Just Enviromentalism?

An Interview with Clayton Thomas-Müller

Clayton Thomas-Müller is an activist from the community of Pukatawagan, also known as the Mathais Colomb Cree nation, located above the 56th parallel on the Churchill River in northen Manitoba. He is currently the tar sands campaign organizer for the US-based organization Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN). Most of his work is focused on what he calls political base-building: organizing with First Nations impacted by tar sands development to build the political power of the community and to stop the expansion of the largest industrial development ever known to humanity. Sharmeen Khan interviewed Thomas-Müller in August 2008.

Tell us about your political organizing.

I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My background is what you could call urban native. Most of my family is urban-based, in the north and west ends and inner city of Winnipeg. So I grew up being exposed to the socio-economic conditions that urban aboriginals face in this country. Part of my family has been involved in gang activity so, as a young man, I also grew up in and around Winnipeg’s inner-city gang culture. That led me to frontline organizing with young native people in the inner-city, to organizing with youth involved in gangs, and to working around the question of decolonization and leadership development. This organizing embraced indigenous traditions in order to confront the negative things that young native people are exposed to in European-dominated culture.

This early background led me to a lot of different activities, like organizing in the First Nations’ youth political scene, working in prisons with incarcerated young people, and working on restorative and alternative justice models. Really, I was involved in anything and everything related to preventing our young people from falling through the cracks. I was also trying to help young native people understand why it is that we are so grossly over-represented in all of the negative statistics in this country. A lot of that work involved sharing the political analysis that I learned through my involvement with the Native Youth Movement. They carried out actions aimed at empowering young native people by picking up our traditions and decolonizing our hearts, minds, and spirit.

How did you go from inner city youth organizing to environmental justice?

I was always curious about why it was that native people faced so many struggles. For example, why does it seem like a societal norm that when you’re a young native man of a certain age you end up in prison? In doing the frontline organizing work I always wondered how we got to be so dispossessed of our culture and of our land. Even I can remember being out on the trap line with my great-grandparents, learning about traditional medicine and harvesting traditional foods. How did it come to be that our people now find themselves in the depths of despair in the inner-city ghetto?

After my early 20s, I reached a point where youth leadership development wasn’t enough. I wanted to really shake up the system and challenge the power structure. I began to understand that so many of the struggles that I was involved in were really tied to the national crime committed against indigenous peoples through the destruction of our way of life and through attempts to abolish any memory of our title to the land called Canada.

Things actually got to a point where a lot of the First Nations leadership blacklisted me because of some of my political organizing. I became a target because I tried to develop a funding strategy that would make the National First Nations Youth Council of the Assembly of First Nations less dependent on federal funds. This would have allowed it to become more politicized in its advocacy. After I was labelled a radical, I had to leave the country to find work because nobody would hire me. I was offered an organizing job in California as the North American coordinator for an organization called the Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Youth Alliance. This was a coalition of indigenous and non-indigenous activists focused on developing curricula and training spaces for indigenous and non-indigenous peoples to work together in a respectful way. I worked on that project for about a year.

When the project came to an end, my wife and I were going to come back to Canada but I was given an opportunity by a friend who worked for the Indigenous Environmental Network to help coordinate a delegation of indigenous peoples from Canada and the United States to attend the third preparatory meeting of the United Nations World Conference on Sustainable Development in New York City. At the conference, I had the opportunity to talk about my experiences as a frontline organizer and I began to notice the connections between the environmental justice issues and the issues that indigenous communities were facing. For one thing, I had come from one of the places where people end up when they get dispossessed of their land – they end up in places like the projects in inner-city Winnipeg.

Through that experience, I was offered the position of North American native energy organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. I went from being a social justice and hard-core sovereignty activist and entered the world of environmental justice. This was a baptism by fire. I was thrust into a job where I had to organize with over 30 different tribes from across North America – from the north slope of Alaska all the way to the Gulf of Mexico – to support campaigns by grassroots community organizations against mega-energy development projects. At that point, the pieces came together. I realized how the movement for environmental justice was really connected to indigenous struggle.

I saw how these struggles were connected by modern-day imperialism, which I consider to be neocolonial liberalization. The trade policies and multilateral economic agreements that are being pushed today are new extensions of the same old spirit of colonization. So for me it was a very natural progression to move from urban youth politics within Canada’s First Nations to land and indigenous rights struggle and the fight to protect the sacredness of Mother Earth. It all started to make sense and fell in line perfectly with the cultural liberation that I was going through after having been exposed to my own traditional culture at a late age – I was 19 or 20 when I went to my first Sundance. I started to learn the importance of spending time out on the land and connecting to our ancestors.

