Why Indigenous voice matters in climate justice
“Who tells the story about climate justice? What are the crucial voices needed to make effective change? How does voice shape understandings and in turn, actions?”
I recently participated, as a representative for ICA (as a new Toolkit Researcher and Coordinator), in a think tank session for the annual Victoria Forum, held at the University of Victoria. This event was attended by mostly non-Indigenous academics, business professionals, and university students, who had paid conference registration fees to be there. Ultimately, I was one of only two Indigenous people in the room, and the only Indigenous woman, in a very exclusive, highly privileged space. Ironically, the themes for this years Forum - Canada 150, diversity and inclusion, and sustainable prosperity for all - would illuminate the very crux of the issues at hand. In fact, it demonstrated exactly the need for an organization like Indigenous Climate Action in the first place.
I was a last minute addition to a panel looking at the power of voice – and worldview – as a direct influence on the actions being taken to address climate change. I was there to speak about my work with ICA, and other work with Indigenous elders and youth addressing climate change on the land. My initial sense as I sat in the room was of feeling far from home, and an awareness of the extreme disparity between those who live the experience of climate change and those who hold the power to speak about it in public forums such as this.
The moderator, Stephen Cornish, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, opened with some thoughtful questions: what are the perspectives of marginalized voices such as Indigenous communities, youth, and non-human beings who are facing increasing climate crises? How do different cultural values inform solution pathways? And how can we address climate change from multiple perspectives?”
I thought about my family and community members back home in Denendeh and Nunavut, who have so much knowledge from living closely with the land and who are experiencing its rapid degradation first hand, whose expertise would create truly transformative solutions if only they had the power to enact it. I thought about Indigenous peoples all over as we are collectively bearing the brunt of settler colonialism, climate change, extractive industry, gender violence and a whole slew of other challenges due to the systemic violence and racism that constrain us, and which directly fuel this country at our expense. I thought about how all of these are issues that most people in the room would be grossly unaware of. I thought then about the importance of speaking up to illuminate points of action, and my hope that people would be willing to hear the hard truths I was to voice.
The first speaker, a white academic from UBC who made no mention of Indigenous peoples or territory, gave a perfect example of a privileged white Canadian male perspective, which presents itself as rational, unbiased, and relatively apolitical. He advocated for policy changes and economy shifts to support generational equity so that younger generations living in expensive urban centres, such as Vancouver, can afford to live and have a viable future. He stressed that young Canadians are currently too preoccupied with rising costs of living, stagnant incomes and mounting debts to even think about or act on climate change. His suggestion was to build upon the ‘strong basis of Canadian policies and values’ in present planning to find economic solutions, and, by extension, this would support climate justice.
At first thought, fair enough right? We truly do need to come up with more sustainable, equitable and just economic solutions overall in this country.
However, this is where the consideration of voice becomes key.
First off, reality check: the global climate crisis is indeed a crisis, in which the very survival of humanity is at stake - and securing the livelihood of the upper crust is actually the very least of our worries. Urgent action needs to be made at a fundamental and structural level - and it needs to account for the exponential and disproportionate strain placed on all marginalized populations - starting right here on unceded, unsurrendered, illegally acquired Indigenous homelands.
The problem with leadership by those operating from within a dominating worldview is that they will likely advocate for the perpetuation of that worldview as a solution, and disregard the exploitive impacts in the process.
For example, the strong basis of Canadian policies and values this man spoke of are precisely what have dispossessed Indigenous peoples of our lands and actively damaged our ways of life, (through residential schools, the Indian Act, forced settlements, comprehensive land claims, etc.).
There is also the disturbing omission regarding the Canadian economy’s root source of wealth, which generates directly from the exploitation of Indigenous homelands. If the recent approval of Site C dam is any indication, Canadian policies and values are still very much willing to jeopardize the earth and override Indigenous sovereignty in order to keep the engine humming.
So, this man’s idea of economic prosperity without any fundamental overhaul of the current system is implicitly dependent on the erasure of Indigenous sovereignty, rights and resistance efforts taking place throughout the continent to protect the earth against the extractive industry in the first place.
What my fellow panelist made clear is that the overarching problem is, as always, the perpetuation of colonial worldviews, structural violence, capitalism, and the consolidation of power.
Thank goodness they invited Indigenous voice into this panel!
Well, somewhat. I’ll get to that shortly.
As for myself, I opened with the basic protocol of paying respect to the WSANEC and Lekwungen people and their unceded territories we were gathered on, and introduced myself by way of the people and homelands I come from. Indigenous speakers do this to affirm our relationships to the land and to the issues we are voicing, which we value pretty highly as an appropriate basis from which to speak.
I emphasized Indigenous voices and leadership as crucial to climate initiatives, not only because we are the most severely impacted yet least responsible demographic for the climate crisis, but because our systems operate from a profound sense of interdependence with the earth. This means our contribution to climate strategies is absolutely essential to address the multilayered impacts of climate change and the exploitative structures that have created the crisis in the first place.
As an example, I spoke about my work with elders and youth in Denendeh to address climate change from a holistic perspective, by connecting people with the earth, cultural values, and land-based practices. The transformative power of this is profound on many levels, including a fundamental shift in relationships from a system of domination to one of reciprocity.
