Indigenous Populations Lead Climate Justice Movements in Canada

The Indigenous population in Canada (5%) is one of the largest among countries that share a similar colonial history. Statistics Canada (September 2022) reports 1,807,250 Indigenous peoples involving three very diverse groups/populations – First Nations (1,048,405), Métis (624,220) and Inuit (70,545). The remaining include multiple Indigenous identities reflected in over 70 Indigenous languages. Of the 600 First Nations communities, 40% live on reserves, 14% off reserve, and 45% in urban areas; Méti live primarily in the western provinces and Ontario, many in urban cities; the Inuit live primarily across the northern Arctic (Inuit Nunangat). Census data shows Ontario with the largest Indigenous population (406,590), followed by B.C. (290,210), Alberta (284,470) and Manitoba (237,190). Overall, 801,045 live in large urban centres.

Statistics Canada shows despite some gains in accessing training that Indigenous populations are under-represented in Canada’s labour market given marginalization, misunderstood cultures, geographic remoteness, and poverty. Isolated communities experience under-funding of on-reserve education; unreliable internet; and corollary effects of residential school syndrome and limited jobs. Indigenous businesses, self-employment and entrepreneurship are growing.

The Indigenous Climate Hub (a Canadian online platform) confirms many indigenous people share concerns over climate changes threatening traditional ways of life. The Assembly of First Nations (Canadian) shares the aboriginal relationship with the earth and all living things. They believe in a profound spiritual connection to Mother Earth that guides their practice of reverence, humility and reciprocity.

Climate change has impacted northern Indigenous communities severely given sea level rise, flooding, forest fires, drought, fisheries, landslides, aging infrastructure, and winter road failures. In 2022, the UN stated that permafrost melting is displacing villages, and disrupting fragile animal habitats while threatening to release frozen dangerous microorganisms. Other challenges across Canada include pipelines crossing native lands, pipeline leaks contaminating water, landfills and incinerators built near reserves, crowded and poorly built housing, reliance on diesel for electricity generation and space heating, and diminished capacity to maintain traditional knowledge, language and rights of hunting, fishing, and trapping. Climate change is depleting food sources and affecting the mental and physical health of those living off the land meaning less ability to identify/ prepare for climate risks, and inequalities and gain input into complex regulatory frameworks.

Indigenous Peoples have led, and continue to lead environmental and climate justice movements through peaceful protests often to save old-growth forest ecosystems, or turn down pipelines and public resource extractions from ancestral lands.  Police or RCMP’s presence continue as recently as at the UN Biodiversity Conference (Montreal) in December 2022. Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, however, is clear that Canada’s pledge to conserve 30% of Canada’s land and sea by 2030 has no path without Canadian Indigenous-led conservation in Canada.

In 2022, Canada’s federal budget funding included the following allocations to mitigate the impact of climate change on Indigenous populations:

  • $29.6M over three years, to support an Indigenous Climate Leadership Agenda to support self-determined action on Indigenous Peoples’ climate priorities;
  • $103.4M over five years, for a National Benefits-Sharing Framework for natural resources and expansion of the Indigenous Natural Resource Partnerships program;
  • $398M over two years, to support community infrastructure on reserves; of which at least $247M will be directed to water and wastewater infrastructure;
  • $173.2M over ten years to transfer water/wastewater services in 17 communities to the Atlantic First Nations Water Authority;
  • $162.6M over three years to complete infrastructure in the Lubicon Lake agreement;
  • $4B over seven years, to accelerate work in closing Indigenous housing gaps; and
  • $300M over five years through CMHC to develop and launch an Urban, Rural, and Northern Indigenous Housing strategy, and other monies to target the housing needs of First Nations children.
  • $3.7M over three years for 33 conservation projects to recover species at risk (June 2022)
  • $800M over seven years toward 4 Indigenous-led conservation projects to protect up to one million square km in conserving 30% of our land and waters by 2030 (Dec 2022)

Between 2015 – March 2022, $5.3 billion lifted 131 long-term drinking water advisories with 34 remaining and $2.7 billion was spent on the housing needs of Indigenous people. Since 2016, funding has supported 5 programs toward a low-emissions energy future including hundreds of projects in northern and Indigenous communities for initiatives such as monitoring pattern shifts in flora and fauna, assessing impacts of coastal erosion, permafrost thaw and ice melt and offsetting diesel fuel use with clean energy projects such as wind, biomass and solar.

There will never be enough monies for those on the frontlines of climate change. The frequency of disasters will increase as Canada potentially warms at a rate two times faster than the global average, while the north warms three to four times faster. Canada’s Assembly of First Nations announced at COP27 and again in February 2023 that Canada must take urgent and transformative climate action to achieve IPCC’s emissions reduction target of 60% below 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050. No better option.

This post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Canada Country Manager Diane Szoller.

Image: RCMP invasion of Wet’suwet’en Nation territory breaches Canada’s ‘rule of law’


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