Indigenous voices must be prioritized when fighting climate change

Those harmed by climate change need to be heard

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A large orange fire covering the sky above a town.
PHOTO: Province of British Columbia / Flickr

By: Hailey Miller, Staff Writer

The effects of climate change disproportionately harm Indigenous communities, yet their voices are often overlooked. Many Indigenous communities, especially those outside large cities, rely on natural resources for livelihood and sustenance, and are at a higher risk of health problems due to exposure to wildfire smoke. They’re also being displaced from their homes at significant rates due to wildfire evacuations. Climate action should prioritize the voices of those most affected by climate change, and Indigenous Peoples have been protecting the environment for thousands of years.

BC’s worsening wildfire conditions have resulted in an increase in drought and disruption to ecosystems. This includes harmful pollutants and toxic gases from wildfire smoke, alongside extreme weather conditions and a lack of fresh water supply. BC’s wildfire season has begun exceptionally early this year, following last year’s record-breaking season. Many communities have been affected by the wildfires, including Skeetchestn, near Kamloops. Here, the wildfires have threatened the salmon habitat, as well as food and medicine supplies

Many Indigenous communities rely on fishing, hunting, and plant harvesting as a means of food supply and ceremony. For instance, on Truth and Reconciliation Day last year, Líl̓wat Nation and N’Quatqua First Nation closed down Pipi7iyekw (Joffre Lakes Park) for a harvest celebration. Some Indigenous Peoples also use plants for traditional medicinal purposes, and land for ceremonial and burial purposes. Climate change threatens the availability of these natural resources, and by extension the ecological security of Indigenous Lands and Indigenous communities. While climate action has gained traction in recent years, Indigenous Peoples have been caretaking for the natural environment for millenia.

Community-led action involves staying connected to and taking care of both the environment and communities. Some ways Indigenous Peoples are doing this are by using renewable energy, curating climate conversations across generations and communities, and using Indigenous traditions and languages. Montana First Nation’s Green Arrow Corp, which was founded in 2012, is the first Indigenous-owned solar energy company in western Canada, which is operated by their community members. Similarly, Indigenous Climate Action curates programs across the country that raise awareness about the climate crisis and emphasize how Indigenous rights are essential to climate justice.  

The climate crisis is also disrupting communities. Extreme weather events result in community displacement and reduced access to food and supplies, which threatens cultures and traditions. Alongside physical and often irreversible damage to lands and species, human health risks are a significant threat to communities. Climate-related conditions such as chronic respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, and cancer are just a few results of the climate crisis. 

Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis, yet the Canadian government often leaves them out of climate talks and resolutions. To successfully combat the risks of climate change, we must work with Indigenous communities and leaders to respect their Lands, and allow Indigenous Peoples full liberty to initiate collective care of the environment. Prioritizing Indigenous rights will shift our efforts beyond climate awareness to equity and collaboration.

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