So, indigenous environmental justice organizing was an organic progression for me. I excelled at it because of my experience organizing with youth in the inner city. And it connected with my attempts to answer all the questions I would get from young people: Why are so many of us in jail? Why are so many of us dropping out of high school? Why are the only jobs on the reserve those that are based on destroying our land, our air quality, and our water quality? These are all questions that I had asked myself over the years and didn’t really have answers to until I got involved in the fight for environmental justice.

What do you mean by environmental justice?

Environmental justice is the idea that regardless of race, creed, class, religion, culture, or gender everyone has the right to clean air, clean earth, and clean water – that we all have the right to live, work, pray, and play in a healthy and clean environment where we are not exposed to toxic chemicals. That’s a fundamental right protected and enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. However, in both Canada and the United States the location of toxic industries is commonly determined by the race and class characteristics of communities. In this context we know that our rights are not being protected, and that we will have to fight for environmental justice. In the early 1980s, environmentalism was often defined by the idea of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard), but environmental justice requires a much broader understanding of things and suggests an approach of “not in my backyard and not in anyone else’s, either.” From an indigenous perspective, environmental justice goes beyond the question of the disproportionate exposure of people and their traditional food systems to toxic and nuclear contamination. It also includes questions of exploitation, ecological damage and compensation, natural resource regeneration, and the protection and healing of the biological diversity that sustains us and our linguistic and cultural practices.

Could you explain the organizing approach of the Indigenous Environmental Network and how you connect with indigenous people across North America?

IEN has been around since 1990. It came out of one the first Protecting Mother Earth conferences, which was hosted in Arizona by the Navajo community organization Deni’ Care and sponsored by Greenpeace USA. In 1990, the building of a waste incinerator was planned for a site close to Navajo communities. In response to a call from elders in the Navajo nation, IEN and others brought together different indigenous forces in the region to develop a community organizing strategy to put a stop to it. This wasn’t an isolated case, and a call was put out across Indian Country to step up and organize against the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the private waste corporations that were targeting communities in Indian Country for toxic dumps, waste incinerators, nuclear waste sites, and energy development. All kinds of industries were coming into Indian Country. This hasn’t really changed, but I think the period was a really significant moment in history. Our communities were being disproportionately targeted.

The whole counter-initiative was based on trying to address the Indian socioeconomic crisis in the United States by confronting the institutions of non-native power that were trying to “solve” our problems by introducing harmful models of economic development into our communities and justifying them as a way to create jobs. In reality, racism was being used to determine where America’s most destructive and harmful waste facilities would be located. In the end, the resistance was very successful, and IEN grew out of that experience to become the organization it is now. We have multiple campaigns and programs, but the flagship program areas are the native energy and climate programs that support communities in their on-the-ground campaigns.

Our organizing protocol and culture are based on native principles of organizing. They are governed by the 17 principles of environmental justice that were drafted by activists from communities of colour and indigenous communities at the first National People of Colour Environmental Leadership seminar in Washington, DC in 1991. The main principle is that communities should speak for themselves. We know what our struggle is and we know what the solutions to our problems are. Our work is focused on supporting communities to speak for themselves on issues of environmental justice and protecting their sacred home fires and traditions.

Another important principle is that we don’t go into communities that don’t have an on-the-ground organization or coalition, or at least a strong family, that is stepping up and trying to address the issue. We believe in bottom-up organizing, so we’re very careful not to engage in narrow issue-based campaign organizing, which is what a lot of mainstream organizations do. We insist on starting first and foremost with building the political power of communities, and part of that is insisting on being invited into local communities to help support their struggles. There are many other principals included within the 17 principles of environmental justice and I encourage your readers to check them out at

We operate on the basis of a training framework for all of our organizers that specifically focuses on native organizing, and what it means for native and non-native communities to work together. This is based on developing an understanding of the unique political and legal status of First Nations, Native Americans, and Alaska native communities in relation to the federal governments of the United States and Canada. This unique legal and political status includes hundreds of treaties signed between sovereign nations that guarantee our land rights. It also includes our particular political history of colonization and victimization by failed colonial policies. These elements of the indigenous experience differentiate our struggles from those of other communities of colour. There are some very important differences that have to be understood and integrated into how we approach environmental and land issues. You can’t have just one “people of colour” approach that will work for everybody. We also have to remember the importance of recognizing the diversity of First Nations across these territories. There is no one approach that will work for every different struggle. Every community is different.

