Cities, Climate and Inequalities

Supporting climate action and Indigenous self-determination: Ethical space-based planning in the Upper Columbia region of British Columbia

March 2024

Moe Nadeau, Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University


According to the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP), a planner’s role is to “practice in a manner that respects the diversity, needs, values, and aspirations of the public” (CIP, 2016). Planners implement laws and plans that transform people’s behaviours and their connection to the environment (Baum, 2015). Planning provides a framework for implementing strategies and policies that address climate change. In particular, land use planning can support climate action through mitigation and adaptation strategies about resources and land. In Canada, land use planning has been instrumentalized to control and dispossess Indigenous peoples (Porter & Barry, 2016). However, Indigenous planning, although a practice in existence since time immemorial, is being reclaimed by Indigenous peoples as a means to carve out both a theoretical and practical space for themselves (Harjo in Zapata & Bates, 2021; Jojola, 2008). Indigenous voices are also central to supporting climate goals. Indigenous communities possess a deep understanding of the land and recognize the need to act in relationship with it. Further, since Indigenous peoples tend to bear a disproportionate burden of the impacts of climate change, their perspectives are essential for ensuring justice and resilience in climate action (Wale, 2023, p. 5).

In that context, planners are beginning to reflect on how their work has harmed Indigenous populations. The CIP adopted a Policy on Planning Practice and Reconciliation (CIP, 2019). Yet the field of planning lacks well-defined frameworks to effectively incorporate ethical decision-making into land use policy and practice. To help fill this gap, a concept referred to as “Ethical Space” has been developed to balance power between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. In this study, I investigate how Ethical Space could be adopted in planning through an exploratory application in the Upper Columbia region of British Columbia, an area in particular need of dedicated planning efforts. The region is comprised of four Indigenous governments and 14 non-Indigenous governments, spanning a wide range of population demographics, interests and challenges. By adopting Ethical Space in land use planning, planners can foster more ethical and climate-resilient futures.

State of the scientific literature

Indigenous planning

Indigenous planning is a process where Indigenous peoples reclaim their historical, cultural and political rights in shaping land use decisions. As Walker et al. (2013) describe, Indigenous planning is rooted in three traditions: classic (pre-contact), resistance (post-contact to late 1970s) and resurgence (1980s to present). The classic tradition draws on Indigenous worldviews and kinship-based planning. The resistance tradition involves covert planning due to dispossession by dominant governments.[1] The resurgence tradition, finally, as part of a resurgence of Indigenous rights movements, advocates for Indigenous culture and identity in decision-making.

In Indigenous planning, spirituality, Earth observation and relations across time guide decision-making (Porter et al., 2017; Prusak et al., 2015; Harjo in Zapata & Bates, 2021). It emphasizes human‒land interactions, reciprocity and trust-building (Berkes et al., 2007; Lane, 2006). Taking a holistic approach, the Earth and its inhabitants are viewed as a collective system. Indigenous planning empowers Indigenous communities to renew their cultural and political processes as a way to assert their rights to the land. Indigenous planning is seen as a political strategy that demands commitment to enacting change. In Canada, dominant governance prioritizes dominant law, disregarding Indigenous values. Dominant planners must adopt new practices that respect Indigenous sovereignty and foster equitable decision-making processes.


Coexistence seeks to reframe relationships between Indigenous and dominant governance structures to facilitate ethical decision-making. Porter and Barry (2016) argue that planning for coexistence requires “a relational, decolonizing formulation of planning where self-determining Indigenous peoples invite settler states to their planning table on their own terms” (p. 16). Coexistence supports Indigenous rights, title and cultural aspirations alongside colonial frameworks (Howitt & Lunkapis, 2010; Porter & Barry, 2016). In addition, coexistence acknowledges peoples’ varied relationships to place, which supports “just, equitable and sustainable decision-making in planning systems” (Howitt & Lunkapis, 2010, p. 109). 

