Acfas Jacques Rousseau Prize: Documentation of traditional knowledge – Le Devoir

This text is part of the special section Acfas prices

Ethnobotanist Alain Cuerrier, recipient of the Acfas Jacques Rousseau Prize, has been working with and for indigenous communities in Quebec and elsewhere for many years. Together they document, translate and preserve knowledge related to plants, animals, traditional medicine and the perception of climate change.

At the intersection of social anthropology, ethnoecology and linguistics, ethnobotany remains a little-known science. “It is the encounter between humans and plants,” explains Alain Cuerrier, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Montreal. It implies a great multidisciplinarity as well as a deep curiosity that well characterizes the researcher. “As a student, I was interested in chemistry, insects, environmental problems, but also philosophy and history,” he says. I also had a great aunt who was an herbalist. »

During his doctorate in plant systematics, he delved deeply into the writings of ancient botanists on folk classification, or how indigenous peoples perceive living things around the world. He was influenced by his encounter with Richard Evans Schultes, a renowned American ethnobotanist, during a year of study at Harvard University. A few years later, he participated in the creation of the First Nations Garden at the Montreal Botanical Garden, which showcased the botanical knowledge of the First Nations and Inuit.

His work has taken him to work with communities in Morocco, French Guiana and with the Cree, Inuit, Innu and Naskapi First Peoples, as well as the Anishinaabe, Wabanaki and Squamish. “Nothing beats meeting local communities directly,” he says. It is important to talk to seniors, listen to them, and respect their wants and needs. »

The benefits of traditional medicine

Among other things, Alain Cuerrier examines traditional knowledge for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes, a disease widespread among indigenous groups. With his colleagues, he demonstrated the effectiveness of First Nations medicinal plants, such as Labrador tea. “Certain plants influence human metabolism, such as the uptake of glucose in the blood and the release of insulin,” he explains.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 80% of the world’s population uses traditional medicine and around 40% of the approved medicines used today are based on natural substances. “Contrary to some opinions, traditional medicine does not take anything away from modern medicine, which is very important and needs to be further developed,” emphasizes Alain Cuerrier. The combination of both is very productive; plants represent complementary tools. »

Climatic changes

If climate change is particularly affecting indigenous peoples on a global scale, this is evident in the Canadian subarctic. “The permafrost is thawing, the infrastructure is sinking, ponds are disappearing,” adds Alain Cuerrier. There is a very good connection between Inuit perception and the scientific data from weather stations. » For example, you observe that the taste of wild berries, caribou, seals and fish is no longer the same, especially due to droughts.

However, indigenous cultural identity is closely linked to territory, diet and language. “All caribou bones have their own name in the Inuktitut language,” says the researcher. The Crees name black spruce in three ways, while Westerners have identified only one. These differences reveal some very interesting different features. » The animistic concept and the sacred respect for the living thus open a wider window to the world.

Privileged links

The ethnobotanist prefers an approach of openness and collaboration. “It is no longer possible to behave like the anthropologists who came and went without announcing any news, this has hurt people a lot,” he believes. When I went to Labrador, the first thing the Inuit asked me was if I would come back. » The researcher always makes sure to know the concerns of the people with whom he works. “We have to take the time and make sure to build a balanced exchange, for example by inviting them to conferences. In addition, they are increasingly speaking out and taking the lead in research. »

What Alain Cuerrier loves most of all are the strong and privileged connections he has built throughout his career. He particularly remembers an anecdote with an Inuit, Willie Emudluk, who has since passed away. “I tried to tell him a fish name in Inuktitut, but I couldn’t pronounce it correctly,” he says. He laughed, took my face in his big hands and said, “From now on your name is Sulukpaugaq [lotte de rivière].” » A gesture of humor and affection that touched him deeply.

“Willie was always very open to sharing his knowledge and that of others so that it was not lost and his language remained as rich as possible,” he continues. Like others, he was happy that I could talk to him and understand words in his language. » Today the professor is proud of his students’ great sensitivity to these questions and supports them in practice whenever he can.

This content was created by Le Devoir’s Special Publications team, reporting to Marketing. The editors of Le Devoir did not take part.

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