- Bringing Our Voices Together -

A photo essay

In August, Indigenous Climate Action, Indigenous Environmental Network, and NDN Collective hosted a first-ever trans-national Indigenous-led strategy summit in Cold Lake, focused on stopping tar sands expansion.

The Bringing Our Voices Together summit brought together an inter-generational group of Indigenous leaders, many of whom are leading the fight against extractive industries in their communities across North America.

Thank you to our talented photographer 📷 Ayşe Gürsöz|@yakamoz_ayse

V Guzman looks outside at a Syncrude refinery with a mask to filter out the foul odors from the local tar sands mining facilities. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]

“Touring the tar sands was like touring something that was almost unfathomable. [It was] humans doing something that’s inhuman: killing the planet and themselves. It was really, really difficult to see that. I’ve been campaigning on the Line 3 pipeline and other fossil fuel infrastructure projects for a while, and I’ve seen many pictures of the tar sands.

I’ve used those images as a part of our campaigns for people to see what it is. I know that it’s almost the size of England, I know that it’s visible from space. But there is nothing that is like seeing it firsthand and smelling it firsthand, and being surrounded by energy that is so out of balance and ugly.”

Tara Houska
Couchiching First Nation Anishinaabe

V Guzman poses outside a Suncor tar sands facility to demonstrate the scale of the tar sands extraction. Director James Cameron drew inspiration for his film Avatar from the massive machinery used to extract the oil sands. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]

“I feel like it’s not enough to do something about climate change to save yourself and to save your own future generations. A lot of environmental movements push that way of understanding climate change, of your lifestyle being at stake, your children’s lives being at stake, and your supply of freshwater being at stake.

I think people should understand that the whole time this whole system has always been violent towards Indigenous people and continues to be violent. And if fighting climate change is not seen as a decolonial radical statement or action, then it’s still part of the problem of white supremacy, pushing Indigenous people down into reservations, poisoning their air, land, and water with extractive industries.

People who are happy where they’re at right now are happy in a violent state of oppression. And so I want people to look at climate change as a mirror of what the colonial government is doing, of their own system, that people have privilege in. And privilege often makes it hard for people to see.”

Vanessa Gray
Aamjiwnaang First Nation

Indigenous land defenders and youths cover their noses to withstand the noxious odours from a nearby tar sands extraction site as they take a seat inside a massive tar sands mining shovel during the “toxic tour”. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]
A graphic note from the historic and first-ever trans-national Indigenous-led tar sands strategy summit, which brought together inter-generational leaders across North America fighting tar sands at the source. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]

“I think a victory for the tar sands movement is that we continue these conversations, that we continue to hold the line, that we continue to move together and find that balance, that reciprocity, and that we eventually move towards a just transition to a world that includes Indigenous views, cosmology, ways of knowing and being and ways of creating new economic systems that are going to work in harmony with the people and the planet.”

Eriel Deranger
Indigenous Climate Action

“Bringing Our Voices Together” summit participants map out a timeline of the tar sands. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]

“We’re here to connect with people who are living at the source of the tar sands, where the pipelines come from. At this summit, we are engaging face-to-face and building relationships.”

Daniel Grassrope
Lower Brule Sioux Nation in South Dakota

Tara Houska, (Couchiching First Nation Anishinaabe) is a tribal attorney, former Campaigns Director of Honor the Earth, and a former advisor on Native American affairs to Bernie Sanders. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]

“I feel that we are not moving fast enough. We’re definitely not going to stop this machine of climate change from its course. I’m not even convinced that we’re going to slow it down in the next 10 years as much as it needs to be slowed to avoid that catastrophe.

But something I do see and what gives me hope to continue doing this work and to dedicate my heart, spirit, and my life to it, is the waking up of our young people and also the willingness and openness of people to listen to a different way of life. Instead of being put into this box of being primitive, uncivilized, forgotten, invisible people; as holders of 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity, as Indigenous peoples, we are holding the future in our hands.

And it seems like there is more of an openness to that, as people begin to grapple with what is happening — as migrations of people are running out of water, as storms get worse, as the earthquakes continue, as the coral reefs are dying, as the glaciers are melting. That urgency is growing in a lot of people, and the willingness and openness to a different way of living is also growing.”