You spend a lot of time in both the US and Canada in your work. What is your assessment of the environmental movements in Canada today? Can you compare them with the situation in the US?

I think the current environmental movement in Canada has a case of amnesia. There are a lot of incredible organizers, campaigners, and leaders within the mainstream NGO movement in this country, but I think many of them have become co-opted into the non-profit industrial complex. What I mean is that a lot of the mainstream environmental organizations are overly focused on policy and have become pretty top-down in their approach. The focus is often entirely on issue-based campaigning, which too often comes down to having the most glitzy and effective “messaging” at all costs. It ends up relying on getting the big bucks and doing funder-directed work at the expense of accountable community-directed organizing. As a result, the mainstream environmental movement in this country has become shortsighted in how it approaches environmental organizing. In my opinion, this fairly describes the state of much of the environmental movement in the United States as well.

The fact is, most organizations don’t have real constituencies on the front line in the communities that are most impacted by climate change, energy development, and extractive industries. So a lot of these organizations are making decisions with few lines of accountability to the people their decisions impact. That’s a very dangerous thing. For example, a lot of the solutions being proposed by the policy hacks in the contemporary environmental movement in Canada stand to actually exacerbate the situation that people on the ground are facing. Things like clean nuclear energy, clean coal, green hydro, carbon trading, and the kind of market-based climate initiatives that are coming to fruition with the Kyoto protocol do not help our communities.

As I said, one of the things that’s very clear is that the mainstream environmental movement has a case of amnesia. Otherwise it would be obvious that any fundamental anti-systemic struggle or systematic change will have to come through serious efforts at political base-building within grassroots communities to support radical policy proposals, whether we’re talking about the Beltway in DC or here in Canada.

Take Rosa Parks as an example. Many people still believe that Rosa Parks just happened to be riding on some bus and that – for whatever reason, because she was too tired or something – she decided to sit at the front of the bus, and the civil rights movement was sparked. But we have to understand that there was a massive social justice and civil rights machinery behind Rosa Parks, and that her actions were part of a very calculated movement strategy that chose to strike at a point in time when the neocons of the day were vulnerable. An organized and powerful civil rights machinery based on political base-building mechanisms in communities supported these actions and made the campaigns effective.

The same goes for any struggle, whether it’s the women’s movement, the student movement, or the struggle for gay rights: community organizing and movement-building have always been an integral part of creating any systematic change. And these struggles were never limited to any one specific tactic. There was always an integration of both community base-building and issue-based campaign organizing within a more comprehensive and multi-pronged strategy. That’s the current reality that we have to face up to in this country. We need to reinvigorate the political movement aspect of organizing around environmental issues, particularly on the climate change and energy justice issues.

Given these realities, do you work with mainstream environmental NGOs in your current campaigns?

IEN has a long history of working with mainstream organizations. We’ve always tried to be very principled about how we work with non-native organizations. One of the ways that we do this is to insist that these organizations engage with native communities in ways that are respectful of our unique needs as native people. We need to be sure that they are not tokenizing our community leaders in campaigns and initiatives that build the profile and power of that particular NGO instead of helping to build the power and profile of the community. We have always acted somewhat as a watchdog on these questions, and when we see that kind of behaviour we tend to be very blunt in pointing it out.

We also do a lot of teaching and mutual exchange at different conferences, and we share resources about tactics and particular actions. We’re always pushing mainstream environmental organizations to be more accountable to communities. We push them to develop mechanisms to make sure that the free and informed consent of indigenous communities is respected, and to make sure to involve all community stakeholders (I hate this word but will use it for lack of a better one), including our traditional people, our hunters, our women, our youth, and not just the council governments.

I think one of the stark realities worth mentioning is that the Indian Act government structures have no institutional separation of powers and that leads to problems, especially when you’re talking about large-scale resource development. There aren’t the kinds of checks and balances and accountability mechanisms that are needed. So there are opportunities for corruption and exploitation when you’re talking about negotiating multibillion-dollar projects with extractive industries in Indian country. A lot of our work is focused on trying to balance those scales and making sure that industry and government, but also the NGOs, are mindful of that. At the same time, we need to make sure that our communities have the resources and capacities for high-level negotiations and are not being exploited, and that it’s not just elected officials who are sitting at the table. We need to push for the full and meaningful participation of all members of the community.

In the United States and Canada, we work with communities that are asserting their right to develop their own environmental protection programs, with their own water and air quality standards, including by applying and enforcing their own environmental, sacred areas, endangered species, and conservation laws. These initiatives strengthen our sovereignty.

