Uprooting environmental racism

RAVEN’s vision for a just and sustainable future calls for us to push back against environmental racism. But what does ‘environmental racism’ really mean, and how can folks committed to anti-racist, decolonizing work participate in dismantling it? 

Coined by Benjamin Chavis, a Black civil rights leader, the term ‘environmental racism’ refers to a set of practices that engender systemic discrimination in environmental policy-making, such as the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities.  In Canada, environmentally racist policies disproportionately impact Indigenous communities through exposure to toxins, neglect of health and safety, and dispossession from governing or accessing ancestral territories. Too often, Indigenous lands and waters are turned into sacrifice zones for profit, with Nations forced to live in the fallout zones of destructive industries. 

The ongoing on-reserve water crisis, Heiltsuk Nation’s experience with the Nathan E. Stewart disaster, and the mercury poisoning of the Grassy Narrows community are but three toxic examples of environmental racism in Canada that persist to the present day. 

From the Indian Act to the maintenance of racist systems of land tenure, inequities and erasures of Indigenous Peoples rights are baked into Canada’s legal system. It is the work of a new generation of activists to unflinchingly acknowledge the pervasiveness of systemic discrimination and to work to uproot the malignancies that grip this country. 

While daunting, the decolonizing project is greatly strengthened thanks to Indigenous laws and practices that are currently undergoing a vital resurgence. The caretaker values at the heart of pre-colonial – and, indeed, post-colonial – Indigenous legal frameworks offer a way forward for all of us to cultivate healthy relationships with the land, and with one another. 

A doctrine of dehumanization

When colonists first arrived in the ‘new world’, they used the Doctrine of Discovery to claim lands in the name of foreign kings and queens. The laws and practices that ensued attempted to erase legal frameworks that had been long established by the estimated 60-100 million Indigenous Peoples who lived on Turtle Island. 

From the sixteenth century forward, Indigenous Peoples were forcibly removed from their lands through violent, often genocidal practices. 

The initial phase of colonization saw the deliberate spread of smallpox and disease, the wipeout of the buffalo — the staple food of plains peoples — and forcible removal to reserves that comprised too small a fraction of the lands required to sustain life. The upshot of these racist policies was the collapse of traditional economies and the reduction of Indigenous Peoples to the barest survival. The residential school system followed, with its aim to “take the Indian out of the child” in a program of forced cultural assimilation that devastated communities and pushed languages to the brink of extinction. Current practices of fossil fuel expansion continue the toxic legacy, threatening wild salmon food webs that have sustained communities for millennia.

Though Canada signed treaties with many Nations, the guarantees to the rights to hunt, fish, gather and practice culture on traditional territories ‘for as long as the sun shines and the rivers flow’ were  jettisoned as colonizers appropriated ever more resources from Indigenous lands. 


In practicing environmental racism, settlers missed the very richness embodied in the lands they strove to dominate. Fixated upon commodifying the land, they missed the powerful web of laws that Indigenous Peoples had crafted out of thousands of years of close observation and dedicated stewardship of ecosystems. Settlers literally paved over and swept aside those laws to usher in approaches and practices that had no roots, no origins, in the particulars of North American soil. They attempted to plant a monoculture where once there was a richly biodiverse storyscape; a ‘mythosphere’ intended to instruct human beings in how to conduct themselves in relation to the natural world. 

For 500 years, Indigenous Peoples have not been considered stakeholders on the very lands from which they draw their cultural identities and languages – lands whose ecology they know in deep and intimate detail. 

It’s time for that to change. 

Ways Forward: Rights, in relationship 

How do we move from a country rooted in environmental racism, towards an Indigenous-led understanding where humans and nature function in relationship with one another for the good of all species?  

Here are three ways forward:

  1. Enshrine an enforcement of treaty rights into law;
  2. Establish Aboriginal title to unceded territories; 
  3. Follow an Indigenous-led Tribal Park model. 

Let’s discuss those models as they relate to the work of RAVEN. 

First: for those new to this organization, RAVEN (Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs) is the only non-profit charitable organization in Canada that uses the power of the community  to fund access to justice for Indigenous Peoples. Our work supports systemic, deeply impactful change by fundraising for strategic and focused Indigneous legal challenges. 

Indigenous Peoples in Canada have some of the most powerful environmental rights in the world – but those rights are meaningless if we can’t afford to uphold them in court. With RAVEN’s financial assistance, our Indigenous partners have defeated the odds and won time and time again in court. Together, we’ve stopped pipelines, pushed back against tar sands expansion, halted open pit mines and created better laws. 

Tactic  #1: Enforce Treaty Rights

The Beaver Lake Cree are located right at the heart of Canada’s tar sands – ground zero for the largest industrial project on Earth. 

The tar sands involve both open-pit mining of bitumen, and ‘in-situ’ steam extraction to pull bitumen from deep within the Earth. Both methods cause devastating water pollution in the extraction and mining process, while the ‘sour’ crude product that results from the process is among the dirtiest forms of carbon on the planet. 

