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The ‘Healing Walk’ in the Alberta tar sands was called for and organised by frontline communities and allies to witness the destruction taking place on ancestral lands. Photos: Zack Embree
Like many indigenous people in the environmental justice movement I have never considered myself an environmentalist. I am a defender of indigenous rights and a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) or K’ai Taile Denesuline, the people of the willow, a reference to the Athabasca Delta, in what is now Canada, where my people have lived since time immemorial. My forebears signed a treaty with the government in 1899 to protect and preserve the rights of the Denesuline community but our culture is now in the cross hairs of the largest industrial giga-project on the planet, the Alberta tar sands.
This year marks the anniversary of the death of the Nigerian writer and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. His legacy and the legacy of the Ogoni people is one that I look to when trying to find justice. Like the Ogoni, the ACFN are people of a delta in the midst of a struggle against some of the largest multinational corporations, government mismanagement and the annihilation of our indigenous rights and culture, all because of humanity’s insatiable pursuit for oil.
The Athabasca Delta is one of the world’s largest inland freshwater deltas, recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site for its diverse flora and fauna; and like the Niger Delta it is sought out by multinational corporations for its rich deposits of fossil fuels. Companies from across the globe have obtained licences from the Canadian and provincial governments to mine the bitumen-rich tar sands. The extraction of this dirty fossil fuel requires destructive methods that fragment, contaminate and compromise large tracts of land that have historically been used by indigenous people.
When tar sands were first deemed economically viable in the 1960s, indigenous people were only beginning to be regarded as part of society in Canada – First Nations weren’t even granted the right to vote until 1960. We were not consulted about how this resource would be extracted or who would benefit. As tar sands development increased in the 1990s, so did concerns about the impact of these massive industrial projects. Waterways were becoming contaminated, species were declining, air quality was affected and illnesses such as cancer were on the rise.
Institutional racism and societal norms depicting indigenous peoples as second-class citizens allowed governments to ignore our concerns. There has been little effort by government agencies to address the environmental or human rights concerns brought forward by my people. Instead they are determined to industrialise our homelands.
Like the Ogoni people, we have taken it upon ourselves to find alternative means to pressure multinational corporations and governments to recognise the unique rights of our people. Since the Ogoni Bill of Rights in 1990, there has been a dramatic shift in the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights, from the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to Truth and Reconciliation in Canada and the countless court victories recognising and affirming indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and autonomy.
For the past decade the ACFN has used the platform created by our predecessors to safeguard what is left of our rivers and food systems, our culture, our identity and our land base. The Denesuline culture, in common with many indigenous cultures globally, is intrinsically linked to the natural world. The continued erosion of the environment is a direct threat to our culture and our rights.
As I have worked to protect my people, I have found comrades in the environmental movement, who also seek to protect and preserve places. However, I have struggled to ensure that the rights, goals, tactics and ideologies of indigenous culture are effectively included and respected within the broader environmental movement. Protecting the rights of indigenous peoples as a means to protect and preserve places has been largely disregarded by traditional conservation and environmental organisations, dominated by white members who often decide the fate of our lands and cultures for us, perpetuating colonial and patriarchal norms.
This situation has slowly shifted. We are now seeing a trend to merge social justice and environmental concerns, leading to an environmental justice movement. At its core this includes labour rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, indigenous/frontline community rights, civil rights, migrant rights and, of course, environmental rights.
These movements are often rooted in a desire to challenge oppression, subjugation and marginalisation by colonial powers and neoliberal agendas. However, the cross-sectionality of multiple movements can also serve as a challenge. In an attempt to merge movements we have to find effective ways to address the root causes that bring us together, and not get lost in surface issues such as simply protecting a piece of land, a species or a waterway, as was commonly done by earlier environmentalists. It is imperative that we work to address collective issues such as colonialism, racism and sexism, and the continued marginalisation of those deemed less worthy. Many people only see and hear ‘environmental’ and forget ‘justice’.
Earlier inceptions of the environmental movement were too often detached from notions of justice and treated the environment as an externality to be saved and preserved rather than as a necessity for human and cultural survival. Yet the very places, species and ecosystems for which environmentalists sought protection were often places, species and ecosystems that indigenous inhabitants had fought to protect and preserve during first-wave colonisation. The people at the helm of the environmental movement inadvertently contributed to the perpetuation of the oppression and subjugation of indigenous peoples by failing to recognise and include indigenous cultures, rights and ideologies in early campaign development. This created major challenges for the environmental movement.
One of the most notable examples of this failure is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a national wildlife refuge in north-eastern Alaska. This is the traditional territory of the Gwich’in people, relatives of the Denesuline, often referred to as ‘the sacred place where life begins’ because of the rich biodiversity and incredible caribou migrations throughout the region. The Gwich’in reside throughout Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories of Canada and have long utilised this region to sustain their culture and way of life.
Environmental groups began campaigning for the protection and preservation of the Arctic slope in the 1950s without any direct consultation with the Gwich’in people. They negotiated a US federal protection designation that left out any recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights and cultural interconnectedness to the region.
While the designation of the wildlife refuge allowed indigenous peoples to continue to live in the region, it didn’t recognise their sovereignty or cross-border use. When oil was discovered in the 1970s, there was controversy about whether to drill in the region. The lack of recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights meant this centred on caribou protection rather than human and cultural rights. Even today the Gwich’in people continue to be marginalised and left out of negotiations.
While the end goal of protecting lands and ecosystems is a common aim of the environmental and indigenous rights movements, the different tactics, strategies and visions that drive these movements have become increasingly hard to reconcile. Over the past half century a social justice revolution has unfolded and contributed to the realisation that environmental movements have serious shortcomings, including the role they play in the continued oppression of others.
During the past decade there has been a concerted effort to address and amend these behaviours and weave movements together in pursuit of environmental justice. One of the biggest challenges of integrating multiple movements under one umbrella is the need to deconstruct power and privilege within our respective movements – a task that is not easy, straightforward or welcome at times. We can learn from the mistakes and success of our ancestors and build better futures for generations to come. We can move towards real justice that is holistic and reflects our intersectionality with each other and the planet.