and build their leadership skills for local and global change. The IGLP is funded by Global Affairs Canada. The blog is part of the DevelopMEnt Blog Series launched during International Development Week. The blog series aims to highlight stories, journeys, and perspectives of people associated with the development sector. It also aims to highlight how journeys, shaped by the knowledge and experience our guest authors have amassed, has helped, and can help shape the world. Any views and opinions expressed in the blogs are of the guest authors.


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