With climate and environmental movements still dominated by white activists and non-profit staff, there has been a growing movement of Indigenous-centred organizing addressing climate change, fighting pipelines, and engaging in militant forms of direct action. While mainstream environmental movements remain centred on a single-based issue, Indigenous organizing has focused on decolonization, land back, and sovereignty with the struggle to fight climate change and fight for a just transition.
Exploring the role of white and non-Indigenous settlers in building power and support, Eriel Tchekwie Deranger offers insight into the current struggles against environmental devastation.
This interview took place on October 17, 2021, and was conducted by Lana Goldberg. Many thanks to Amelia Spedaliere for transcribing the interview.
Eriel Tchekwie Deranger is a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which is located in the Treaty 8 territory of Northern Alberta in Canada. She is Dënesųłiné, which names the sub-Arctic and Arctic people, and Treaty 8 is the largest contiguous treaty area in the country. She is currently the Executive Director and co-founder of Indigenous Climate Action, Canada’s only Indigenous-led climate justice organization, which was founded in 2015. She currently lives in Amiskwaciy Waskahikan, Treaty 6 territory, also known as Edmonton, Alberta. She has two children, two dogs, and two birds.
We crossed paths a number of years ago around 2013 when you were focused on your anti-tar sands work on behalf of your community and I was organizing against the Line 9 tar sands pipeline in Ontario. Since then, you’ve transitioned into working at Indigenous Climate Action (ICA) where you are now Executive Director. Can you tell me a little bit about the development of ICA?
I was doing a lot of work on tar sands issues because the tar sands continues to be the largest industrial project on the planet, and it occurs on my family’s traditional territory. I have a background in treaty land entitlement and specific land claims research and I was taking a course in Greenland on Indigenous people and international economic systems, where I studied the abrogation of Indigenous rights within the international system using the tar sands as an example. I remember feeling very upset about the lack of action around how, basically, they are killing us, the land, and the animals. Our people are dying. I felt I had to do something, to draw awareness around these issues to help my family and community.
So I took on the role of getting the word out about the tar sands and what was happening in the region. It was not just about the environmental impact, but also Indigenous rights. That’s when I started getting involved with the environmental movement, working alongside organizations like the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Forest Ethics (now known as STAND), with the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), and Honour the Earth. IEN and Honour the Earth were the only Indigenous environmental groups out there at the time. And they were the most under-resourced. These Indigenous groups were not only trying to tackle greenhouse gases, but using a justice framework to talk about environmental injustice. They were talking about human rights, Indigenous rights, treaty agreements, and so on. When I started doing this work, Indigenous peoples and Indigenous rights were very tokenistic in the environmental scene. Indigenous people were used to putting a human face to the story as opposed to addressing systemic issues. It was a way to break peoples’ hearts, but not actually support Indigenous groups to lead these struggles with the same type of resources that other organizations had.
I started working directly for my First Nation and began to understand the challenges of what it means for a community as a whole to participate in environmental movements. When I took on this role, I wasn’t just getting requests to support my community, I was getting requests to support other Indigenous communities dealing with the same issue. In consultation with other Indigenous activists, one of the things that really came to light is that there was no organization like IEN in Canada, supporting the broader Indigenous movements in the country in the same way that IEN was in the United States. And IEN has tried to work in Canada, but they struggled without having a central office and also the roots of their organization are rooted in the American political context.
The few of us that were very public spokespeople were also really tired. And we realized there needed to be a way to build a movement of Indigenous leaders. And that meant that we had to really remove ourselves from the white environmental-industrial ENGO [environmental non-governmental organization] complex and we needed to start by working with the community. And what does that look like? That means holding and bringing our folks together—for ourselves, by ourselves—to build a greater network and movement of individuals. In 2015, when there was a growing international movement to address the global climate crisis, we got this project off the ground. There was an urgency because we were getting so many demands and requests to organize around Canada’s new climate policies and provincial climate policies. We had to say to government agencies, “You don’t speak for all Indigenous peoples and you are not upholding your fiduciary obligations to consult and get the consent of all of our communities in these policies that are being developed. We need our people to be looked at as experts.” Often the response would be, “Well, we don’t know who to talk to.”