Colonial and modern dominant planning practices have controlled, displaced and erased Indigenous peoples’ and their connections to place (Howitt & Lunkapis, 2010). To redistribute power within Indigenous and dominant governance structures, Porter and Barry (2016) suggest that collaborative governance mechanisms must be established that accept and equally value multiple jurisdictions. This process, known as pluralism, embraces conflict and accepts multiple governing bodies to encourage practices that move beyond a focus on inclusion or a strong reliance on regulations. In coexistence, Indigenous planning processes are distinct and equal to dominant ones. Coexistence presents an overarching vision for planning that supports Indigenous and dominant values to exist alongside one another. More research is needed to develop a practical framework that implements coexistence in practice.

Ethical space

Ethical Space presents a practical framework for implementing coexistence. Willie Ermine, a Cree Elder from the Sturgeon Lake First Nation and assistant professor with the First Nations University of Canada, formally introduced the concept of Ethical Space in 2007. Ermine (2007, p. 193) calls Ethical Space a space “formed when two societies, with disparate worldviews, are poised to engage each other.” Operating under the understanding that all knowledge systems are distinct and equal, Ethical Space encourages ethical collaboration and decision-making.

Rather than integrate Indigenous and dominant knowledge systems, Ethical Space supports all systems and approaches alongside one another. To achieve this, all parties must be willing to develop a deep understanding of each other’s knowledge, law, culture and practice (Littlechild & Sutherland, 2021). Using continued dialogue, parties generate innovative and respectful decision-making structures (Bannister, 2018). Ethical Space considers interactions between governance structures that respect all knowledge systems and prevent one from interfering, overtaking or diminishing the other (Alberta Energy Regulator, 2017; Ermine, 2007). Through Ethical Space, no one system has more legitimacy than the other. It acts as an intermediary between knowledge systems, upholding mutual trust, respect and kindness (Ermine, 2007; ICE, 2018). 

Ethical Space is not a prescriptive tool and its purpose is not to fulfill the obligations of consultation and accommodation (ICE, 2018). All parties must consent and be adequately informed about the process, with an opportunity to prepare, and have “equal roles in setting out the structure and framing of the space [they] enter into together” (Littlechild & Sutherland, 2021).

Figure 1. The framework of Ethical Space. Image adapted from Gwen Bridge’s concept by Hayley McIntyre.
Reference: Hayley McIntyre, 2023

Original research case, method and data

This research was conducted on Syilx, Secwépemc, Sinixt and Ktunaxa lands (Figure 1). Although the Upper Columbia boundary is locally recognized, it does not hold formal recognition by governments. This area has become a growing concern due to increased human use and mounting climate-related pressures on ecosystems (Mitchell & Bullen 2020; Utzig 2016a, 2016b). The region is a major goods and services transportation route and is also central to Columbia River Treaty negotiations, which historically excluded Indigenous voices. As such, it represents a region that merits research attention.

Figure 2. The Upper Columbia Region of British Columbia (case study area and map provided by the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative).

A total of 18 governments operate within the Upper Columbia (Table 1). Colonization established a hierarchical government system, meaning governments have varied decision-making power. For example, the Sinixt were forcefully removed from their Canadian territory in 1956 and declared extinct by the federal government, resulting in a complete loss of decision-making power. In 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned this declaration, affirming legal rights to the Sinixt (R. V. Desautel, 2021).


Table 1. Governments in the Upper Columbia region

Semi-structured interviews were the primary mode of data collection for this research. Interviews were conducted with 20 participants, who were categorized into two groups: ethical space practitioners (Group I) and Upper Columbia government representatives (Group II). Group I interview questions aimed to understand how to enact and maintain ethical space as well as the challenges and opportunities in adopting it. Group II interview questions aimed to understand gaps, weaknesses and similarities in government planning goals as well as current tools and methods used for planning. 

Secondary data collection involved a document analysis. Group I ethical space projects were reviewed to understand implementation methods and/or how projects contribute to ethical decision-making. For Group II, a combination of government documents and websites were examined. Materials were identified through interviews and web searches. Data was analyzed to consider adopting ethical space in the Upper Columbia region.


Through this research, we learned about government relationships in the Upper Columbia region and established recommendations for applying the Ethical Space approach. Although each Ethical Space will look different, this discussion presents opportunities to adopt Ethical Spaces in other communities. 