How have native communities in Canada responded to IEN’s work?

Resource development in Indian Country tends to be very divisive. It divides communities, it divides friends, and it even divides families. Much of our elected political leadership is in a situation that I don’t envy. On one side they claim that they have to generate economic opportunities and sustainable revenue streams to build and maintain the infrastructure of First Nations communities. Most elected leaders are dealing with nightmare situations that are very difficult to navigate, and the Department of Indian Affairs and the Indian Act government system are a big part of the problem. Leaders who get into power are dealing with budget deficits. And with the funding caps that have been imposed, federal transfer payments to First Nations haven’t changed since the 1980s. So they’ve got a finite pot of money to use to try to deal with the needs of a growing population facing all kinds of crises. They’ve got to make up the difference somewhere if they don’t want to go into third-party receivership and have the community’s powers stripped by Indian Affairs. So many communities are both pressured and seduced by big corporations and the government into cutting deals and getting a quick payoff by bringing in big money-making industries like oil and gas, mining, and forestry. In the case of southern Ontario – in places like Sarnia – this is often just a matter of leasing the land out, but then you end up with 30 fucking refineries beside your community. But we should recognize that there are not a lot of options.

How do people respond to IEN’s work? On the one hand, there are a lot of people at the grassroots who are already struggling around these issues. They know about the dangers of oil and gas development. They know that climate change means a lot of really scary things for their people. They are happy that there are organizations like IEN that can help connect them with other communities in struggle. On the other hand, I think that there are a lot people out there, especially in the leadership, that are in bed with the corporations and the federal government. They have sold out or bought into the quick fix that unsustainable development offers and would prefer it if we did not exist.

We are realistic. We understand the need for local community organizations to work out differences with their leadership and to deal with things internally to the best of their ability. Sometimes that’s not possible. But we have to try to work out the divisive issues in our communities on our own, in our own way, using our own traditions. In our work we do our best to respect local autonomy and to stay out of those kinds of local debates. But we do support our allies at the grassroots that are standing up for our people and the protection of Mother Earth.

What about your relationship to labour unions? How have they responded to your work around climate change and tar sands development?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a lot of buzz about so-called Blue-Green alliances between mainstream environmental organizations and the big unions. I think that has all kind of died down in both Canada and the US, but there has been some resurgence of alliance-building around the realities of climate change. I think a discussion is beginning with the workers most impacted by climate change – like steelworkers, auto workers, and other workers in the fossil fuel industries. This has taken the form of discussions about the question of “just transition” and how to ensure that public and private funds are being directed at mitigation and adaptation to climate change, while recognizing that these things impact workers as well the communities that are living beside big emitters.

We’ve worked with the Steelworkers over the years in this area, and we’ve been collaborating with the Just Transition Alliance and other union organizations in the United States to try and forge what we jokingly refer to as “Cowboy-Indian alliances.” Work is being done to connect the struggles of workers in toxic industries with those of people impacted in the community. A lot of that is geared around a discussion of a zero-carbon economy and just transition. A lot of my work here in Canada has been focused recently on reaching out to labour. I see a lot of long-term strategic benefits for social movements in this country if the indigenous struggle for environmental justice and the labour struggle can unite.

If you look at the demographics, by 2016 one out of every fourteen workers in Canada will be native. Three quarters of native people are under the age of 30. The face of entire regions of this country is going to change in the coming years. There is going to be a pretty fundamental shift in the labour market, and in political and economic power. So in that context there’s a lot to be said about the need for the labour struggle and the indigenous struggle to come together to push for systematic change around a new and renewable energy economy.

How do you respond to workers or unions who really rely on resource extraction for their incomes even though it’s devastating for the earth?

Well it’s actually quite easy to respond to that. When you’ve got folks talking about the kind of short-term realities involved in shutting down the tar sands, I point out what’s going to happen if we don’t shut them down. We have a country with abundant natural resources and an incredible capacity for renewable energy development. We have water resources in a context where water security is a major concern all over the world. My response to most of those working in the industries is that we desperately need to turn things around, and in that context we need to unite indigenous struggles and labour struggles to build an economy that makes sense, not just for us, but also for all future generations.