Indigenous peoples are the rightful authority in our territories we have always stood firmly at the front lines of environmental protection. I highlighted the leadership of Indigenous women from communities directly threatened or damaged by oil and gas industries, who are creating Indigenous-led platforms, leading green energy projects and directly intervening in compounded experiences of climate change, colonialism, resource extraction, heteropatriarchy, and gender violence. We know that these are components of an overarching system of exploitation that is killing the planet and that Indigenous peoples, and especially women, youth and non-human relations, bear the brunt of.
So - who gets to speak on behalf of climate justice? People who understand interdependence and who respect the earth as a living and powerful force that human beings are at the behest of (not in domination over). Our sophisticated understanding of interconnectedness, both in terms of the compounding damage of colonial worldviews and our systems for living sustainably with the earth, make Indigenous communities ideal leaders in generating solutions and guiding structural change.
I introduced ICA as a vitally important organization in this regard, as an Indigenous-led organization that is working to channel community-based expertise into developing effective climate change strategies. We are currently working on an Indigenous climate action toolkit and developing communications platforms built for and by Indigenous peoples.
We know that in facing the biggest crisis of our time, the future of humanity depends in large part on the wisdom and action being led by Indigenous women, youth, and communities. And although Indigenous demand for decision-making power is supported by UNDRIP, we have very limited access to the actual means of autonomous leadership and voice. Most of the money and power tend to be held by non-Indigenous organizations and governments, and extracted directly from our territories. Case in point: ICA’s decision to decline the $150K award from Aviva Canada due to their investment in the tar sands. This money would have ensured core operational funding in our effort to create an Indigenous platform for voice, leadership, and action.
Back to the final point I want to highlight about the Victoria Forum and why Indigenous voice matters in climate justice. There was another Indigenous speaker who was originally set to be on our panel, but who was officially removed from the panel - get this - for using his voice.
Secwepmc youth leader Mike McKenzie spoke truth to power at the opening ceremony event for the conference, which was held at the prestigious Empress Hotel in downtown Victoria, addressing the elite roster of speakers, including two Former Prime Ministers, the AFN National Chief, CEO of Indspire, Lieutenant Governor of BC, local band chiefs, and the mayor of Victoria. He called out the colonial elitism of voice, including having the crowd rise upon the entry of the Queen’s representative, and expressed that the injustices currently being faced by his family and community were not being meaningfully addressed in a way that reaches home. He also spoke directly to the Justice Minister and Lieutenant Governor of BC about feeling misled by the Federal Government’s approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline and the consideration of the Ajax copper and gold mine in his territory.
How was his courageous use of voice received? With heckling and a call to the police, who in an unexpected turn of events ended up protecting McKenzie from the hecklers who attempted to physically attack him rather than remove him from the event. The next morning, he received a written notice from one of the conference organizers saying he was no longer welcome on the panel he had traveled there to speak on.
The following day, and as an audience member rather than a panelist, McKenzie spoke gently and emphatically about the need for open dialogue that is both receptive and respectful of Indigenous voices. He asked “what is the point of using our voice if people are unwilling to hear it?”. He apologized sincerely for any offense caused by his words and explained that speaking to the injustices faced by his community is not meant to cause offense, and that taking such offense is actually creates a barrier to Indigenous voice. He then shared wisdom from his elders and land back home, and urged people in the room to begin fostering their own spiritual connections to the earth. He urged that groundedness in relationship to the earth will not only restore balance individually but go a long way in guiding appropriate action collectively.
The Victoria Forum was a gathering of elite leaders and thinkers who have the power to influence the fate of the country. They said that recommendations for policy changes and calls for action made in the open think tank sessions of the forum would be submitted to the Canadian government.
However, immediately after the panel I witnessed the same conference organizer who had kicked McKenzie off our panel thank him for his heartfelt words and invite him to the formal reception for speakers at the Governor General’s house that evening. What I heard next was shocking: the organizer then asked Mike explicitly to not voice any of his opinions. He said he wanted him to feel welcome there but could not have him further offend the distinguished guests, so he would need to attend in relative silence. In another show of graciousness and principled reserve, McKenzie respectfully declined the invitation.
Quite simply, there is a desperate need to address the severity of climate change - as well as the intersecting factors that directly inhibit climate justice. The voices of experience must be elevated in lieu of, or at least alongside of, the voices of privilege, and must be granted tangible opportunities and means to contribute that wisdom and expertise to actual leadership. This is the enactment of diversity and inclusion, and would be a gesture toward reconciliation as well as ensure that prosperity, economic or otherwise, really is for all.
Without addressing the root of economic, social, and political structures that exacerbate the climate crisis, efforts toward solutions will do nothing to curb the ongoing destruction of the earth, the large scale emission of greenhouse gases, the declining populations of plants, animals, marine life and all of the elements that sustain us, the global displacement of peoples from their homelands destroyed by climate change, the growing social inequality and disempowerment of all marginalized peoples, and in sum, the ability to sustain human life on the planet.
This is why Indigenous voices - and leadership - are crucial to climate justice.
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