Indigenous and dominant governments have varying levels of relationships with one another. Indigenous−provincial relationships are generally guided by written government-to-government agreements. For example, Ktunaxa−provincial relationships are guided by five agreements regarding forest revenue sharing, wildfires, the mountain pine beetle, economic and community development, climate action and strategic engagement (Government of British Columbia, 2022). At the same time, many documents from the provincial government remain internal, shared publicly only when required. And of the provincially documents that are publicly available, most are outdated, such as the Kootenay-Boundary Land Use Plan, created in 1997. Yet, provincial decision-makers are nevertheless obliged to adhere to the legal objectives outlined in these documents. Ideally, these documents should be regularly updated to capture the current relationship and priorities of all governments. For dominant planners, these documents should also outline how declarations such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act Action Plan will be upheld. 

Few formal relationships exist between Indigenous governments and local governments (regional districts and municipal governments). While some local governments acknowledge they are on Indigenous land in their Official Community Plans (OCPs), none of the OCPs reviewed expressed an intent to build relationships with Indigenous governments. Moreover, while all local governments have minimum obligations to consult Indigenous governments under the Local Government Act, these obligations do not go so far as to demand relational accountability. Local governments also engage with Indigenous governments through the provincial consultative database, a dominant mapping tool identifying colonial boundaries of Indigenous land. However, the boundaries of Sinixt Nation, for example, are still not part of the database, even though they were recognized as early as 2021. Thus, rather than solely engaging through this database, public engagement strategies would do well to foster initial relationship building and to support transparency, a key component of Ethical Space. Solid engagement strategies focus on building better decision-making practices and on cultivating a kind of dialogue that does not end abruptly upon project approval. 

In British Columbia, there is no mandate to conduct cross-jurisdictional planning. Regional districts and municipal governments have varied relationships, mostly formed through development project requirements. Relationships between provincial and local governments are strained. Local government representatives have little to no provincial contacts, due to staff turn-over or non-existent working relationships. To help overcome these shortcomings, Ethical Space focuses on developing common interests, considered critical for building relationships (AER, 2017). Cross-jurisdictional strategies give rise to a type of planning that is more sustainable and long-term, in order to support holistic climate action goals. In addition, cross-jurisdictional planning recognizes that people, wildlife and ecosystems live within the boundaries of two or more jurisdictions. Indeed, it considers that this recognition is vital to fully supporting human or environmental needs. As the climate crisis continues, this will be increasingly important. For example, preparing for fire in British Columbia across communities will support more resiliency and lessen the critical response needed. Overall, from an Ethical Space standpoint, cross-jurisdictional planning is necessary to uphold relational accountability, build relationships among governments and obtain a holistic picture of how decisions impact communities. 

The following headings outline two interests that are shared across all governments. These could be a starting point to building relationships in Ethical Space.

Understanding backcountry land use

All government representatives identified the need to counteract and adapt to cumulative effects associated with backcountry use (camping and recreational activities). In the Upper Columbia region, increased backcountry recreation has raised ecosystem concerns. Developing a plan that identifies current and future issues associated with increased backcountry use may serve to build relationships as governments work towards a common goal that supports long-term climate action.  

Adopting watershed boundary planning 

Planning at the watershed scale was presented as a method to remove colonial jurisdictional boundaries and land claims processes. With Columbia River Treaty negotiations underway, the Upper Columbia region is uniquely positioned to holistically address planning. Provincial and Indigenous governments have already dedicated staff time and funding to Treaty negotiations. This relationship could be expanded to discuss watershed planning.

Advancing planning theory through Ethical Space

Supporting Indigenous planners

An ethical planning praxis cannot emerge without the involvement of Indigenous planning theorists and practitioners (Jojola, 2008, 2013; Zapata & Bates, 2021). This includes Indigenous resurgence in planning theory and understanding the gaps in contemporary planning. Harjo (in Zapata & Bates, 2021) says:

We need approaches theorized from Indigenous peoples’ lived experiences by Indigenous peoples, but even before taking that step, we need to ask the right questions about futures, time, and the gaps that planners can detail and solve. 
SEthical space advances Indigenous planning by establishing a framework, founded by Indigenous researcherssome in the planning field (Bridge, 2021; Ermine, 2007; ICE, 2018)to uphold Indigenous planning.