Beaver Lake Cree Nation is taking on the Canadian and Alberta governments in an unprecedented legal action to stop the expansion of the tar sands industries and protect their lands. 

The case argues that Beaver Lake Cree lands, waters and resources have become inaccessible and unusable for the exercise of the Nation’s rights under Treaty 6 – the hunting, fishing and gathering of plants that constitutes the community’s food security and livelihood. 

This will be the first time the Court will have to consider whether the government has authorized too much industrial development without meaningful regard to treaty rights. A victory in the Tar Sands Trial would become a strong precedent for treaty Nations, because it would force new projects to be evaluated not on a one-by one basis but according to their cumulative impact on treaty rights. 

The tar sands trial has been called a game changer. Now in its 12th year, the case is poised to bring about an ecosystems-based approach to land use management that would make regulators accountable to the needs of Indigenous peoples and the health of the natural environment that they rely on to survive and thrive. 

Tactic #2: Establish Aboriginal Title

Next, we’ll look at how legal recognition of pre-existing Secwepemc title to their homeland would enshrine caretaker values into law, transforming planning and approvals processes for land use in the entire title area – an area of about 180,000 square kilometers in the interior of British Columbia. 

As Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Chief Ron Ignace tells us: stories, in Indigenous law, are like deeds to the land – cautionary tales, instructive tales. Stories also became like deeds in the double meaning of the word, in that these oral histories are now being used as evidence of pre-existing title to lands and waters. For Indigneous Nations engaged in the struggle to assert their sovereignty,  stories are a bridge between the pre-colonial past and a decolonized future.   


Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation is going to court to secure Aboriginal title to unceded traditional territory: lands and water that were never surrendered through treaty.  The Secwepemc determination to pursue title to their lands in court is grounded in Secwepemc Indigenous law and the concept of yecweminem — the obligation to care protect land, water and sky worlds within Secwepemc territory.

A title win would facilitate new, healthier economic development and ecological management practices. The Secwepemc have a process and way of managing the land and resources at maximum productivity that had kept the land in a near pristine state and benefited each succeeding generation for the last 12,000 years. The title case will facilitate the application of that established knowledge into the future management and development of the land and resources for future generations, benefitting Secwepemc and settlers alike. 

Tactic #3: Enshrine Tribal Parks

Until now, Indigenous people have been excluded from the right to exercise responsibility and authority; they have even been excluded from parklands within their territories that were ostensibly established to protect ecosystems. Today, Tŝilhqot’in Nation aims to overturn such environmentally racist practices through the creation of a new designation: the Tribal Park. 

Since time immemorial, Tŝilhqot’in leadership and communities have consistently upheld their responsibility to care for the land. For generations, the six communities that make up the Tŝilhqot’in Nation have been resisting ecological threats including hydroelectric development, clear-cut logging and open-pit mining.

“Today, we’re in a position to manage the land for ourselves, according to our values, and at a time when pressure from industries in the region has never been greater. Our people have a right and a responsibility to be actively involved in any decisions about how our traditional territory is managed.”

Former Yunesit’in Chief Russ Myers Ross,

RAVEN supported the Tsilhqot’in in their decade-long legal fight to stop Taseko Mines Ltd from turning the sacred lake of Teztan Biny into a tailings pond via the construction of an open pit gold and copper mine. 

Dasiqox Park was envisioned as an alternative to Taseko’s destructive vision. Conceived of as an Indigenous-managed land, water and wildlife refuge, Dasiqox Tribal Park will cover 300,000 hectares of  traditional Tŝilhqot’in territory in south central British Columbia. 

The vision for Dasiqox Park is possible thanks to legal victories won with the help of RAVEN’s community. Dasiqox offers a new way forward in self-determination and Indigenous ecological management, for future generations. 

Joining forces: practicing the ‘law of the land’

While Canada procrastinates, Indigenous Nations are doing the work of reclaiming their sovereignty and revitalizing their cultures. Their enduring laws emphasize the importance of healing relationships to bring the worlds — natural, political, and social — into balance. 

Says Dr. John Borrows, Anishinabe/Ojibway lawyer and co-founder of the Joint Degree Program in Indigenous and Canadian Common Law at the University of Victoria:

“We have law because we’re beautiful, as Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, we also have law because we’re messed up. So for many Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples,  law can be a site of healing because it attempts to address our relationships: not just our relationships where things have gone wrong, but also aspirationally, where we hope to be as peoples.”

Dr. John Borrows

To move beyond environmental racism, it is up to each and every person to engage in anti-racist, justice-seeking action in their own lives and work, and in the broader society. Supporting access to justice for Indigenous Nations who are pursuing their environmental rights in court lays the foundation for a new way forward in cooperating with each other and with the land – not as species or cultures apart, but as dynamic collaborators in the web of life in which each member is an integral part of a dynamic whole. 

To learn more about RAVEN’s work visit https://raventrust.com

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