The Living Relationship Between the People and the Land

By Mark MacDonald

By Mark MacDonald

Two years ago, I attended an international conference on the environment. Gathered to consider the alarming physical and spiritual implications of our global climate crisis, we looked for ways to inspire and motivate people to effective action in our various local contexts. It was an earnest, committed, and well-informed group. Taking my turn, I spoke about some of the issues developing in the Arctic. Though the group was aware of massive changes in the climate of the Arctic, it was clear that there was little awareness of the human, largely Indigenous, dimensions of climate injustice in the North.

Unfortunately, this lack of awareness is widespread, even, and perhaps especially, in places that are a part of the North, like Canada. In identifying this deficit, we uncover a hidden but critical dimension of our global reality: Indigenous Peoples, among the least responsible and most threatened by climate injustice, are essential to both the fullness of our understanding of the climate crisis and, also, to the quality and character of our ecological future.

For the Canadian context, this is urgent. Canada, because of the promises and challenges of the emerging relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the larger society, will play a crucial and potentially defining role in the moral, physical, and spiritual crisis of our age.

Indigenous environmental wisdom, as Pope Francis underlined in Laudato Si, is a part of a healing way forward for humanity and ecology. The Spirit of Truth appears to have placed a large portion of the answers to our world’s problems in the teaching and lifestyle of the often-marginalized people of the land. The growing recognition of Indigenous wisdom is important. But to be effective it must directly connect Indigenous well-being to the wellbeing of the rest of humanity and creation. With the appreciation of Indigenous wisdom, there must be a moral and practical recognition of the living reality of Indigenous life.

The living relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the land is prophetic. It points to a livable future for all, in that it displays the living relationship of all humanity to the larger realm of creation. If humanity can see this, it has a more hopeful future.

The living relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the land is also protective. This is true in the immediate sense that Indigenous People are often directly in the way of harmful development. It has another critical aspect: respect and recognition of the rights of Indigenous People are an embodiment of humanity’s acceptance of its own responsibility to creation and the relationships that sustain life.

The only way to achieve this respect and recognition is by dismantling the persistent and systemic threats to Indigenous life both in on-going colonialism and through the impacts of climate injustice. If the global society of politics and economics does not respect and protect the relationship of Indigenous People to the land, it will not have the moral capacity to find its own way forward. The fullness of the practical demands of creation’s survival is dependent upon a complete embrace of the integrity of Indigenous Peoples and the larger reality of creation.

Canada has a potentially vital role to play in this unfolding reality. Its troubled relationship with Indigenous Peoples has an ongoing environmental context and focus. The dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from the land has been both the means and sometimes the goal of Canada’s colonial policy. The results have been catastrophic to Indigenous Peoples and the environment.

Canada can point the way forward and play a visionary role, by weaving Indigenous rights and its approach to environmental protection together. A hopeful future awaits Canada’s decision and action.

For the past ten years, the Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald has been the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop for Canada. Prior to this, he was the Bishop of Alaska. He has been much involved in the intersection of Indigenous rights and the environment.

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