Recognizing rights and shifting power dynamics

Contemporary planning operates under hierarchical decision-making, favouring the dominant voice. Indigenous law and practices are ignored or manipulated for inclusion. To adopt a just planning praxis, Indigenous rights must be upheld alongside dominant ones. Coexistence scholars reject hierarchical decision-making, contending that when the balancing of power dynamics is not prioritized, planners run a risk of replicating oppressive tactics (Porter, 2004, p. 105‒109 as cited in Sipe & Vella, 2017, p. 287). Ethical space honours Indigenous and dominant systems equally to create a new, balanced decision-making system. Ethical space is founded on the ability and willingness of all participants to have a deep understanding of one another’s guiding ethics, morals and responsibilities. These laws and practices are given equal weight in decision-making. Parties collaboratively decide the standards and laws that will inform decision-making, bridging multiple laws and protocols.

Connecting to place and time

In dominant planning, place is mostly considered as a physical location, guided by jurisdictional boundaries (Cresswell, 2014). For Indigenous peoples, place boundaries are fuzzy or non-existent and are defined through spiritual, physical and emotional relationships to the land (Jojola, 2008; Zapata & Bates, 2021). For many Indigenous peoples, place is relational and “open to change predicated on the positionality of the individual or community” (Harjo in Zapata & Bates, 2021, p. 617). Ethical space is a place-based practice that utilizes local knowledge to create decision-making frameworks. 

Indigenous and non-Indigenous people see time differently. Dominant planning is linear, with minimal connections to kinship. For example, much of the dominant world sees history as static, in other words, as something that is done and over with, even if it might still be shaping decision-making today. In this worldview, there is no body, institution or tradition that calls on us to take responsibility for events that happened the past. Harjo (in Zapata & Bates, 2021, p. 616) argues that linear orders of “past/present/future” planning fails to recognize “Indigenous kinship relationships” and Indigenous responsibilities to their “kin who inhabit many temporalities.” In Ethical Space, temporal boundaries are not limited or defined. 


As the global climate emergency becomes increasingly evident, planners have a responsibility to plan for the health, safety and justice of all Earth’s inhabitants. Indigenous peoples have acted in relationship with the land since time immemorial, creating laws and protocols to guide mutually beneficial interactions. Yet this knowledge is devalued, and in many cases erased, from modern planning practices. New approaches to planning are required to recalibrate power and ethically value all laws. Ethical Space is an emerging concept that promotes relationship building and the balancing of power dynamics to establish an innovative space for decision-making. It recognizes fundamental differences between dominant and Indigenous law, and utilizes this insight when designing a new planning framework. By centering Indigenous self-determination in planning, decisions can better support climate action that upholds the diverse needs of all. 

 This study highlights how Ethical space reimagines decision-making to promote mutual trust, respect and collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Using a community-based case study, this research identified possible practical applications of Ethical Space for land use planning in the Upper Columbia region of British Columbia, an area in express need of planning efforts. The research findings offer valuable insights for practitioners and academics seeking to create more ethical and sustainable planning processes.

[1] I chose to use the term “dominant” to describe non-Indigenous planning practices, systems and governance structures. This choice serves to remind the reader of the power imbalances that perpetuate society today. Wilson’s (2008) book Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods provides an apt definition of the term. Wilson says, “Dominant is used as an adjective to describe the culture of European-descended and Eurocentric, Christian, heterosexist, male-dominated Canada or Australia. The term dominant, like the culture that it describes, and the society created by this culture, is not meant to include those who fall ‘outside’ the powerful majority, such as people who are not men, heterosexual, physically or mentally perfect or white, or any other people who for whatever reason do not ‘fit in’ to the dominant culture” (Wilson, 2008, p. 35). With this understanding, “dominant” captures the overarching systems used to shape planning and governance in British Columbia while recognizing that not every individual occupies space or sees the world through this lens.

To cite this article

Nadeau, M. (2022). Supporting climate action and Indigenous self-determination: Ethical space-based planning in the Upper Columbia region of British Columbia. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

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