No one was talking to our communities. Not the ENGOs, not the federal government, not the provincial governments. They were only talking to environmental organizations when it came to climate policies and environmental policies, and the few voices of Indigenous communities that were loud enough to get through the colonial regulatory system. Think of the communities in the tar sands zones: only if you are deeply impacted—if you’re dying—do they care about including you within the development of policies that deeply affect the communities.
We held our inaugural meeting in January of 2016 in Amiskwaciy Waskahikan, or Edmonton, and we brought together about 150 Indigenous peoples from across the country. And we had presenters like Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Winona LaDuke, Tom Goldtooth, Art Manuel, and Ellen Gabriel: amazing speakers to talk about everything from Indigenous governance and policy-making to climate policies and regulations at the provincial, national, and international levels; speakers to emphasize that Indigenous rights and communities are integral and important to developing climate policy not just for our own communities, but for the country and the world at large.
After we left that meeting, we thought we would walk away with some version of a Declaration of Canadian Indigenous Leadership on Climate. But we were really humbled by attendees who said, “If you ask us to sign on to this declaration, you’re going to be no different than these ENGOs. The reality is we want time and we need free, prior, informed consent.” Prior informed consent was a big piece of the struggle because we were obviously giving resources to communities for free, but the demand for prior information was really critical to these communities. Attendees also said, “We need more workshops, more training, and more resources to understand the depth of how climate policy intersects with our rights. We need to understand where we should be stepping up and how we should be speaking up. Who is telling our young people, who is telling those in chief and council, how are we building a network of people to understand things, who’s advocating for us at the national levels, is it just the IPOs [International Political Organizations]?”
That first meeting, we took a step back and we said, “Ok. We need more than just gathering spaces, we need a social movement vehicle and a mechanism to support this movement of individuals to drive this forward.” We wanted a change so that governments could see the folks in Red Earth Shoal Lake, which is on the border of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, a community that organizes culture camps in their amazing Woodland Cree language. Imagine if we valued this cultural work as part of critical infrastructure to climate policy and climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. What if we looked at the Guardians Program as a necessary component to developing conservation methodologies to meet the sustainable development goals?
Not only that, but what if our communities saw themselves in these climate policies and they didn’t have to be dying, disenfranchised, and impoverished, but they became an empowering story of the power of our communities as opposed to the injustices that we had. We wanted to move away from this frame of poverty porn to the empowerment of our communities. This really was where we focused on this idea of “let’s bring together a steering committee of Indigenous leaders, let’s come together, let’s figure out what this organization could do.”
In January of 2017, we had our inaugural steering committee meeting and brought together some incredible folks in Winnipeg where we discussed how to build resources through a climate change toolkit program and how we can amplify Indigenous climate solutions. We wanted to build a network and host an annual gathering and importantly, build on a framework of sovereignty and self-determination. ICA has no interest in being in meetings with government agencies; what we do have an interest in doing is holding the door open for our communities to enter into those spaces and giving them the resources, skills, and knowledge, that allow them to be powerful, seen, and impossible to be ignored.
In 2017, I quit my job and said, “Ok, I guess I’m going to do this.” The national steering committee asked me to step into the role of Executive Director and for the last five years, I have been working to build up ICA’s team, build the infrastructure, and try to meet that vision and mission that was handed down to us by the steering committee. And this whole project is community-led: it’s not my vision, it’s the vision of our people.
That’s a huge accomplishment to have created the first Indigenous-led climate organization in Canada. It’s been amazing to witness its growth and prominence in the environmental justice scene. You mentioned the problems you saw with the traditional NGOs and I agree that the environmental and climate movements have historically been liberal and very white. They seem to be making more of an effort these days—perhaps because of criticisms that have been mounted—to address these issues. What are your thoughts on them now? And how do you navigate working with them?
I don’t want to say that they are our enemies, because they’re not. The environmental movement isn’t our enemy, but they aren’t our co-conspirators either. That’s the reality. Some of them are our allies and some of them have been—historically and presently—harmful to Indigenous rights movements. Have there been improvements over the last decade? Absolutely. Do I think that it’s because of their desire to change? No. I think the reality is that the Black and Indigenous rights movement, and the people of colour movement have become undeniable and impossible to ignore. White supremacy and colonization are being deeply challenged systemically, and globally, but many organizations haven’t taken heed of the advice, which is that priviledged people need to step back and we need to redistribute resources.
