Will Indigenous Voices Be Heard at the Paris Climate Conference?

by Kristen Cochrane

In the midst of the polemical environmental debate between the reactionaries of the right and the activists of the left, an under-examined knowledge system remains neglected. As the descendants of those who carved nations out of “New Worlds” fight over contamination of the planet, ancient epistemologies are being erased, along with the peoples who existed before systematic colonization.

Many scholars of indigenous peoples, such as Professor John Borrows, Canada Research Chair In Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria, criticize the dominance of “Western” science as an extension of modernity’s intellectual project which privileges European frameworks. In the modernist era, all other systems were considered primitive and this attitude prevailed not only in science, but also in the arts, as evidenced by paintings by Paul Gauguin and literature by Honoré de Balzac, for instance. Since then, the arts and humanities have attempted to move on from this gross and condescending myopia, yet science remains rooted in its modernist rearing, dictating its methods and structures to fields of inquiry that have differing bodies of knowledge, such as indigenous epistemologies.

At the current United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, there is one body led by indigenous peoples – the International Indigenous Peoples Forum, launched in 2000 in light of the urgent need for these voices to be represented. Its biggest achievement in consciousness-raising to date is the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But its objectives remain critical and include the eradication of hunger and malnutrition caused by environmental degeneration in ecosystems worldwide and stopping the diminution of traditional food sources. And these are only a couple amongst countless examples of the damaging relationship between indigenous rights and the environment.

In The Guardian’s briefing on “Everything you need to know about the Paris climate summit and UN talks,” the indigenous body of the conference is left out, as is the importance of considering the views of first peoples during discussions on environmental commitment. In Canada, national newspapers such as the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and the National Post have omitted the topical concerns of indigenous peoples, despite newly elected and ostensibly socially progressive Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet being heralded for its inclusion of indigenous ministers. And while The New York Times is typically fastidious in its coverage of the critical Keystone XL pipeline and other needed critiques of environmental issues, indigenous politics are not on their agenda. It’s a common but shameful exclusion, particularly when the environment provides the primary livelihood for many native peoples. Researcher and scholar Gleb Raygorodetsky points this out by reminding us that the low-carbon practices in traditional lifestyles hardly impact climate change, but that the indigenous population is the first to be profoundly affected by it:

“The very identity of indigenous peoples is inextricably linked with their lands, which are located predominantly at the social-ecological margins of human habitation – such as small islands, tropical forests, high-altitude zones, coasts, desert margins and the circumpolar Arctic. Here at these margins, the consequences of climate change include effects on agriculture, pastoralism, fishing, hunting and gathering and other subsistence activities, including access to water.”

Dr. Niigaanwewidam Sinclair is an Anishinaabe researcher and scholar at the University of Manitoba, who has spoken about the legacy of domination that French explorer Jacques Cartier contributed to when he arrived on the shores of the land we now call Canada. Most Canadians remember the publicly funded heritage commercials from the 1990s, where we watched fragments of history in 60 seconds. These commercials reveal a regrettable historical amnesia, as the cruel, residential schools are erased, and the exploitation of Chinese labourers on the Canadian Pacific Railway is omitted. Most Canadians remember the one that  “enlightened” us on the origin of our great nation’s name as stemming from indigenous peoples we encountered who called it “Kanata,” meaning village. What these advertisements don’t feature, as Dr. Sinclair explains, is Cartier planting a thirty-foot cross on this land and demanding to know where the gold and spices are, to which the indigenous peoples respond, “Kanata.” But Kanata does not merely refer to a physical village; it means community, as a charitable, inclusive environment.

The above-mentioned notion of indigenous peoples as welcoming and outside of a capitalist framework is excluded from dominant narratives due to what Cherokee writer Thomas King calls the notion of the Dead Indians. By Dead Indians, King is not referring to literally dead first peoples, although the genocide and torture in residential schools certainly reflect this tragic history. Instead, he is humorously evoking Jean Baudrillard, the French thinker who discussed the Disney theme parks as examples of simulacra. You don’t have to be a philosophy student to notice that the pavilions at Disney’s Epcot theme park that represent eleven countries are copies of something that does not exist – the Canadians in lumberjack clothing and the Germans in lederhosen are features of these simulacra, wherein fictional narratives become reified, or made into objects that represent false truths.

People who are marginalized by ‘race,’ gender, sexual orientation, ability or place, disproportionately face absurd simulacra that become harmful attachments to their lives. The Dead Indian, then, is a way of articulating how the notion of “the Indian” was formulated by the European settler. King reminds us that North America has a long relationship with native peoples, but “North America no longer sees Indians.” He claims that, “it sees war bonnets, beaded skirts, fringed deerskin dresses, loincloths, headbands, feathered lances, tomahawks, moccasins, face paint, and bone chokers.” If we extend this into the current political climate and its intersection with festival culture, young festival goers see the venerable headdress as an innocent accessory to wear to Coachella. For indigenous peoples such as Plains nations, however, the headdress is an object that one must earn through long-standing honour. Montreal-based Métis activist Chelsea Vowel, who writes the website âpihtawikosisân.com, says that a settler wearing a native headdress is akin to holding an honorary degree from a university. Vowel calls the headdress a “restricted item,” and says that it is further restricted to the man who has earned it.

A common question is, why is this offensive? Another being, is this reverse racism? The consensus amongst indigenous peoples and allies is that reverse racism is not possible in this case, because whites and settlers have not been systematically or institutionally oppressed. The oppression of native peoples is still ongoing, and attempts at “unsettling” or resisting the new colonialism are being forged. Yet they are thwarted when whites and settlers still claim to own and manage the objects and symbols of peoples who survived literal and figurative erasure. As Canadian political researcher Richard Day notes, colonized territories such as Canada have “a long history of attempts at governmental management of ethnocultural identities within the territory now claimed by the Canadian state,” such as the process of constructing “problematic Others (Savages, Québécois, Half-breeds, Immigrants) who have been distinguished from unproblematic Selves (French, British, British-Canadian, European).” It’s difficult to charge descendents of settlers with reverse racism and reverse oppression when native peoples are simply trying to achieve emancipation. Emancipation, however, is hindered when antiracist and anticolonialist activism is discredited.

How, then, can unsettling and self-determination occur in an environment that is covertly and overtly hostile? Especially when these peoples are read as stereotypes and frequently suffer from debilitating mental health issues linked to cultural genocide and cultural stress? Author of Red Skin, White Masks Glen Sean Coulthard argues that since the emergence of the Red Power consciousness-raising movement in the 1960s, the narratives of “reconciliation” between native peoples and settlers have been fundamentally colonialist rather than emancipatory. With this in mind, deference and humility must be established amongst thinkers, students, government officials, and media organizations. And during the Paris conference, the International Indigenous Peoples Forum should be brought to the fore, rather than tokenized for representation under the guise of progress.

It’s essential that the UN’s Paris Climate Change Conference takes a holistic approach that combines traditional and indigenous knowledge. This necessitates the inclusion of the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in political consciousness-raising, such as the Paris Climate Conference’s International Indigenous People’s Forum. Imperialism and racism cannot end when the status quo is exclusionary. Nor can environmental catastrophe be avoided without paying heed to this vital source of information.


Image Courtesy of Survival International

The image depicts a group of Innu, a formerly nomadic hunter-gatherer people who dwell in an area of northeastern Canada known as Nitassinan, “our land”, in the Innu language. They have been acutely affected by climate change and government policy in recent decades.


Photograph by Adam Hinton

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