Climate action and policy must be Indigenous-led, youth leaders say in new report

With Indigenous communities 18 times more likely to be evacuated due to climate emergencies, action and policy must be Indigenous-led, says a new report from Deloitte Canada.

The consulting firm polled Indigenous youth from across the country to determine what kind of climate action and policy they want to see.

The report says Indigenous people in Canada have been excluded from decision-making about land and resource management, and climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.

At the same time, they are disproportionately impacted "by changes to climate and the environment, which threaten their physical well-being and the survival of their spiritual and cultural practices," the report says.

Released Tuesday, the report is the fourth in a series titled "Voices of Indigenous youth leaders on reconciliation," an initiative between Deloitte's Future of Canada Centre and Indigenous Youth Roots, known until last year as Canadian Roots Exchange.

Among other recommendations, the report calls for Indigenous leaders to be given space to participate meaningfully in environmental decision-making, and for governments to transition to "more conscientious" Indigenous-led land management.

Torontonian Siera Hancharyk decided to take part in the survey because she experiences climate anxiety, and is worried about how the environment will be left for future generations.

"Are we going to have clear air to breathe? Are we going to have clean drinking water?" Hancharyk told CBC in an interview.

"I worry about what we're leaving … for our children, I have a six year old and I am so worried about what we're leaving behind for him — it scares me."

Siera Hancharyk, from Wiikwemkong First Nation, says she has seen changes in the land of her community, due to climate change.
Siera Hancharyk, from Wikwemikong First Nation in Ontario, says she has seen changes in her community's land due to climate change. (Submitted by Siera Hancharyk)

Hancharyk said the impacts of climate change is something she's seen on the lands of her home community Wikwemikong First Nation, 350 kilometres northwest of Toronto.

"What I have noticed personally is the birch bark from birch trees, we're unable to get the good slices off the trees like we could in the past, and we have to harvest from more trees than [previously]," said Hancharyk.

She said the bark, which is used to make canoes and jewelry, is drier because of drought, and trees are increasingly more impacted by disease and fungus.

Disease among animals in the area is also on the rise, she said, and the water of Lake Huron is impacted as well.

"The waters around where we used to swim as children are getting quite contaminated … I don't even like to go swimming at the beach anymore when I go back home."

Mitch Mercredi, director of nation building with Deloitte Canada, has seen the impacts of climate change on water in his community, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in northeastern Alberta.

"I've seen pictures, I've heard stories from elders … [about] how the water was higher, and now the water is a lot lower," Mercredi said.

"It affected a lot of the climate around there, such as animals that used to be closer, there's starting to leave because it is … shallow water."

Climate change hitting Indigenous communities harder

According to Deloitte, First Nations land is more likely affected by environmental disasters caused by climate change, such as floods, wildfires, and drought.

"Studies show that Indigenous people living on reserve are … 18 times more likely than other communities to be evacuated due to climate emergencies and disasters," said Mercredi.

Mitch Mercredi, director and nation building advisor for Deloitte Canada, says the report highlights how Indigenous youth should be part of climate action and policy.
Mitch Mercredi, director of nation-building with Deloitte Canada, says the report highlights how Indigenous youth should be part of climate action and policy. (Submitted by Mitch Mercredi)

He also noted that 81 per cent of First Nations lands are exposed to flooding.

Mercredi said this is mostly due to "environmental racism," which he describes as "the proximity of waste and industrial facilities to many Indigenous communities."

For Hancharyk, one of the most telling examples of environmental racism is what's happening in Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario.

"These are lands that [they] were forced onto and given by the so-called Crown, and yet they're still trying to take what little lands we have left to extract all the resources they can without … proper [consent]," she said.

Pollution from a nearby paper mill has led to high levels of mercury in the English-Wabigoon river system, which is used by the First Nation.

Hancharyk says the community didn't consent to the mill, and members were not informed about the potential risk to the water.

Bringing Indigenous knowledge into climate action

Young people who participated in the Deloitte survey told researchers that Indigenous traditional knowledge is what's missing from climate action and policy.

"Governments, business, and higher learning and research institutions should recognize Indigenous peoples' traditional knowledge and experience as equally indispensable as Western approaches," Mercredi said.

"A lot of our Indigenous knowledge keepers have lived on the land their entire life, they are able to read patterns within the environment, they can tell movements of animals … they know what's happening out in the field just by … living on the land."

However, he said, they are not treated as experts because "they may not have a degree, they may not want to [go to] a westernized school, therefore their opinion is not … worthy."

Mercredi said governments and Indigenous groups are now starting to take into consideration Indigenous traditional knowledge, by taking knowledge keepers out onto the land. But he said more can be done.

Hancharyk said Indigenous knowledge and science has helped her ancestors survive over the years.

"For years we survived … without disease, we survived without great famines, we survived living with the land in harmony," said Hancharyk.

"We had our own farming system. You take a look at the 'three sisters' — we would plant the squash, the corn and the beans, and they would all coincide together, so we had great ways of knowing," she said.

"It wasn't just westernized science, it was the Indigenous science."

Growing up, Hancharyk learned the Seven Grandfathers teachings, including humility. In the context of climate action, that refers to the humility to listen to and work with others, she said.

She said she tends to look at the world "with rose-coloured glasses," and remains optimistic, in large part because she's seen just how open climate activists are to working with Indigenous people.

"The main mission that I live by is non Indigenous folks have so much to teach me, and I have so much to teach non Indigenous folks," said Hancharyk.

"I just really hope together we can leave a beautiful future for our children."