What it really comes down to is the question of a green job strategy. Groups like Green For All or the Apollo Alliance in the United States, for example, haven’t really thought through their strategy, but I agree with them that the solution to the tar sands nightmare is green jobs. I believe that there is a multi-trillion dollar economy emerging out of the millions of homes, businesses, public sector buildings, etc. that could be retrofitted, and out of the new infrastructures that have to be built to adapt and implement new and existing technologies. But there has to be more discussion about wealth distribution, land use, and ownership if we are going to be able to create a green jobs strategy that will actually benefit indigenous and working class communities. These things represent a world of possibilities right now. But we don’t have a lot of time before the worst impacts of the climate crisis start to take effect.

So when I hear union folks and policy folks say “Well, you’re going to destroy the economy if you shut down the tar sands,” I point out that we are going to destroy the economy if we don’t shut them down. We are going to destroy our food security and our water security. Tar sands development isn’t just about 3000 square kilometres in northern Alberta. It will affect the entire Prairie breadbasket, and beyond. Our ability to produce crops is going to be compromised by devastating acid rain caused by the pollution coming out of the tar sands. Lakes are becoming dead zones for the same reasons. These are important economic issues, not just conservation issues. There are so many overlapping ways in which tar sands development absolutely doesn’t make sense.

The other way that I respond is to point out that we are already getting screwed over even from a narrow economic point of view. The tar sands are the world’s biggest private oil patch. More than forty companies are operating there with tens more salivating to get in, but you’ve got the weakest royalty payments regime on the planet. They are practically giving away the leases. In addition to the First Nations that have had their land taken from them and are suffering grave human and ecological problems as a result of this exploitation, the Canadian public is getting very little benefit from it. Every other big oil reserve on the planet is controlled by a nationalized petroleum company, and the energy profits are often collected in publicly-controlled funds for careful investment and so that the country’s economy is protected from inflation.

We are now seeing a crisis in the manufacturing sector, especially in Canada’s traditional economic powerhouse of Ontario. Recent numbers released by Stats Canada show that more than 50 percent of Canada’s employment base is now represented by retail jobs. So people are paid $12-$15 an hour, if they’re lucky, compared to $25-$30 an hour in manufacturing. Add to that the inflation that is coming, which is going to make it difficult for workers to afford fuel, rent, and transportation, and you’ve got a gross distortion of Canada’s economy and a pretty scary reality. So I point out to folks that if we don’t confront tar sands development, Canada’s economy will suffer from the same resource curse that has faced other countries that have built their economies on resource extraction. I don’t want to see that happen.

Why do you think that environmental justice hasn’t taken hold as strongly with many mainstream environmental organizations?

I think that environmental justice isn’t central to mainstream environmental groups with funders and close ties to governments because it represents a radical shift in how these issues are addressed and how power is talked about. When you bring race, class, and gender analysis and an analysis of power into the environmental struggle, it shakes things up. If you look at the environmental conservation sector, just as an example, you’ll see that it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. Like any other institution with power here in North America, it is dominated by white men. When you start talking about having communities of colour and indigenous communities direct where resources should go, what strategies should be implemented, and how policy should be developed, it threatens to take the power to steer the ship away from white people. It also means a much slower, more serious, and more accountable, process of organizing in communities to build their political power. That takes time, resources, and commitment, so you can’t just drop in and out. This requires a radical change in how they have been doing business for the last 30 years, which is threatening.

Green socialists or anarchists talk about environmental degradation in connection with class and capitalism. What is your analysis of capitalism and class in relation to ecological degradation?

We view capitalist development and neoliberalism as ongoing neocolonial manifestations of long-standing racist and imperialist policies, from Terra Nullius to Manifest Destiny. These relations are what have gotten us to where we are in North America today. We view capitalism and the unregulated pursuit of wealth as pathological. They have no place in the natural order or in how we have traditionally governed ourselves and our communities.

I don’t believe that we can just steer this Titanic called capitalism. There’s a whole green capitalist movement that is emerging. It is represented by the groups that talk about green jobs but don’t talk about community self-determination, let alone about ownership. They are not talking about the radical redistribution of wealth and land in this country, and until we have that conversation we are going to continue to be governed by the same economic power structures that benefit the rich and thrive on the backs of indigenous people, communities of colour, and workers. So when we talk about a “green economy” we need to ask what that really means. Do we imagine that British Petroleum and Shell and Exxon will be giving us those dream jobs? Do we mean “green” Wal-Mart jobs? Or do we mean highly technical, community-controlled, well-paid local jobs in activities that are owned and run by our communities, and where the wealth produced stays in the community? I think one of the things that we have to be adamant about is the need to develop regional economic models, which of course indigenous people have utilized from time immemorial. We need models based on an understanding of our local environments and our place within the sacred circle of life so that we can protect the earth for future generations.