An Ice Road to Reconciliation


From the Catalyst, Spring 2017

2016 broke the record for the hottest year ever, the third year in a row to do so. The causes and effects of this climatic change are increasingly obvious in Canada. But Indigenous peoples are on the frontlines.

Across Canada, Indigenous peoples are taking action to protect the land, water, and air – and their way of life. In B.C., the West Moberly and Prophet River Nations have mobilized farmers and environmental organizations alike to stop the construction of the Site C dam. The Elsipogtog First Nation put their bodies on the line to protest fracking on their land in New Brunswick. And in southwestern Ontario, the Chippewa of the Thames are just one among several nations who have issued challenges in the courts over the impacts of pipeline projects and resource exploration and extraction.

Climate change affects the lives, lands, and cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples more directly and dramatically than most Canadians. But many communities in the more isolated and northern regions go unseen and unheard.

In December 2016, I had the opportunity to visit the Ojibway First Nation of Pikangikum. I travelled with the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), the Anglican Church of Canada’s aid and development agency. This remote community in northwestern Ontario is on Treaty Five territory. It is tucked into the beautiful forested landscape on the edge of Pikangikum Lake.

Many here rely on outdoor water pumps. This is their only access to water for all household needs, even in cold and stormy winter weather. We were there to meet members of the community and to see the work of PWRDF and our partners to bring running water into homes.

Although the weather makes hauling water a challenge, it is also a key asset to the community. Through the winter, this otherwise fly-in community relies on an ice road for most of their supplies, including food and fuel.

Climate change is putting this ice road at risk. Winters are warmer and start later in the year. And now community leaders are concerned that access to the seasonal ice road is getting shorter and less certain.

During my visit to Pikangikum, I briefly experienced the limited and expensive access to supplies and travel. We spent an uncertain extra day there after flights were cancelled due to bad weather. Yet for the people of Pikangikum, the impact is much more serious. The loss of a reliable ice road will have disastrous impacts on a community already suffering from limited resources.

The people of Pikangikum continue traditional Indigenous practices of hunting, fishing, and gathering as part of their cultural heritage and way of life. But climate change is destabilizing the nearby boreal forest. Increased wildfires and insect outbreaks are expected. Plant and animal species, such as the caribou, are already showing signs of population decline. With risks to both traditional and mainstream sources of food and supplies, the community is stuck in a lose-lose situation.

The people of Pikangikum are simultaneously at higher risk of the immediate climate change consequences and the least able to fight the causes and adapt to new realities. Their power comes from diesel-run generators that serve a local electricity grid. In a community with unpaved roads and heavy snow, big trucks are needed to get around. Even though reductions in GHG emissions are possible, they would have little impact. And frankly, Pikangikum has more immediate concerns. The community struggles with crises of health, social welfare, and crime. These are largely the result of the ongoing history of colonialism along with restricted resources and geographic isolation.

As settler people, we must understand the impact climate change has on the land and people. Only then can we can find common concerns that open opportunities to build relationships. Despite these challenges, Pikangikum, like many isolated and northern Indigenous communities, represents an opportunity for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

This is not a new idea. Many fighting for environmental justice recognize the vital stake and leadership role Indigenous people have in this cause. And climate justice is also a part of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

One road to get us there may well be made of ice and serve a small Ojibway Nation in northwestern Ontario.

Photo: The streets of Pikangikum. Credit: Allie Colp.

Asha is CPJ's former Public Justice Intern

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