This is where I see failures to address these issues: traditional ENGOs are not actually stepping back, they are just absorbing BIPOC movements. What they’re doing is hiring all these Black and Indigenous and marginalized folks to join their teams to help them build their programming for these groups. But it’s still a white board, it’s still a white organization with deep white supremacist, colonial roots and it doesn’t serve to redistribute resources and power to the racialized groups that have been doing this work on their own. It doesn’t give credence and credibility to these groups that do it independently, that practice self-sovereignty from a self-determined place. NGOs have been waving the Black Lives Matter flag and, when Black Lives Matter says, “Resource us here,” they’re like, “Oh, we’d so love to do that, but you’d be better off if you just joined us and if we just absorbed you into our movement.” The same thing is happening with the Indigenous rights movement. It is the brain drain that we talk about in the Indigenous communities; you get your credentials but you don’t become a teacher in your community, you go teach in the cities because they have Indigenous staffing quotas. And we’re not actually keeping our people in our communities, in our movements, because these other groups are trying to suck them up to justify their work, to justify that they are down for the cause, that support decolonial frameworks. If they were truly for decolonization and the redistribution of access to resources—and I’m not just talking about just wealth, I’m talking about access to decision-making powers—then they would learn to step back and support groups to do it independent of them.
Could you talk more about the role of capitalism and colonialism in the climate crisis: how they intersect and how they are driving destruction?
Colonialism, capitalism, and extractivism have deep roots in white supremacy and are all at the root cause of climate change. It was a way to justify the suppression of other folks based on the colour of their skin, particularly in the Americas, through the stolen labour of African folks and the exploitation, murder, and genocide of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. This was all predicated on systems of deep white supremacy, colonization, and extractivism, whether it was the extraction of human bodies from Africa or the extraction of goods that were shipped back to Europe to build the colonizer’s economy, and then forced upon the original inhabitants or the Indigenous peoples here. This is all a part of the same structures that led us to this great imbalance that we are in now.
Climate change has happened largely because of this separation and this imbalance of humanity from the earth, from the land. And the deep values of Indigenous communities—our languages, culture, food systems, entire identities—are totally enmeshed with the places in which we come from. I am K’ai Taile Dënesųłiné which means “people of the willow, people of the land.” The Chief of my nation once said, in reference to the expansion of the tar sands, “If they destroy the Athabasca Delta and then the entire Delta, who are we?” We are K’ai Taile, which means people of the willow, and the willow is a representation of the Delta. If they destroy that, then who are we? That is how deeply ingrained we are. We’ve had meetings in our communities to talk about relocation, and people say, “We can’t move anywhere else. This is who we are, this is where we come from. If we move somewhere else, then who are we? We’re no longer K’ai Taile.” And so when you think of these deep value systems that many Indigenous peoples have, when you have that deep relationship with land and knowledge where you don’t take too much—you leave berries for the bears, you never shoot a cow moose during mating season—there are so many rules that are built upon relationship with the natural world. Through the relationships, like the kinships that we have with plants and animals and river systems, to mountains, to valleys, to all of the entirety of ecosystems are completely interdependent. When you impose a structure of colonization and extraction, taking without that built-in reciprocity, it creates an imbalance.
When we began visiting communities and talking about climate change within the scientific framework for example—GHGs [greenhouse gases] being out of balance, or the water table—we would ask the community when they first began to notice climate change. A lot of the communities appreciated the scientific knowledge of climate change, but the Elders in these meetings would describe how the berry season has been different, or they would say that they don’t see moose visiting the lands, or that they have seen grizzly bears for the first time. It wasn’t just some random occurrence: this was about global climate change! Elders would talk about the beginning of climate change “when the white man came.”
That is when the narratives of climate changed for us. As a team, we wanted to articulate the reality that colonization caused climate change for the peoples of the Americas. It had to do with imbalance: imbalance caused by forced disconnection from our lands, when colonizers ripped our children out of our communities and out of their homes, to try to assimilate us, to rip our languages out of our mouths, the mouths of our children, to force us into economic systems like capitalism. That is when the climate changed for us, that is when the disruption began.
