Blog: Gary Pritchard: A Bridge Between Two Worlds

Blog authored by Pelly Shaw, Communications Intern

It wasn’t until Ecologist Gary Pritchard was 34 that he got his Indigenous name. Standing on the gentle green shores of Eagle Lake, during a shaking tent ceremony, which is an Anishinaabe healing ceremony, Pritchard was given the name Giniw, meaning ‘golden eagle.’ One of Giniw’s elders, a Metis woman from Peterborough, also gave Pritchard this name. Without knowing this, the elders at the ceremony chose to call him Giniw as well. “Part of my healing journey, they said, was to be named,” reflected Pritchard.

Pritchard, or Giniw, is part of the Curve Lake First Nation, whose community consists of a peninsula, a large island known as Fox Island, and several smaller islands. About 25 km northeast of Peterborough, Ontario.

As a teenager, Pritchard spent his days outdoors, working as a junior ranger and shadowing the many staff from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNR) who worked around Curve Lake. “I knew from a young age that I would do something like I do now,” said Pritchard “it was always a part of me.”

After taking several contracts with the MNR, Pritchard attended Fleming College in Lindsay, where he studied in the fish and wildlife technician program. Then, in 2003, Pritchard took a biologist position at the Anishinabek Ontario Fisheries Resource Centre, travelling to North Bay to further his knowledge of Indigenous systems and ways of knowing.

Since then, Pritchard has travelled across Canada, working in both the worlds of Indigenous conservation and Western science. As a specialist in freshwater fisheries, ecological restoration and wetland science, Pritchard’s consultation services are in constant demand. In terms of traditional knowledge, his areas of expertise are the study of cultural keystone species, medicinal plants and biodiversity.

Ecology and conservation, Pritchard said, is about stewardship of the land, and using natural resources in a way that ensures their continued existence for generations to come. Talking about conservation, Pritchard likes to share a quote from his friends Jeff and Rick Beaver, “take little of what is abundant, less of what is not, and almost nothing of what is rare.”

When he isn’t consulting with a First Nations council, or meeting with members of Canadian governments, Pritchard can be found ice fishing, looking for creatures, or simply walking in the woods with his family.

“My new thing now,” said Pritchard, “is experiencing nature with my kids, both through an Indigenous lens and a Western science lens — finding out what makes them excited about nature and exploring that with them.”

This year, he said, the pandemic has allowed him to slow down and spend more time enjoying nature, even getting back into an old hobby. Photographing wildlife, said Pritchard, is a good way to showcase the natural world to those who wouldn’t necessarily get to experience it.

With his children, he set up a Monarch butterfly hatchery in the backyard. They observed the insects from birth to flight, tagging them and tracking their migration South on the internet. “Just to show my kids,” said Pritchard, “this little monarch butterfly travels all the way down to Mexico and spends the winter.” He feels that acknowledging species and the journeys that they go through is an important element in building a relationship with nature.

“I think that’s the thing that’s lacking in our [current environmental] policies,” said Pritchard. “How do we create that sense of place and connection around land and rights of nature, so that people actually have that connectivity to it and can protect it better?”

As a fisheries ecologist, Pritchard uses Western science to help protect waters in Ontario and across Canada, but his daughter, who is an Anishinaabe woman, also has an important role to play in protecting water.

Anishinaabe women have a sacred responsibility to protect the water. “Anishinaabe women, well all women,” explains Pritchard, “carry the most sacred water within their bodies when they have a baby inside them.” Women protect life as a whole by protecting the water, and Indigenous elders pass knowledge from woman to woman about how to care for water and honour it spiritually.

Pritchard believes that as a society, we take water for granted. It is one of the essential puzzle pieces to life on Earth, yet when we get a high water bill, said Pritchard, for example, we whine and complain.

Living in Ontario, surrounded by the Great Lakes, it can be easy to imagine that freshwater is an unlimited resource, yet at the tributary in Oshawa where Pritchard often teaches, the water is only about 10 cm deep. It’s “a major tributary of the Great Lakes right, and I just tell people to wear their rubber boots.”

Historically that river used to be a lot deeper. “We take so much water out of the system to feed our cities and to feed all our peoples, that we really have depleted the Earth,” said Pritchard.

When settlers came to Canada and Indigenous people in Ontario signed treaties with the Crown, they never signed their rights to water away. “But municipalities and settler based governments do not even acknowledge that every time they do something that could harm or impair or take away the water from the tributary, they’re actually violating the treaty that was signed for them to allow them to occupy that area.”

These gaps in knowledge are where Pritchard comes in, educating lawmakers and government bodies on how to honour the treaties, and how to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into environmental policies. Among First Nations people, Pritchard teaches about the duty to consult on environmental issues, and helps navigate the misunderstandings and frustrations between groups.

“We try to resolve differences – differences of opinions, different knowledge systems,” said Pritchard, “I’d say it’s more of a social science.”

People get very upset sometimes, when their way of thinking is challenged, and that is the challenge of Pritchard’s position. He feels that the most important part of supporting the environmental movement is to acknowledge different world views and to learn from others in a spirit of cross-cultural sharing. Individuals, he said, should deepen their personal journeys with nature.

Despite the challenges, Pritchard said he feels very fortunate to have a voice and a platform to share his knowledge. “I’ve been able to work in a whole bunch of different places with a whole bunch of great people and I’m very fortunate to be where I am – and now my goal is to mentor and share that with people so that they can have that career as well.”