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Envirochat with the Indigenous Law Students’ Alliance

How environmental developments can proceed while respecting reconciliation

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Over the past couple of months, the Sustainability and Environmental Law Club has taken a new approach to its Envirochats by collaborating with other clubs to host joint events. This has led to interesting discussions involving the intersection of environmental laws with other cultural and social interests. March 12th-16th was Indigenous Awareness Week at Queen’s, which was aimed at facilitating education about the history of Indigenous peoples. On March 12th the SELC and the Indigenous Law Students’ Alliance met up at the Grad Club to discuss these very issues as well as Indigenous perspectives on Environmental stewardship. It was a great evening that featured lively discussions with good company, plenty of food, and a couple of pints.

To help give context to the multitude of issues surrounding Indigenous and environmental concerns, we discussed current development plans for Northern Ontario. The so-called ‘Ring of Fire’ zone is centred in the largest intact area of Boreal forest in the world and is estimated to be sitting on thirty to fifty billion dollars in mineral mining potential. While there is enormous interest to start tapping into the Ring of Fire, the government should proceed carefully in planning the future of the region.

Northern Ontario is subject to treaties with the Anishinaabe and Omushkego, meaning any development of the Ring of Fire region must be done in consultation with the First Nations people living there. The Ring of Fire area is home to 14 different Indigenous communities with an interest in the future of the region. The region is also the habitat of species at risk such as caribou, wolverine, and lake sturgeon, and is the nesting grounds for thousands of songbirds. The boreal forest is considered a “critical storehouse” of carbon in the fight against climate change. The forests and peat lands of this region absorb 12.5 million tonnes of global warming carbon dioxide emissions annually, while storing ninety-seven billion tonnes of carbon.

Premier Wynne promised one billion dollars to develop the Ring of Fire during the last Ontario provincial election, and development plans appear to be moving ahead. How we proceed as a society and as a government in the face of developments like the Ring of Fire will largely reflect the success of the Reconciliation movement. Indigenous culture and perspectives, as well as the needs of First Nations communities, need to be at the forefront of the proposed developments of traditional Indigenous lands. Respect for Indigenous land rights is integral in the effort to acknowledge the past and establish a new way for government to relate with First Nations on an equal footing. A huge part of the problem is that even where development projects are undertaken in Indigenous lands, the communities are shutout from profit sharing. The detrimental effects of this are compounded by the poor living conditions of Canada’s Indigenous communities. An Indigenous voice in the decision-making process of projects could not only lead to more environmentally responsible development plans, but also help alleviate some of the economic hardships many communities are facing.

Canadian society can learn a lot from the Indigenous philosophy of environmental stewardship and the balancing of social interests with those of the natural environment. Todays socioeconomic narrative focuses on exploiting natural resources for the benefit of society, without serious consideration of the potential consequences. In contrast, Indigenous culture is more aware of the interdependent relationship between society and the environment. The notion of environment stewardship means to take responsibility for profiting from the environment by participating in its conservation. The concept of ‘sustainable development’ is understandably confusing, if not paradoxical, and offers little guidance in how to exploit the natural environment while at the same time maintaining it. The Indigenous understanding of environmental stewardship can help define the notion of sustainability in a way that is meaningful.

Recent SCC decisions like Tsilhqot’in emphasize the ‘duty to consult’ First Nations peoples about resource projects on their land. It is still unclear how exactly the ‘duty to consult’ phrase will be defined; whether it will be treated as a mere notification formality, or whether Indigenous communities will have significant decision-making authority in the planning process of future developments. If Canadian society is serious about Reconciliation with the past, respecting Indigenous communities into the future, and bolstering environmental protection, we should strive for the latter.

Josef Gallant (3L) is a guest contributor.

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