Ontological Multiplicity

Nathan A. Badry

Ontological multiplicity refers to the interplay between different understandings of what things exist, and how those things interact with each other.

Nathan A. Badry is a PhD Candidate in McGill’s Department of Natural Resource Sciences, focusing broadly on collaborative governance in Canadian environmental science and management contexts. Their research outlook is informed by past work experience from a diversity of settings, spanning government, ENGOs, political parties, and international development projects.

The many intersecting worlds of the Kermode bear

What is a Kermode bear?

On the surface, this is a simple question. However, the answer can be surprisingly complex. And it can have tangible impacts on the decisions we make, for example, by helping to determine our priorities around wildlife conservation.

This was made clear to me in a conversation on wildlife conservation with a professional biologist, when the topic of Kermode bears came up. Kermode bears—or spirit bears—are a white colour variant of the American black bear that inhabit the forests of coastal British Columbia, Canada. These bears carry two copies of a recessive gene that changes their fur colour (Ritland et al., 2001). Kermode bears (as well as bears with only a single copy of the gene, who retain their black fur) are now classified as a subspecies of Black bear, Ursus americanus kermodei. Kermode bears have become part of the conservation conversation in recent years because they are facing a number of threats (Toronto, 2020). These threats have included pipelines: The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, before being cancelled in 2016, was slated to pass through key Kermode bear habitat in the Great Bear Rainforest. Hunting is another threat. While hunting Kermode bears has been banned since 1925, the hunting of black bears is not, and were a black bear carrying the unexpressed recessive gene to be killed, the gene would not be passed on. Developments such as logging and mining also pose threats, as much Kermode bear habitat falls outside of protected areas. More recently, concerns have been raised over declining salmon populations, a key food source for the Kermode bear.


The biologist I was speaking to had recently seen a research presentation exploring whether isolated populations of black bears with high proportions of white coats—but with too few individuals to be self-sustainable—could be better conserved if connectivity with other bear populations was improved, perhaps by establishing new protected areas. The downside would be that connectivity would invariably increase for all bears—including those carrying and not carrying the gene. This would dilute the gene in the formerly isolated Kermode bear populations, decreasing the numbers of white bears carrying two copies. To the biologist, this was an acceptable loss. Conserving genetic diversity is crucial to wildlife conservation, and these recessive genes would still be present in the population, even if they were not expressed in white coats. The decline in Kermode bears, despite being animals of great significance to people in the region, should not determine conservation decision-making. It was genes that mattered, not appearance, the biologist argued.

The cultural significance of Kermode bears, however, is difficult to discount. They remain an iconic animal in British Columbia, having been named the province’s official mammal in 2006. Kermode bears have been a flagship species in efforts to establish new protected areas in coastal British Columbia, featuring prominently in campaigns and communications. Crucially, they are also enormously significant to the Indigenous peoples of the region. In the Tsimshian languages, Kermode bears are known as Moksgm’ol. Relationships of respect and reciprocity are shared with these bears, and they feature prominently in stories, dances, and songs. Kitasoo/Xai’xais and Gitga’at First Nations are invested both in burgeoning ecotourism related to the Kermode bear (Great Bear Rainforest Spirit Bear Lodge, n.d.), as well as scientific research on the bears (Service et al., 2020). To these people, Kermode bears are much more than just a genetic variant.

So, what is a Kermode bear? Is it a genetic variant of a black bear, or a provincial symbol? Do Kermode bears represent new potential tourism revenue? Are they a reminder from the trickster Raven of the harsh conditions of the ice age, a lesson passed down in Kitasoo/Xai’xais oral histories (Carter, 1966, as cited in Service et al., 2020)? Do they embody the values of respect and reciprocity integral to many Indigenous cultures? One answer is that Kermode bears are all these things simultaneously and more—as well as an example of ontological multiplicity. (See also, social nature.)

Ontology refers to the beliefs people hold about what exists in the world (Blaser, 2013). Different groups of people hold different ontological assumptions, shaped by their practices and interactions with the world. For example, the biologist’s understanding that Kermode bears are a genetic variant of black bears is an ontological one. The conditions in which multiple ontologies intersect, and contest one other, create what is known as ontological multiplicity (Theriault, 2017).

It is in this context that processes of world-making take place, and complex questions such as “What is a Kermode bear?” are negotiated. The question is not just theoretical. In the case of the Kermode bear, protecting the genetic diversity within populations and protecting Moksgm’ol, with all its cultural, social, and economic significance, could entail entirely different conservation strategies. And it is more complex than merely saying one belief is true and the other is false. Ontological beliefs are not points of view that can be easily discounted. They are instead deeply held beliefs about the reality of the world, and these different beliefs can be in conflict with each other while still remaining equally valid. Recognition of these multiplicities, and the need to negotiate them, are thus paramount to decision-making. This applies not just to wildlife conservation, but to any context characterized by different understandings and assumptions, in which questions of ontological multiplicity invariably arise.


Discussion Questions

  • How do you think the threatened Kermode bears should be protected, if at all? How does your positionality influence your decision?
  • What other examples of ontological multiplicity can you think of?
  • How could ontological multiplicity be included more in policy discussions, and what are some obstacles to this?

Additional Resources

Klinka, D. R., & Reimchen, T. E. (2009). Adaptive coat colour polymorphism in the Kermode bear of coastal British Columbia. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 98(3), 479–488. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1095-8312.2009.01306.x

Law, J., & Joks, S. (2019). Indigeneity, science, and difference: Notes on the politics of how. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 44(3), 424–447. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243918793942

Law, J., & Lien, M. E. (2013). Slippery: Field notes in empirical ontology. Social Studies of Science, 43(3), 363–378. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312712456947

Todd, Z. (2016). An Indigenous feminist’s take on the ontological turn: ‘Ontology’ is just another word for colonialism. Journal of Historical Sociology, 29(1), 4–22. https://doi.org/10.1111/johs.12124

Spirit Bear | The Canadian Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved June 30, 2021, from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/spirit-bear

Spirit Bears of the Great Bear Rainforest. (n.d.). Paul Nicklen. Retrieved June 30, 2021, from https://paulnicklen.com/stills/spirit-bears/

Venot, J.-P., & Jensen, C. B. (2021). A multiplicity of prek(s): Enacting a socionatural mosaic in the Cambodian upper Mekong delta. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 251484862110268. https://doi.org/10.1177/25148486211026835


Blaser, M. (2013). Notes towards a political ontology of “environmental” conflicts. In Contested ecologies: Dialogues in the South on nature and knowledge (pp. 13–27). HSRC Press

Great Bear Rainforest Spirit Bear Lodge. (n.d.). Retrieved June 30, 2021, from https://www.spiritbear.com/

Ritland, K., Newton, C., & Marshall, H. D. (2001). Inheritance and population structure of the white-phased “Kermode” black bear. Current Biology, 11(18), 1468–1472. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0960-9822(01)00448-1

Service, C. N., Bourbonnais, M., Adams, M. S., Henson, L., Neasloss, D., Picard, C., Paquet, P. C., & Darimont, C. T. (2020). Spatial patterns and rarity of the white‐phased ‘Spirit bear’ allele reveal gaps in habitat protection. Ecological Solutions and Evidence, 1(2). https://doi.org/10.1002/2688-8319.12014

Theriault, N. (2017). A forest of dreams: Ontological multiplicity and the fantasies of environmental government in the Philippines. Political Geography, 58, 114–127. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2015.09.004

Toronto, A. H. in. (2020, September 14). Long kept secret, Canada’s ghostly spirit bears are even rarer than thought. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/14/canada-indigenous-people-protect-spirit-bears



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