This is a powerful articulation because at the same time that we talk about colonization, our communities are advocating for the languages that were stolen, for those land practices that colonizers tried to demonize. Our people are standing on the front lines to stop pipelines, to stop mega hydro dams, to stop fracking, to stop tar sands, to stop all of the destruction because we are trying to restore that balance.
To counter the impact of colonization, capitalism, extractivism, and white supremacy, Indigenous peoples’ movements have to restore our balance and our relationships with the natural world. In those struggles, we have held the knowledge for thousands of years that allowed us to safeguard 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. We cannot tackle the climate crisis simply from an accounting of carbon in the atmosphere. We have to address the root causes of climate change and centre Indigenous-led solutions grounded in our value systems.
Let’s get into that. We’ve seen the demand for land back figure prominently in grassroots Indigenous organizing in the last few years. What does land back mean to you and how do we move forward as a country to address the ongoing colonialism?
Land back resonates with our communities because it’s the root. Every community has an association with the land, the place where we are. I think there’s a huge language barrier in articulation because it’s more than a spoken language barrier, it’s a deeper, spiritual language barrier. Allow me to tell another story. I remember my dad teaching me how to track animals. We were walking between trees through the snowand I kept asking my dad a million questions. Then he turned to me and said, “SHH! LISTEN!” I asked, “Listen to what?” and he said, “Shhh! Just listen!” So I stopped and listened. Listened to the land, to the way that the wind blew through the trees. This is not a language from another person, it’s the language of the land. Unless you are taught to listen like that, there is no way to understand.
And so when we talk about land back, it’s not about owning the land, it’s about land back. The land tells you things if you listen to it. It’s about the articulation and the power that land has in changing the ways in which we are in this world. Land needs to be restored for those who can hear it, those who understand these languages. Indigenous peoples are the ones who can provide ways to manage lands sustainably. We have relationships with the land that can move us forward in reciprocity and symbiosis.
So land back is literally land back. It is about farmers and landowners giving the land back, but it’s much deeper than that. It’s about deconstructing systems that tried to take away our language and the relationship we had with the land. It’s water back. It’s our schools back. It’s our health system back. It is everything back. But it does start with the land. It starts with restoring the relationships and languages that we have lost at the hands of colonization. From a land back perspective, it’s about our abilities to push forward our systems of governance, about deciding what’s best for our communities, our river systems, our water systems, our moose, our bison, our caribou, our salmon, our frogs, whatever the relationships we have in our ecosystems.
Land back is not for anyone, it’s for those that can hear the language of the land. It’s about ensuring these systems exist so that our communities can begin healing, so that our healers and our leaders can help mend those wounds of trauma because so many of us have been forced to live in cities because of capitalism and colonization. Land back provides spaces that are safe from the systems of capitalism and colonization. This allows us to go back to places where we can connect with nature. It gives us spaces of our own to govern and manage with our own decision-making processes.
There are experiments where Indigenous folks are working with landowners and farmers, they’re not giving the land back wholly but they’re building the steps to allow Indigenous peoples to freely utilize their lands and territories for hunting, fishing, and trapping purposes, to honour the treaties. This is a really smart step towards land back. But in a more radical sense, land back is about reclamation. That’s what we’re seeing in Wet’suwet’en and other strong frontline movements. There is not one proper way to do this: it might be done through cooperation or force. We need to have humility and know that we don’t have the answers to everything and also that there is not one pan-Indigenous framework that’s going to work for every community. There are close to 750 different Indigenous communities in Canada, with over 635 First Nations, 50 Inuit settlements, and a number of disputed Métis settlements. We’re talking about many individuals, unique communities with their own identities, I have talked about mine, ts’ékui Dënesųłiné, just think of that times 750 in this country. And each community has their own issues and challenges that are unique to their ecosystems, biomes, political and economic infrastructures, and all of the other pieces that play a part in the socio-economic impacts of colonization. And so each community is going to have a different articulation of what it means to have land back, what it means to decolonize, what it means to fight back, and what is necessary to move forward.
A recent report from IEN revealed that Indigenous resistance staved off 25 percent of US and Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. This is quite significant and of course a lot of this is being done through direct action. When considering direct action, what is the practical way forward to elevate land back in order to ensure that Indigenous communities have sovereignty over their own land and decision-making? How do we get there?