Tara Houska
Couchiching First Nation Anishinaabe

Local hunter and trapper, Robert Grandjambe Jr. (Cree) cooks a beaver tail over the fire. According to Grandjambe, it’s not uncommon to come across wildlife that are sick with tumors, which he links to the oil sands industry. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]
Ta’kaiya Blaney, Tla’Amin First Nation. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]

“The reality is that regardless of the political party, whether you are right-leaning or left-leaning, the bottom line is no political leadership in Canada is respecting Indigenous sovereignty, and respecting the promises that they made in order to become elected, which is why you have a supposedly progressive leader who is trying to push a pipeline on unceded and sovereign territory. And what we push back against here is not just extraction and exploitation of land, but the fact that it goes hand-in-hand with the disappearance of women. It’s not just a political fight for me.” Ta’kaiya Blaney, Tla’Amin First Nation @takaiya.blaney

Takaiya Blaney
Tla’Amin First Nation

Participants of “Bringing Our Voices Together” add their communities in a mapping exercise demonstrating the tar sands’ impacts from source to pipelines to refineries. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]

“Pipelines and the oil industry never directly benefit our communities. They create so much upheaval and destruction and invite so much violence into our land that is felt in every level of our community, from the disappearance of Indigenous women in the areas of man camps to increases in substance abuse. And there’s so much deep healing work that needs to happen in our communities, and for us to be able to heal we need access to land. Pipelines, oil tankers, tar sands infrastructure, it’s warfare on our territory, so that’s warfare on our bodies, it’s warfare on our existence. We cannot heal as a people and live as a people if we cannot access and heal alongside our land.”

Ta’kaiya Blaney
Tla’Amin First Nation

Jesse Cardinal (Métis), of Keepers of The Water. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]

“A lot of our community people work in the tar sands, and there’s a lot of complex issues that come with that. As somebody trying to raise awareness of the environmental issues, there’s less support in our communities, because the people who work in the tar sands tend to think it’s one or the other, that you have to choose. We’re trying to help them understand that it’s not about one or the other. Let’s sit down and find balance in what we do. The companies really manipulate our people into believing that if they’re not going 24 hours a day around the clock extracting, that there’s not going to be work. These companies are so greedy, and our community people are just getting a smidgen of what these big international companies are taking from our land and our communities. It’s like we are held, hostage.”

Jesse Cardinal
Keepers of The Water

Indigenous and First Nations participants who are intergenerational leaders in their own communities across the North American continent start off the “Bringing Our Voices Together” summit session in a circle. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]

“I feel like my struggle isn’t too far off from other Indigenous people directly impacted by industry. I’ve learned that it’s constantly highly emotional to learn how your work impacts the larger movement.

And to understand that those emotions are perfectly normal and fine. And there are people to hold you in spaces when you need it, and there’s always ceremony. And I learned that to work through it is healthier than not acknowledging those hard feelings. And spaces like this, allow people like myself to do that.”

Vanessa Gray
Aamjiwnaang First Nation

Daniel Grassrope, Lower Brule Sioux Nation in South Dakota. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]

“ What I really want to emphasize is bringing our culture into this fight. What that looks like is us actually coming back from the front lines and having that moment of time where we go to sweat and brush off, so we don’t get burnt out. I feel like that’s key, to decolonize from this Western culture to Indigenous spirituality.”

Daniel Grassrope
Lower Brule Sioux Nation in South Dakota

Snutetkwe Manuel (Secwepemc First Nations) pictured with her daughter at Cold Lake, Alberta. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]

“This is a climate emergency, if this [Trans-Mountain] pipeline goes through it will increase the size of tar sands to the size of Texas. We have a duty to protect the land and water for all future generations to come. I wouldn’t say I am fighting the pipeline. I would say I am going to stop this pipeline. We need to gather our forces as Indigenous people to protect the glacier mountains and this glacier water. This pipeline must be stopped and will not be built!”

Snutetkwe Manuel
Secwepemc First Nations

Group photo of “Bringing Our Voices Together” summit. Participants traveled from across both the U.S. and Canada. Pictured is a banner with the words “Consultation is not consent,” referring to the companies behind fossil fuel mega-infrastructure projects claiming they consulted tribes. Many of these projects are built without the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]

“I think the reason that both the governmental review agencies and fossil fuels companies are saying that they respect Indigenous rights within either their applications or their decisions, is it’s a legal strategy. These Indigenous rights that they have for so long left out are becoming a serious issue for them.

It’s reaching the point that it’s costing them a lot of money because these are legal arguments they haven’t considered. And that’s reflective of us and our movement. We are saying that this should be a rights-based situation and that you need to have the rights holders actually at the table.

And the environmental movement is also starting to become aware of that. But it’s also the companies responding to that, saying that ‘we do have our boxes checked, and we did consult with you and acknowledge your rights.”

Tara Houska
Couchiching First Nation Anishinaabe

Kakeka ThunderSky looks out to a Syncrude tar sands extraction site, situated right next to the Athabasca River. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]
Cold Lake, Alberta. [photo by Ayşe Gürsöz]

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ICA is an Indigenous-led organization working to inspire & support sovereign Indigenous-led climate action https://www.indigenousclimateaction.com/

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