Settler-colonial environmental monitoring: Zackery Thill, Rights Holders, Stakeholders, and Scientists: A Political Ecology of Ambient Environmental Monitoring in Alberta, Canada, PhD Dissertation, University of Oregon, 2018


Abstract: States increasingly rely on ambient environmental monitoring systems to provide information on environmental conditions in order to make science-based decisions on resource management. This kind of monitoring relies on a network of state and intergovernmental agencies to generate indexes, thresholds, and indicators to assess the status of air, water, and biodiversity. As a result, these thresholds and indexes generate representations of environmental change, and they establish acceptable limits on pollution. However, in settler states like Canada, there are often major gaps in how First Nations experience environmental change compared to the agencies that produce the science. In recent years, monitoring has taken on a new importance because the findings from these agencies contribute to understanding how industrial development impacts First Nations’ treaty rights. Many First Nation communities have called for greater say in government agencies and have advocated for indicators that represent both their basic environmental concerns and their treaty rights. Using oil sands monitoring agencies as a lens, this dissertation examines the politics of environmental knowledge production between Indigenous groups and the state. I employ the “logic of elimination” concept from settler colonialism studies to explore the extent to which Indigenous groups have been incorporated in research design, decision-making, and the establishment of environmental thresholds. I use interviews, participant observation, and a Q-method survey to develop an understanding how settler colonialism functions not only through policies and legislation, but also scientists’ positionalities. The findings from this research demonstrate that monitoring agencies have no uniform policies to guide how they work with First Nations. Because of this, agencies have continually engaged with First Nations as stakeholders—not rights holders. This designation places First Nations on the same level as other interest groups and limits their abilities to shape what is monitored and how thresholds are set. As a result, the stakeholder position offers few avenues for First Nations to ensure treaty rights are considered in monitoring activities.

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