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Indigenous Voices in Climate Activism: Autonomous or Subjugated?

The voices of First Nations, often key to environmental activism through land right battles, should not be subsumed by other activist groups, says Sara Santiago.

First Nations sign amongst Keystone XL protesters. (Photo: Sasha Kimel / Flickr)

Over the past few years, the climate fight has been predominantly fixated on a single piece of symbolic infrastructure, the Keystone XL pipeline, whose recent environmental impact statement from the US State Department has set the stage for a green-lighting of the project.

As activism heats up in response, environmental organizations are likely to pull out all the stops to prevent tar sands extraction and shipment, including growing more powerful connections with both potential and already established allies. In particular, mainstream environmental NGOs and First Nations have increasingly worked in solidarity and aligned with one another in the past year.

As environmentalists built their strategically structured campaigns on KXL and climate, indigenous peoples continued their historic fight for the environment on the basis of sovereignty and self-determination, with recently mounting voices. Just a little over a year ago, Idle No More (INM) mobilized around Chief Teresa Spence’s hunger strike in response to Canada’s Bill C-45, and INM quickly grew into an international movement. Idle No More has put indigenous voices on the map.

Yet, we don’t often hear indigenous voices in mainstream reporting on these issues.

In the United States especially, we are privy to the messages of immensely mobilized and savvy campaigners like, Sierra Club and Greenpeace, but indigenous voices are largely excluded from the mainstream debate. While in Canada the landscape is filled with a diversity of indigenous voices and communities, mainstream environmental NGOs have traditionally been – and remain – the loudest.

Land Rights: Litigation on the Rise

However, indigenous concerns and claims to sovereignty may be integral to environmentalists’ end game, as land rights provide a legal basis to halt individual infrastructure projects and resource extraction. This year especially will be one rife with litigation to prevent tar sands development. For example, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation is collecting research on the cumulative impacts of tar sands on communities and the environment to “mount an unprecedented constitutional challenge against the Albertan and Canadian government on behalf of the entire nation.” In the words of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) lawyer Larry Innes, “All litigation, all the time, is what I see on the horizon.”

Treaty rights present a critical leverage point for environmentalists to meet their goals of stopping the expansion and development of fossil fuels and bolstering global and national climate campaigns. According to Clayton Thomas Muller, a prominent environmental justice and indigenous rights organizer, in a recent keynote speech to the Parkland Institute, the “indigenous rights base will be the legal basis to stop oil sands expansion. In the history of environmentalism in Canada, no major environmental victory has been won without First Nations people at the helm and a very sophisticated social movement apparatus backing them up, for the last 40 years.”

So, treaty rights provide an opportunity for environmentalists, but what about exploitation of indigenous rights and voices?

Issue of (Mis)Representation:

First Nations present a multitude of voices, not necessarily a single, homogenous one that could easily be integrated into mainstream NGO campaigns. With requests spanning a range of approaches from resource development with consultation and conditions, or for no development whatsoever, this diversity may provoke fractioning in NGO campaigns, posing a challenge to those NGOs simply interested in integrating indigenous voices behind a single, clear ask.

But with whom indigenous peoples align (or do not align) is not the issue, as their voices are valuable in their own right. So often historically, and even presently, there have been conflicts between the interests of indigenous communities and major environmental NGOs that have sought to conserve lands on the premise that they are unpopulated, pristine wilderness.

In the Arctic, for instance, indigenous peoples hold a strong stance as Duane Smith, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) Canada, claimed in ICC Alaska’s June 2013 newsletter: “We certainly have no need or appetite to invite environmentalist groups to come to the Arctic and do the work under their logos and on our behalf.”

Is it not the indigenous communities who live, breathe and subsist upon the earth impacted by extraction who should have at the very least an active, equal say with corporations, governments and NGOs in what happens to the land on which their communities depend?

Hope in Meaningful Relationship Building:

The converging of First Nations and environmentalist activism poses a great threat to tar sands companies in 2014. Increasingly, these groups are acting in solidarity, with musician Neil Young’s Honor the Treaties Tour directly supporting AFCN’s litigation and groups like Rising Tide, and All Against Haul, uniting with indigenous communities like Nez Perce, Umatilla and Warm Springs in resisting megaload transit.

First Nations are smack dab in the center of resource development projects and should not be pushed to the periphery. It is therefore imperative that their voices be heard and communities be engaged meaningfully, beyond a letter of support or attending an event in solidarity. Ignoring First Nations insights and decisions and neglecting to include their stories in the extraction narrative is a disadvantage to all parties involved.

An organization may even consider Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) when engaging indigenous communities the way First Peoples Worldwide promotes companies, governments, researchers and NGOs alike. Through genuine and respectful engagement, a truly unified front is likely to emerge not just on tar sands, but on other issues like Arctic drilling, mining and deforestation, which impact communities and the environment on a global scale and demand thoughtful, nuanced engagement.