Sept. 20, 2021

Panel braids Indigenous knowledge issues with Western science

Alumni All-Access session Sept. 30 will examine how interlinking social and ecological systems results in better informed actions
Leroy Little Bear is a featured speaker on an upcoming panel
Leroy Little Bear is a featured speaker on an upcoming panel

Are Indigenous and Western systems of knowledge categorically antithetical? Or do they offer multiple points of entry into knowledge of the world, past and present?

The Western Science Meets Indigenous Wisdom panel meets on Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation/Orange Shirt Day, as part of the Alumni All-Access goal to examine timely issues and big ideas. The Faculty of Social Work’s annual Gayle Gilchrist James Lecture features prominent thinkers who will examine the parallels between Indigenous ways of knowing and modern science.

Richard Ramsay

Social Work Professor Emeritus Richard Ramsay, the panel’s sponsor

During the panel, you can stand at the intersection of Western science and Indigenous wisdom and hear some of our best minds consider why we are at a transformative point in history for moving toward a healthier way of living based on a crucial understanding of relationships.

“This panel presentation is important to bring Indigenous science more clearly to the forefront along with quantum science developments in the 20th century — and what I hope will be acceptable encouragement to acknowledge the limits of Newtonian Western science,” says Social Work Professor Emeritus Richard Ramsay, the panel’s sponsor.

Quantum science explains the nature and behaviour of matter and energy at infinitesimal levels, providing clues to the nature of our existence.

Relationships are at the heart of it all, says Ramsay.

“The big takeaway from what I call pre-modern science before the 20th century and postmodern science is that it is all based on relationships,” he says. “We are trying to show the compatibility between this new quantum science and Indigenous science — in other words, contemporary knowledge and ancient knowledge. Postmodern science acknowledges that the relationship between things and entities are important. Indigenous science has been saying this forever.”

Transforming social science requires a new perspective

Social science examines societies and the relationships of people within them. Ramsay says social science is at a crossroads. It faces the choice of maintaining a fundamental belief in self-determined independence, which promotes divisions among people, or it can recognize that two parties must be involved in making whatever decisions are needed, so that one does not presume a higher order than the other.

“The takeaway for the social science world is to get serious about transformation that is needed to become a more effective 21st century profession,” says Ramsay, whose work in suicide prevention and holistic social work has had worldwide impact.

Ramsay has been advocating this kind of elevating dialogue since the 1990s. His keen interest in the work of quantum physicist Dr. David Bohm, PhD, among others, led to his creating an astounding web of connections among various like-minded colleagues, all in the pursuit of discovering new ways of understanding that can enable positive change.

Western science has generally relied on empirical study and rules, whereas Indigenous science leans toward the oral tradition and storytelling along with traditional knowledge passed down through generations. The different approaches and methods do not mean the two aren’t compatible, though. They may be complimentary and lead to a convergence that creates synergy.


Moderator Dr. Ellen Perrault, BSW'93, MSW'95, PhD'09

Leroy Little Bear, one of the speakers on the panel who is well-versed in quantum physics, has said that holistic thinking and “relational networks” are important aspects of the Indigenous paradigm.

Already, there are more and more instances of Western science catching up to Indigenous science and coming together in the areas of ecology, archeology, biology and climatology. Programs in both Western and Indigenous science that are led by Indigenous instructors are popping up at universities across Canada and researchers are working collaboratively with a more holistic approach.

“We are in the time of reconciliation and the discovery of unmarked graves, so now is the time we should be giving serious thought to other ways of knowing,” says Ramsay. “We need to make changes that align with Indigenous science and Western science in a way that balances the two, not puts one over the other.”

Discover more on Sept. 30 when six panelists share insights and life experiences that may lead all of us in making better informed decisions. Register for Western Science Meets Indigenous Wisdom and don’t forget to check out the dozens of other free sessions being offered at Alumni All-Access, running from Sept. 17 to Oct. 7.