Samantha Darling, Ph.D.

BSc. Geography, University of Lethbridge; MSc. Geography, University of Ottawa; Ph.D. Renewable Resources, McGill University.



Ph.D. Thesis:




Environmental governance, including impact assessment (IA), involves complex interactions between diverse societal actors in the ongoing (re-)negotiation of social and political agendas. It therefore becomes an ideal space to re-envision the interaction between knowledge systems and worldviews (ontological pluralism) to support societal goals, such as sustainable development. An often acknowledged but rarely explored concept in these efforts is capacity – the ability of a system to adapt and perform through the evolution of attributes, capabilities and relationships – and the implications for process outcomes. In northern Canada, capacity has long been identified as a priority for public policy and recognized as a major constraint to regional social and economic development. With high potential for resource development and a small resident population where ontological pluralism is a critical objective, northern Canada offers a context where available capacity is limited and unevenly distributed amongst a diverse set of actors from multiple jurisdictions with a legislated space to participate in IA. This dissertation seeks to better characterize the role of northern research capacity, defined as the ability of an actor, organization or network to engage, produce, maintain and use knowledge through individual and collective development, in the implementation of IA and draw lessons that can inform application.

It begins with an interdisciplinary literature review on capacity, identifying four main types that are widely discussed in the environmental governance and capacity-related literature. Definitions of the term research capacity are described and the relevance of the concept to northern Canada identified. Building on this review, I present an embedded case study of IA in the Yukon Territory to explore the various roles of research capacity in a well-established northern IA process, where Indigenous and public participation are recognized as being vital. To do this, I first employ a policy network approach to examine the formal and informal connections between IA policy actors and identify sources and flows of knowledge. Results indicate that while research capacity is critical to well-functioning IA processes in northern Canada, the ability of the IA policy network to source, disseminate and engage new knowledge is limited. Important boundary spanning ‘choke points’ can act as both facilitators and barriers, based on the capacity of the knowledge brokers that occupy these spaces. Building on this analysis, key principles are drawn from existing capacity evaluation frameworks to identify the dimensions considered essential to IA legitimacy and effectiveness at individual and organizational levels. These dimensions are then ix used to analyze the research capacity issues affecting Yukon’s main IA body, the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board. Opportunities to better support the assessment body and individual assessors as they seek to balance technical and values-driven knowledge in IA processes are identified. Then, focusing on Yukon First Nations Governments, I further explore how research capacity affects the participation of First Nations in IA. Results suggest that Yukon First Nations have adapted their participation strategies towards the assertion of land rights and title and the implementation of land claims to offset the capacity limitations of other policy actors. Ultimately, the Yukon IA process can act as both a learning space for knowledge exchange and as a political tool, depending on the available research capacity of policy actors.

This dissertation offers empirical insights in support of re-envisioning IA as a primarily knowledge-based activity and a space to actively embrace the principles of pluralism. Supporting sustainable development through networked governance mechanisms, such as IA, has implications for policy in northern Canada and beyond. Addressing concerns related to public and Indigenous participation, as well as concerns of process legitimacy and effectiveness, in IA will require stepping outside of more familiar 'deficit model' interpretations of capacity building towards reflexive, inclusive and adaptable processes. By offering insights of relevance to larger conversations around the need for inclusion and the consideration of pluralism in environmental governance, this work contributes to an expanding conversation about interacting knowledge systems and worldviews in environmental governance mechanisms.


Awards and Scholarships:

Graduate Excellence Award, McGill University (2016)

NSERC-CREATE Environmental Innovation Research and Training Program Graduate Student Stipend, McGill University (2016-19).

Government of Yukon Research Stipend (2016-19).


Project Publications:

Darling, S., Harvey, B. and Hickey, G.M. (2022). On individual and organizational capacities supporting Impact Assessment: The case of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board. FACETS: In Press.

Darling, S., Ogden, A. and Hickey, G.M. (2018). Reviewing northern capacity for impact assessment in Yukon Territory, Canada. Arctic Yearbook: 162-179 [online].

Pigford, A., Darling, S., Hickey, G.M. (2018). The need to better unpack the transaction costs associated with northern research in Canada. Arctic Yearbook: 491-499 [online].