The Earth Day Conversation We Should All Be Having: Indigenous Sovereignty is Inextricable from Climate Justice

This Earth Day, we find ourselves facing a powerful turning point. Once-polluted skies have cleared, revealing long unseen mountain peaks and starry nights. The hundred-mile songs of Gray Whales and Humpbacks in the Pacific Northwest can be heard echoing through the waters, uninterrupted by vessel traffic. Amidst this profound beauty, we’re also faced with unprecedented challenges driven by systemic inequality perpetuating the climate crisis.  


The United Nations has reported that up to 1 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction from pollution, habitat loss, climate disruption and other harmful human activities. The stark conclusion from countless scientific reports stated by the UN is that we only have 12 years to radically transform our entire economy to prevent the worst possible impacts of climate change.

Reporter Mike Ludwig writes, “While humans have “significantly altered” about three quarters of land-based environments and two-thirds marine environments, these trends have been less severe or avoided altogether in areas held or managed by Indigenous peoples and “local communities. “The latest U.N. report confirms what Indigenous communities and those asserting ‘community rights’ have known all along: That the best defenders of nature and biodiversity are the communities themselves; and that the best way to protect nature is for those communities to have the legal authority to recognize ecosystems as having rights and to veto harmful development projects,” said Thomas Linzey, executive director of the U.S.-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF).

It is clear that Indigenous sovereignty is inextricable from climate justice. In honour of today, and everyday that we continue to move forward on this path for human rights and environmental justice, a speech made by Eriel Deranger, a Dënesųłiné woman (ts’ékui), member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, in 2015 felt especially poignant:

“I’m an Indigenous person. And like many Indigenous People who work and walk within the environmental movement, I’ve never actually considered myself an environmentalist. First and foremost, I’m a proud member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the “people of the willow,” a reference to the Delta where my people have lived since time immemorial.

My people’s rights and culture are in the crosshairs of the largest project on Earth, the tar sands. The legacy of this project is one of contamination and out-of-control pollution that puts us all at risk. It consists of toxic lakes that cover 240 square kilometers, seeping contaminants into the river systems that my people rely on. It creates as much greenhouse gas emissions as all of the vehicles in Canada combined. And if left unchecked, it could double, if not triple. It’s out of control.

A new way forward is emerging and Indigenous Peoples are leading the way, from the Beaver Lake in Northern Alberta, who have set a legal precedent by launching litigation highlighting the tens of thousands of treaty violations created from tar sands extraction; to the Unist’ot’en, who have set up blockades stopping the construction of gas, oil and tar sands pipelines through their territory in Northern British Columbia; to the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, fighting the fracking of shale oil on their sacred lands, sparking an anti-fracking movement in Canada; to communities here in the United States like the Hidatsa, Arikara, and Mandan in North Dakota, challenging the development of the Bakken oil fields. And in the north, the Indigenous Inupiat communities have stood up en masse, challenging off-shore drilling in the Arctic, and it’s resulted in Shell pulling their application to drill.

As we continue to the South, the Nahuatl and the Otomi people of Mexico are rising up against the exploitation in their traditional territories, working alongside groups like the Zapatistas. The Awajun in Peru are challenging illegal exploration and exploitation in the Peruvian Amazon, and the Kichwa people of the Sarayaku in Ecuador are fighting oil and gas exploitation in their traditional territories in Ecuador.

Our people are becoming the face of the environmental movement, and this hasn’t happened by accident. It’s been our people having the legal and moral authority to stand up and challenge these systems of oppression that has brought us to where we are today. In addition, we have a deep spiritual connection to this place we call Mother Earth. Indigenous People of the global north and the global south have been utilizing a platform created by our ancestors—the foundations of our culture—to safeguard our river systems, our food systems, our culture, our identity and our land base.

There’s a prophecy that says that at this time in Earth’s history, the eagle and the condor will rejoin, remembering they are one. They will reconnect and remember their common origin and share knowledge and wisdom and save each other. The eagle and the condor will fly together and the world will come into balance at a point of near extinction. We are at that point now.

If we do not work together, we will not survive. A new consciousness is emerging. Indigenous People globally are demanding recognition of who we are, and there’s an undeniable resurgence of indigeneity and Indigenous People reclaiming their places and spaces in society. This couldn’t be more true than what we are witnessing in the environmental movement. We have a future worth fighting for.”

As the price of oil plunged to $0 — a historic low — on the eve of Earth Day, the world can no longer look away from this moment of crisis and opportunity.

Research shows that accelerating climate change will have unparalleled impacts on global health, both human and environmental. Despite the ongoing viral pandemic that reveals just how unprepared systems and infrastructures are to handle such crises, the government is continuing to push through fossil fuel expansion even with the plunge in oil prices and current economic downturn. We need an investment in global public health, for the long haul, rather than short term symptomatic solutions. The Wet’suwet’en recently launched a legal challenge that addresses just that. Two Wet’suwet’en Houses launched a legal challenge, asking the Federal Court to declare that Canada has a constitutional duty to keep the country’s greenhouse gas emissions well within the Paris Agreement limit of 2C above pre-industrial levels. If successful, the lawsuit could lead to far-reaching changes to Canada’s environmental legislation. It would enable the federal cabinet to cancel approvals previously given to fossil fuel projects such as Coastal Gas Link, liquefied natural gas terminals, and others.

Charting a new course that commits to climate justice and respects human rights is, so clearly, the way forward. As author Terry Tempest Williams says, “Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find.” This Earth Day, it’s never been more clear that we are one human family, together. Despite our physical separation, we are utterly connected. The future will be shaped by the actions we take in the present, by the alliances we choose to uplift, and our capacity for compassion. Let’s take action now, together, for our common future. 


Today, in celebration of Earth Day, from April 22-30th, Luke Wallace, beloved Salt Spring musician, is offering a download of his new album to RAVEN donors. What better way to support Indigenous rights, stop pipelines, mines and tar sands: AND get some great new tunes!  Please consider donating today: give $50 and receive Luke Wallace’s latest album, What on Earth. Today’s Earth Day action is part of Solidarity from Home, an online hub keeping you informed and helping you share ways to stay engaged on Indigenous rights and environmental justice during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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