Climate is fundamentally the environment of Mother Earth. How Mother Earth functions and nourishes us is the principle relationship that we have with her. Another term that we use instead of Mother Earth is Creation. We are all part of Creation. The plants and animals all play a part in Creation. They have a role to play in the harmony of Creation. We, as people, are also part of Creation and we have a role to play in Creation. We have a lifelong quest to find what our role is in Creation and to fulfil that role to maintain the harmony that keeps all of Creation in balance.
In our Traditions, we have invocations before our meetings or every morning called “The Words That Come Before All Others.” It is also called the Opening Thanksgiving. In those words, we acknowledge all of Creation like the earth and rocks, the plants and medicines, the trees, the small animals, the larger four-legged animals, the birds and the fish, and other creatures in the waters. We acknowledge the four winds that bring the Thunderers, the rain, and lightning and move the clouds so we have sunshine. And they acknowledge the stars at night and the Grandmother Moon. And finally the Sun, for without it there would be no life. And then we say when we make decisions that we take all of Creation into account so that our decisions do not negatively impact Creation which is what sustains us. So when we talk about climate justice, we mean justice, fairness, and respect for all of Creation.
It is the lack of respect for Creation that has resulted in an imbalance in the environment which is causing the ice to melt, the seas to rise, the more violent storms, plants and animals to become extinct, and the air and waters to be polluted. Human beings have caused this to happen. Not the plants and animals. It has to be human beings that repair Mother Earth so it can continue to sustain all of life.
This environmental degradation has coincided with the dispossession and disempowerment of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and elsewhere. The root of this is the Doctrine of Discovery. This Doctrine is based on the Papal Bulls which state that any European explorer can claim any land they discover for their King or Queen if the inhabitants of that land were not Christian. Hence, when explorers found no Christians in the Americas, they could claim the land for Spain, Portugal, France, or England. That is why all land in Canada is called Crown Land, not called the land of the Indigenous Peoples who were there already.
This Doctrine resulted in the religious and racial superiority of Europeans over the Indigenous Peoples in the Americas. This is the fundamental foundation of white supremacy and basis for the colonization of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Included in that colonization was patriarchy which was the domination of males over females in European society. This was contrary to the matrilineal customs of many Indigenous Peoples, in particular the Haudenosaunee, which is also called the Iroquois Confederacy or the Six Nations Confederacy, made up of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora Nations. This patriarchy removed the voices of women in decision making. And it was Indigenous women who took care of the land and the gardens which sustained our people. That disempowerment resulted in the lack of respect for the land and its eventual degradation through thoughtless development.
When I first went to Geneva in 1987 to attend the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations when they were writing the first draft of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, I was struck by the fact that some states and human rights experts were against Indigenous Peoples being called Peoples. They called us communities, groups, tribes, and populations, but not Peoples. Because Peoples, under international law, have a right to self-determination. And they were against Indigenous Peoples having self-determination by virtue of which they could freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.
Fundamentally, the land has to be returned to the true owners. It means that the underlying title of the land belongs to the Indigenous Peoples of that area and there must be a partnership between the settler state and Indigenous Peoples in the development of those lands. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can make a better future. One that is just for everyone.
This article is an excerpt from Dr. Atsenhaienton’s contribution to CPJ’s paper Restoring Indigenous Rights, which draws on the invaluable insights of Indigenous activists, scholars, and experts to explore how implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can advance climate justice in Canada.