This is humbling, challenging work. It is also wonderfully rewarding.
Over the last several months, I had the tremendous honour of consulting with Indigenous experts and climate justice activists across Canada as I prepared Restoring Indigenous Rights. My hope for this paper was to shed light on the perspectives and personal stories of Indigenous Peoples on how their communities have been impacted by environmental and human rights law in Canada and internationally. Ultimately, I knew I wanted to support the call for an immediate implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. By sharing these stories, I was also able to highlight some of the specific articles of the UN Declaration that have been neglected or overlooked by the Canadian government.
In my paper, I defined allyship as a process “built on accountability, reconciliation, and listening.” But as I sat reflecting on what I was writing, I began to question myself: Am I genuinely engaging with the complexities of systemic barriers to stand with Indigenous Peoples in solidarity, or am I simply trying to find an answer to my “research question?”
I wanted to deconstruct settler knowledge as a non-Indigenous person. But I realized that a part of me was treating this consultation as a task to simply check off on a to-do list.
Thankfully, the conversations I had and the stories I heard transformed my understanding of what trust-based allyship looks like in practice. It taught me that my performative allyship was not enough. I needed to be part of a greater force that strives to dismantle destructive policies against Indigenous Peoples. In doing so, I learned four key lessons:
Understand local communities
I learned that consulting with Indigenous Peoples involves caring about their well-being, their communities, and families just as I would for my own. It was a valuable lesson to see that bringing this mutual understanding forward could serve as a catalyst for transformative policy change.
Dara Wawatie-Chabot told me that in their Algonquin-Anishinaabe community, settlers were consistently hunting moose, the primary food source there. When Dara informed hunters about the food insecurity of the community, the hunters reported that they were unaware of this issue and that they had received hunting permits from the provincial government. To this, Dara remarked,
“The government does not allow us to make decisions on our own territories, allowing continued disrespect by non-Indigenous sport hunters, with no programs to support our livelihoods… There are Indigenous Peoples still going hungry on a daily basis. What does this mean for our children—my children?”
From Dara’s stories, I became aware that our governments, policymakers, and civil society carry on with our lives, unconcerned that thousands of Indigenous households nearby face life-threatening crises. There is a dire need for all non-Indigenous people, including myself, to gain an intimate understanding of the local context of Indigenous communities. If we truly want to advocate for concrete structural changes, we must first and foremost have a sincere intention to get to know Indigenous Peoples, understand what they experience in their lives, and commit to placing the protection of Indigenous human rights as an urgent priority for Canada.
Learn from Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers
Several Indigenous experts highlighted the importance of consulting with Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers. As carriers of Indigenous ways of knowing and being, Elders and Knowledge Keepers are important historical and spiritual figures for many Indigenous communities. Acknowledging their irreplaceable roles, I sought to learn from their perspectives for this paper. However, these consultations are not one-dimensional nor results-oriented, but built over time in thoughtful connection.
I had the incredible privilege of interviewing Elder Kenneth Deer and learning from his infinite wisdom on climate justice. However, we were unable to engage in a longer and more extensive consultation process given my limited time at CPJ. Moving forward, I recommend that CPJ and other non-Indigenous folks put in the work of continuing the establishment of long-term, mutual relationships with Elders and Knowledge Keepers and ensure to include them in every step of the learning process.
Do not homogenize the diverse identities of Indigenous Peoples
While writing about the need for the implementation of the UN Declaration, I noticed my unconscious tendency to homogenize the diverse identities and experiences of Indigenous Peoples by grouping their colonial struggles as one. However, the stories of Indigenous experts led me to the realization that climate justice does not always look the same for Indigenous Peoples. Between, and within, First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, there are distinct perspectives, views, and insights which stem from their own personal journeys.
Graeme Reed pointed out the dangers of “victim-oriented framing” of Indigenous Peoples among Western activists and scholars. By over-emphasizing the atrocities committed against Indigenous communities, they risk overlooking Indigenous strength and resiliency. This allowed me to see that rather than assigning one Indigenous person to give me the full perspective of what Indigenous justice entails, I must make a conscious effort to listen to diverse voices. Most importantly, I learned that I should never assume that another Indigenous person would automatically agree to a single vision of climate justice, as each perspective is truly unique.
Follow up with actionable and concrete legislative changes
Advocating for Indigenous rights goes beyond writing and consulting. It also includes commitments that lead to positive legislative changes.
Through the ecumenical initiative “For the Love of Creation,” faith communities have come together on a journey of reflection, advocacy, and action around the issue of climate justice. Among our calls to action, is a call for the Canadian federal government to implement climate policies that prioritize and honour Indigenous rights and sovereignty, as well as animate the principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent. To demonstrate to the Canadian government that Indigenous-centered climate justice and the implementation of the UN Declaration are important to us, we ask you to sign onto our online petition.
Overall, I am endlessly grateful for this project. It has taught me to listen rather than speak, learn rather than assume, and most importantly, commit rather than pretend. Each person I interviewed has allowed me to gain a newfound appreciation for all of the ways in which Indigenous Peoples have guarded, protected, and cared for Turtle Island and its resources for thousands of years. Upon learning about their rich heritage, culture, wisdom, spirituality, systems of governance, and relationship with their lands, waters, and with one another, the impacts of Canada’s legal policies and its colonial history felt more detrimental than ever. Now, we must fight to restore the dignity, honour, and sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples on this land. I sincerely hope everyone can engage in a life-long journey of striving to build genuine relationships and friendships with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.