I grew up in Philadelphia where the night sky is a dusty grey rather than a deep black, where the only night-lights come from hazy street lamps instead of stars in the night sky. Philadelphia, the city ranked as one of the worst for air pollution in the United States, the city in the state of Pennsylvania that has been dubbed one of the most politically corrupt. When I was 5 months old, I had my first asthma attack. My mom tells me she was holding me in her lap and my face started to turn blue, I couldn’t breathe. Since then, I’ve struggled with asthma. I’ve struggled to breathe. Growing up, each room in the house had an air filter, I took several inhalers daily, I was hospitalized more times than I can count and when I was in 8th grade I missed my graduation from middle school while fighting for my life in the intensive care unit of the children’s’ hospital of Philadelphia. Trees, fresh air, and mossy forests became my lifeline. I knew that if I continued to live in Philadelphia, I wouldn’t be living a life of wellness and happiness. When I finished high school, I applied to only one college. It was in the mountains of Colorado, a place I had never been but only heard about and seen stunning images of snowcapped peaks and red rocks. I had the privilege to leave a place I spent 18 years of my life growing up in, and I didn’t look back.
My story of my health and my environment shows an important difference compared to the Indigenous communities fighting for their health and their environment. I am a product of my cultural environment, a Western capitalist society where roots run shallow. My intergenerational family isn’t from Philadelphia; I don’t feel a connection to that space or place. For many Indigenous communities, the 18 years I spent growing up in Philadelphia is less than a blink of an eye in comparison to the more than 10,000 years they have been rooted to their lands.
Almost three years ago, I traveled to Vancouver on a research grant for my undergraduate thesis. I remember interviewing Don Bain from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and I asked him what he thought the barrier was that was preventing stronger alliances amongst non-indigenous and indigenous communities. He was silent for several seconds and then he explained, “I drive over that bridge and I know I’m home. It’s deep, it’s rooted, and it’s spiritual. I think for people, for everyone else, they are all immigrants in that respect. They can claim roots, maybe five generations, more often than not three and no more than five. Especially in Western Canada. They don’t have that connection; their memories are only new memories. It’s a connection I don’t think a lot of people have.”
This connection Don Bain refers to is critical. In a landmark court decision in Nicaragua, the court recognized that to be indigenous is collectively speaking to be in a special relationship with the land, thus anything that undermines their relationship with the land and especially their material and spiritual connections to the land threatens their culture, their spiritual life, their integrity and economic survival.
For the past 150 years in Canada, racist policies and initiatives have worked to destroy this connection to the land by abducting children, as young as three years old, to attend residential boarding schools. The Canadian government was attempting to sever the young indigenous generations from their identity, their language and their land. While the last residential school closed in the late 90s, Canada’s racism and unwavering attempts to sever Indigenous peoples from their land continues.
Last month, Justin Trudeau was in Texas where he was awarded for Global Energy and Environmental Leadership and said, “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there. The resource will be developed.” We don’t even need to dismantle Trudeau’s smoke screen, he just did it himself. Trudeau was referring to the tar sands and Northern Alberta is ground zero as it pumps out tar sands oil, the dirtiest fuels on earth, a substance thick as peanut butter that must be diluted with toxic chemicals in order to be transported through pipelines. This sacrifice zone will only continue to expand and it is clear that it will be at any expense. The tar sands lie beneath Alberta’s boreal forest, and they are the second largest source of oil in the world. The cultural heritage, land, and ecosystems and health of First Nations communities including the Mikisew Cree, Athabsca Chipeyan, Fort McMurray, Fort McKay Cree Nation, Beaver Lake Cree, Chipewyan Nation and the Metis are being sacrificed for oil and money in what has been called a slow industrial genocide.
