“We need to listen”: Da Chen on the vital role of Truth & Reconciliation in environmental planning and conservation

Da Chen
Da Chen has been a member of the Indigenous Relations Team for Parks Canada for the past two years (Photo by Sarah Simpson).

When Da Chen (HBA 2017 UTSC, MSc Pl 2020) graduated from his undergraduate program in 2017, he wasn’t entirely sure where he wanted to take his career — but he did know that a conventional role in environmental planning wasn’t for him.

That desire – for something different – sparked an incredible personal journey that put him on a remarkable career path as a member of the Indigenous Relations team at Rouge National Urban Park, Parks Canada.

Chen’s journey in fact began much earlier, with a summer job he landed at Parks Canada while he was a student at U of T Scarborough. In 2017, that Parks Canada role led to a life-changing trip to Canada’s Arctic region as part of the Students on Ice expedition. There, Chen met with and learned from Inuit Elders and youth, who shared their knowledge of the land as well as their personal stories and experiences with the residential schools.

We need to really learn from those Elders about different ways of knowing and different ways of understanding the environment and the world.

Chen walked away from the experience with a profound sense of clarity.

“We need to have a better understanding of the real history of Canada,” says Chen. “We also need to listen to the knowledge Indigenous People are sharing, about how conservation is not just about science. We need to really learn from those Elders about different ways of knowing and different ways of understanding the environment and the world,” he adds.

What to read this Earth Day? Da Chen recommends Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Indigenous author Robin Wall Kimmerer

Heading into a Master’s of Science in Planning at St. George campus in 2018, Chen was moved to focus his studies on Indigenous planning. “I went in with the goal of learning how planning can be done differently,” says Chen.

His research examined the role of environmental planners in Toronto: their obligations to the Dish with One Spoon Treaty and how, as settlers, they can improve their work by incorporating Truth and Reconciliation into the profession.

“My focus was on how obligation and understanding of treaties and Indigenous worldviews need to be a bigger part of the planning process,” says Chen.

It was research with a clear impact. Chen’s thesis was awarded first prize in the 2020 Harmony Environmental Essay Prize for Young Scholars, a competition hosted by Raven Trust.

“What I learned through my interviews [with Indigenous Knowledge Holders] was that planners need to learn and listen to the Indigenous Peoples and Knowledge Holders,” says Chen, “because Indigenous Knowledge Holders have so much wisdom and so much knowledge about the history of the land.”

Another takeaway, says Chen, is the necessity of adopting “Seventh-Generation principle” – a Haudenosaunee concept – among planners.

“Typically, planners will think about one or two decades from now. But the Seventh-Generation principle says we should think about how our actions will impact seven generations in the future, while also learning and thinking about seven generations in the past,” Chen adds.

While he is careful to note that he is not qualified to speak about what Indigenous conservation and planning practices would be – a topic best left to Indigenous Knowledge Holders, says Chen – he does have some practical advice for both his fellow planners and his fellow Canadians.

“My key suggestion is to first listen, and re-learn the real story of Canada” Chen says, pointing out that vital information, everything from the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Report to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, is everywhere available.

Chen mobilizes what he’s learned as he supports the Rouge National Urban Park field unit and advises their engagements with the 10 First Nations that make up the Rouge National Urban Park First Nation Advisory Circle, which formed in 2012. The Circle provides ongoing advice and consultation to the park year-round, while Chen also supports a large annual meeting with the Indigenous partners.

Chen hopes his career will take him further down the path of Indigenous Relations. “I was really privileged and lucky to be shared with so much knowledge by many Indigenous Knowledge Holders. I see it as my duty and obligation to do my part in this journey of Truth and Reconciliation, and to utilize my privilege and my experiences and knowledge to do something meaningful,” he says.

Originally published on UTSC Alumni & Friends.