Canada’s First Nations are fighting for the environment.

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If you were one of the millions of people who watched The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard and you thought, “yes, we need to take action to reduce the destruction we are doing on this planet,” then one way to do that is to support the First Nations in their efforts to have their rights respected. To explain why, I am going to quote this wonderful article:  Canada’s First Nations protest heralds a new alliance by Martin Lukac. The paragraph that stuck out for me is the following:

 “But here’s the good news. Amidst a hugely popular national movement against tar sands tankers and pipelines that would cross aboriginal territories, Canadians are starting a different narrative: allying with First Nations that have strong legal rights, and a fierce attachment to their lands and waters, may, in fact, offer the surest chance of protecting the environment and climate. Get behind aboriginal communities that have vetoes over unwanted development, and everyone wins. First Nations aren’t about to push anyone off the land; they simply want to steward it responsibly.”

Picture by Andrea Gustafson

The paragraph sticks out to me for several reasons. For one, it reflects ideas I’ve thought previously that the First Nations may be the only people capable of protecting much of Canada’s environment. There are many, many environmentally damaging projects that they are fighting right now. In a minute I’ll name some of them but first I want to admit that there is something that makes me uncomfortable about quoting the above paragraph, or listing off environmental fights they’ve been fighting. I feel uncomfortable about my complicity in ignoring the poor living conditions, the high suicide rates, the health problems faced by reserves and other challenges that the peoples of the First Nations face. It seems wrong to say “look, what we can gain by helping them in their fight” when we should have been willing to fight for them anyway, long before this. We need to be willing to take action even when we do not benefit directly. We need to be willing to admit our complacency in putting up with injustice, and then get to work making the changes.

That said, the First Nations have been fighting a lot of the big environmental fights. Here are just a few of the fights native groups in Canada have been fighting:

  1. Beaver Lake Cree against the Tar Sands
  2. First Nations groups against the Northern Gateway Pipeline.
  3.  Tsilhqot’in National Government and Xeni Gwet’in First Nation against the Prosperity Gold Mine. (They and their supporters have helped draw attention to the loophole in Schedule 2 of the Federal Fisheries Act, which allows lakes to be reclassified as toxic waste dumps.)
  4. Tahltan First Nation (and Forest Ethics) against gas drilling in the Sacred Headwaters, in Northern BC.
  5. Six First Nations groups against mining in the ring of fire, Northern Ontario.
  6. White River First Nations is using the court system to try to protect the caribou.

There are probably more that I don’t know about. The point is that the First Nations people have been fighting a lot of these struggles, because the land under development is theirs, and they are the ones to suffer the consequences. If we cannot find ways to do development in a sustainable way that will not chase away the animals and poison the water of the people who live near, then we do not need it. We need to put more energy into reusing and recycling the resources we have already extracted from the Earth and not digging up more. When we do extract resources, it needs to be with the full consent of those who live locally, in ways that will not disrupt their lives and affect their health.

The Canadian government has recognized that the First Nations rights pose a threat to their ability to rubber stamp environmentally damaging projects, and thus has taken to altering laws that reaffirm native rights. The Assembly of First Nations voiced their concerns about Bill C 45, the latest omnibus budget bill, back in November. They pointed out that one of the effects of the bill is:

The amendments to the Navigable Waters Protection Act will remove federal oversight from most of the lakes and rivers in Canada, including rivers that may be impacted by Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. The Minister of Transport will have the authority to approve projects that may affect the navigability of the 167 listed lakes, rivers and oceans. However, the Minister will not need to take into account First Nations rights, title, perspectives or interests.

Picture by Treana Campbell

Other changes are said to increase the amount of control the Federal government will have over reserve lands. It includes changes “to the Indian Act that will lower the threshold of community consent in the designation and surrender process of Indian Reserve Lands.” (See here.)

All across Canada, and with support from people worldwide, protests are being held. Native people and those standing in solidarity with them are saying they will be #idlenomore. I took my children to an #IdleNoMore protest today, to stand in solidarity with the First Nations people across Canada and with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence during her hunger-strike. I would encourage everyone who can to do the same. You can also write letters to the editor and to politicians.

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