The toxic waste is killing those on the frontlines. 2 years ago, 47-year old Barbara Jewers died of bile duct cancer only four months after diagnosis. She lived in Fort McMurray and worked in the open pit mines and tailings ponds. Are these the promises of Trudeau and oil execs for increasing employment? Six months after her death, six more people died from bile duct cancer. As the cancer crisis escalates, others suffer from neurological, respiratory, circulatory and gastrointestinal illnesses — all linked to toxins from the oil sands. While up north, the government and oil industries remove signs of life in order to extract every last drop of oil from the earth, in British Columbia Indigenous communities province-wide are fighting against pipeline expansion, dam displacements, and LNG projects.
We know that for the past 150 years, Canada has worked tirelessly to displace Indigenous peoples from their lands. Up by the Peace River Valley, indigenous communities will be displaced and lands flooded for the Site C Dam. Christy Clark and BC Hydro are building a $9 billion dam that would flood 83 km of Peace River Valley and severely limit First Nations’ ability to carry out crucial cultural and economic practices such as hunting and fishing. When Site C underwent environmental assessment, it made history in the unprecedented number and scope of harms identified. Amnesty International has called for an immediate stop to the Site C construction. Among the many environmental and cultural impacts, the fish will be contaminated by methyl mercury from the flooding of the land, making the fish and waters unsafe for at least 30 years. The residential schools deprived an entire generation from their culture. The impacts from this dam will deprive another generation from critical cultural practice. Helen Knott, from the Prophet River First Nations said, “All my grandmother’s stories are connected to land. It’s like that for all our elders. You have to be on the land to be able to share those memories.”
Along the coast, this colonial pattern continues. At the Wild Salmon, Sovereignty and Justice gathering in Vancouver, a Musgamagw elder said, “I heard one day we will have to talk about salmon as something we only ate when we were young because it is no more.” For centuries, fisheries have sustained indigenous culture, economy and political organization as the salmon were an essential keystone to spiritual, social and physical life. However, in less than a century, over 80 percent of Wild Pacific Salmon are now considered to be either extinct in their historical breeding rivers or at risk. A big cause to this is the fish farming industry. Today, farmed salmon is BC’s largest export crop. Open-net salmon farming that occupies traditional territories and waters have proven to be a dangerously flawed management system. Farm-raised Atlantic salmon can be harvested and processed at predictable levels to meet demand. Because of the technological manipulation of salmon production, farmed salmon do not depend on healthy rivers or stream water access. An indigenous fisher pointed out the consequence of this environmental fallacy, “We can trash the planet and still have this idea that we’ve got salmon around. Wild salmon is a threat to unbridled and unrestrained commercialization, development and industrialization because wild salmon need so many of those natural functions.”
This past August, the Musgagmaw evicted Cermac fish farms from their ancestral territory. The fish farms directly impact their wild salmon and their community. If Cermac and DFO respected First Nation rights to evict the open net fish farms, the massive diesel spill at Cermac fish farm could have been prevented. The spill has harmed the Burdwood group of islands that are vital to clam fisheries. Clam digging is the primary source of income for this First Nations community and it is a food staple, especially with declining wild salmon in the area.
In November, Trudeau delivered a blow to this region by approving the Kinder Morgan pipeline. The Coldwater Indian Band, Tsleil-Waututh Nation and Squamish Nation cited environmental and health risks and not being properly consulted, all filed lawsuits in Federal Court of Appeal late last year. Exporting the oil carried by this new pipeline would require 400 tankers a year to travel through the Salish Sea. A spill of this heavy, highly toxic tar sands oil in those waters would permanently damage coastal communities and wildlife, including resident orca and salmon populations. The expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline would not only increase tanker traffic from one tanker per week to one tanker per day, but it would also increase regional greenhouse gas emissions up to 6.9 percent.
A right to culture is a right to life, land cannot be severed from wellbeing. We need to ask ourselves, as the next generation, whether we are going to continue to be complicit to this injustice. As humans, we identify and understand ourselves through culture. If our culture is stripped from us, so is our humanity. The Canadian provincial and federal government are failing First Nations. The systemic racism and occupation on stolen lands that reeked in Canada’s upcoming celebration of it’s “150 years,” continues despite our PM poster child of “environmentalism” and Indigenous rights.