Deborah McGregor, Indigenous Knowledge Systems expert, environmentalist, professor (born in Whitefish River First Nation, Birch Island, ON). Deborah McGregor is an Anishinaabe scholar and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) expert. Her work focuses on how Indigenous Knowledges, experiences and voices can be applied to solve environmental problems. McGregor has held roles in both academic institutions and public organizations to address issues related to climate change.
Deborah McGregor received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Toronto and a Master of Science in Environmental Studies from York University. She returned to the University of Toronto and completed her PhD in Forestry in 2000. Her PhD dissertation focused on Indigenous involvement in forest management planning in Ontario.
Deborah McGregor began her academic career as an associate professor in the University of Toronto’s geography department. She also served as the director of the university’s Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives and its Aboriginal Studies program. In 2015, she was appointed to a cross-faculty position with the Osgoode Hall Law School and the Faculty of Environmental Studies & Urban Change at York University. The following year, McGregor was appointed as the Canada Research Chair on Indigenous Environmental Justice. McGregor led the research on topics of Indigenous environmentalism as the primary investigator of two Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded projects.
Along with her academic roles, McGregor has also worked with public sector organizations as an expert on Indigenous Knowledges and environmentalism. She worked as a senior policy advisor on Aboriginal Relations with Environment Canada and was a member of the Canadian Climate Institute’s Adaptation Panel and the Assembly of First Nations Advisory Committee on Climate Action and the Environment.
Context: Indigenous Knowledges and Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Knowledges (IK) are collections of information that have been passed down through generations of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) place IK into frameworks that account for the broader political, legal, socio-economic and cultural systems that Indigenous Peoples experience. IKS include not only knowledge, but ways of life and relationships between all living things.
IKS take into account Indigenous Peoples’ connections to the land (see also Indigenous Territory). Indigenous Peoples are also disproportionately affected by climate change. Because of this, IKS are essential to addressing climate change. As McGregor explains: “We’re saying in order to regain this connection to the land, we need to get kids out on the land. They need to know the language. Everything is about reconnecting and understanding what’s happening to the natural world in order to be able to respond to it appropriately. When you define the problem differently, then your solutions are different.”
Both IK and IKS have generally been overlooked by non-Indigenous parties. Recently, efforts have started to incorporate IK and IKS more widely into policies, practices and legislation to help solve problems, particularly regarding the environment. However, there are still many obstacles to integrating IK and IKS into non-Indigenous systems.
Deborah McGregor’s research focuses on how Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) can be applied to address a range of environmental issues. These issues include water and forestry management, environmental justice and sustainable development. McGregor hopes to use IKS to fill gaps in the current system of environmental management (see also Resource Management) at all levels of government. McGregor’s research has identified biases that have created large gaps in the research on the topic of Indigenous Peoples and environmentalism.
Outside of academia, McGregor’s work also draws on her experiences as an advisor and researcher with Indigenous communities on projects addressing environmental issues. Through this work she is able to assess how these communities are developing innovative approaches to climate change.
Along with the inclusion of IKS, Deborah McGregor advocates for the inclusion of Indigenous voices and leadership in addressing climate change. She argues that environmental issues need to account for the real-life experiences and knowledges of Indigenous Peoples. McGregor also believes that Indigenous Peoples are prepared to address climate change because of the resilience they have built in the face of colonialism.
As well as creating solutions to environmental issues, McGregor advocates for addressing the root causes of these issues. In particular, this includes colonialism, both past and present. For example, many First Nations communities in Canada suffer from water contamination. Solutions should be found not just to treat the water but to avoid contamination in the first place (see also Environmental Racism in Canada).
Deborah McGregor has published widely about Indigenous Knowledge Systems and environmentalism in Canadian and international journals. She has contributed to at least 22 books, was the co-editor of Indigenous Research: Theories, Practices, and Relationships (2018) and sole author of Indigenous Peoples and Autonomy: Insights for a Global Age (2010). Additionally, McGregor is a co-editor of Anishinaabewin, a conference proceedings series.
In 2022, McGregor contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report. Her work outlined how Indigenous Peoples in Canada and the United States are experiencing and addressing climate change.