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Climate Change: An Issue Rooted in Colonialism

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

This week we have introduced our March topic, Indigenous people and the environment. One cannot think about “the environment” in the present time without thinking of climate change. Climate change is defined by the United Nations as “long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns,” and may be natural, “such as through variations in the solar cycles,” or through human activities, such as “burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.” [1]

Image: https://climateinstitute.ca/reports/indigenous-perspectives/

In a 2019 National Climate Assessment Report, the United Nations found that “Indigenous peoples are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, due to their dependence upon, and close relationship, with the environment and its resources.” [2]

For many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit groups in Canada, a deep connection to the land and relationship with the environment has underpinned existence since time immemorial. Climate change impacts Indigenous peoples’ culture, society, and economy. In contrast, colonial Canada has viewed the natural world as “resources” that further capitalist culture. [3] For Indigenous peoples in Canada, climate change is not just an environmental issue. Many Indigenous leaders attribute climate change to a root cause of colonialism. [4]

The impact of climate change threatens the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples, as populations of fish and animals are diminished or displaced. Aboriginal rights can be strictly applied to geographic areas, which impacts treaty rights to hunting and fishing for sustenance as wildlife populations decrease.

Respect for the environment has not been an underlying principle for colonial Canada’s interactions with the natural world. Extraction of natural resources, production of materials, oil and gas, and water usage has been pursued with little thought to how it may impact future generations. In contrast, many Indigenous nations across Canada consider themselves to be stewards of the land, and seriously contemplate their relationships with the land, water and wildlife, and their responsibilities towards the environment. [5]

The contribution of Indigenous people to the research on the impact of climate change in Canada has been “largely ignored or largely discounted by scientific investigations.” [6] Groups such as Indigenous Climate Action seek Indigenous-led Climate Justice, believing that “Indigenous Peoples’ rights and knowledge systems are critical to developing solutions to the climate crisis and achieving climate justice.” [7] The Government of Canada acknowledged the importance of Indigenous Knowledge in combatting climate change in its 2019 report. [8]

Indigenous knowledge “carries ancient and intergenerational wisdom that is flexible, fluid, and adaptive as it evolves through relationships with the land and other beings… this knowledge evolves from and is responsive to the natural world, which makes it ideal for developing and advancing meaningful climate solutions.” [9]

From a legal perspective, Indigenous peoples in Canada can challenge Canadian climate change policy through section 35 Aboriginal rights and section 7 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms rights to security of the person. [10]

Climate change requires all citizens to act collectively to prevent further detriment to the environment. Although climate change is disproportionately affecting Indigenous people first, it will affect everyone- every Canadian, and every global citizen. Indigenous knowledge and solutions should be considered at the forefront, and traditional perspectives on the environment, and how humans interact with it, should be guiding principles.

Until next time,

Team ReconciliACTION YEG




[1] United Nations, “What is Climate Change?” (last visited 16 Mar 2023), United Nations, online: <www.un.org/en/climatechange/what-is-climate-change>. [2] United Nations, “Climate Change” (last visited 16 Mar 2023), United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Indigenous Peoples, online: <www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/climate-change.html>. [3] Climate Atlas of Canada, “Indigenous Knowledges and Climate Change” (last visited 16 Mar 2023), Climate Atlas of Canada, online: <https://climateatlas.ca/indigenous-knowledges-and-climate-change>. [4] Ibid. [5] ACLRC, “Stewards of the Land”, Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre (last visited 16 Mar 2023), online: <www.aclrc.com/stewards-of-land>. [6] John Newton, et al. “Climate Change and Natural Hazards in Northern Canada: Integrating Indigenous Perspectives with Government Policy”, Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change (2005) 10: 541 at page 541. [7] Indigenous Climate Action, “Climate Justice. Indigenous-Led” (last visited 16 Mar 2023), online: <www.indigenousclimateaction.com/>. [8] Government of Canada, “Canada’s Changing Climate Report” (2019), online (pdf): <changingclimate.ca/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2020/06/CCCR_FULLREPORT-EN-FINAL.pdf>. [9] Supra note 3. [10] Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Adam Shedletzky, “Aboriginal Peoples and Legal Challenges to Canadian Climate Change Policy”, Western Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 4 [2014] Iss. 2., Art 1.


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