Direct action is an incredibly important aspect of the struggle because colonial structures have been in place for so long, particularly with regard to the economic systems and regulatory permitting systems: structures that were all created long before Indigenous people were even granted the rights to legal counsel. For example, the Natural Resources Transfer Acts (NRTA) is a system that the colonial government of Canada gave to the provinces to determine how the lands or the natural resources would be utilized and how their economies would be built in each province. No Indigenous person had anything to do with the NRTAs. And so there was a clear violation of treaties from the very beginning.
There is a need for direct action because colonial governments have given corporations precedence over Indigenous rights—whether it’s a real estate owner, or a pipeline, or a mega hydro dam, or a federally-owned pipeline. Canada is violating human rights and the rights of Indigenous communities by not upholding and adhering to the treaties and the foundations of this country and it requires us to challenge those legal structures. Direct action or civil disobedience is when you are actively disobeying the laws. But whose laws are we disobeying? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves because the biggest form of “civil disobedience” came from the British Crown when they arrived and declared these lands their colony. They arrived and disobeyed the laws and governance that had been here for thousands of years.
As we fight against systems of colonization, civil disobedience plays an important role, but we’re not being disobedient, we’re not breaking laws: We are upholding our own laws. Whose laws are broken when Indigenous peoples fight back? It is colonial law that has broken Indigenous laws and governance systems in the first place. We have to, as a society, deconstruct the existing legal systems and start to decolonize our frameworks, our minds, and the way that we see things. Even within the context of climate solutions, we have become so narrow in our focus that they are only considered viable if they also support the capitalist economy. It’s become an economic discussion as opposed to an actual environmental discussion.
We have to challenge this economic determinism in our movements because it is a fabrication of the system of colonization that has no place on this planet. I’m an anti-capitalist. And that means we have to reframe the discussion. If we’re not beholden to these systems of capitalism, what are we beholden to? What laws and governance systems do we we want for our people, for our communities, for the land, for the relationships that we have? How do we move forward? Who are the leaders? Who are the ones guiding and holding those values in the community? Because we can’t be in a community with people unless we all hold those same values, and these systems must be in place to more forward.
There are important questions people need to ask themselves to understand power and their place within it. Where is your power? What is your privilege? What do you have access to? How can you deconstruct your own systems? How do you decolonize that? How do you redistribute your power and privilege? How can you learn when to step back, and when to step forward? We live in a white supremacist society and white revolutionaries need to learn how to use their priviledge in a co-conspirating way with communities and allies.
If you are an ally and you are a non-Indigenous person in this movement, do not come forward with the ways that you think land back should be done. It is not your place to determine what is to be done. That’s why I say check your privilege, because a lot of white allies have a vision of how to move forward and some communities aren’t ready. Some communities haven’t done the healing that they need to do. Some communities need resources to heal so they have leaders that are healthy in their mind, body, and spirit, so that we can build that relationship with our languages, with our culture. This requires patience. We have to allow communities to determine what’s best for them and when it’s best for them. We have to meet them where they’re at. And so while we want to rush to the finish line and be like, “Yes! Land back for everybody!” some communities might not want that right now. We have to be careful about not forcing our radical ideologies on other folks. We have to work with the communities, meet them where they’re at, and trust their processes as they move forward.
Lastly, we need to support things that don’t necessarily seem like they’re part of the equation. For example, when we’ve held gatherings with Indigenous folks, sometimes they have unusual requests like a SIM card so they can stay in touch with their family. You’ve got to think about the lived realities of these communities and you need to listen and be prepared to meet those needs. You cannot have a preconceived notion of what those particular needs might be. There might be needs that you’ve never thought of before and you need to be willing to shift and meet the needs of communities as they move and transition into being the sovereign, autonomous nations.
Do you agree with the politics of a just transition, especially given that non-Indigenous workers are pitted against Indigenous workers? What is the role of the government in the development of a just transition? How do we build a working-class, Indigenous-led climate justice movement that can lead us to some sort of structural transition so that we can live in a way that respects Indigenous rights and people can have jobs that are not destructive?
The anti-capitalist in me says it’s not going to be possible within the confines of colonial-capitalism, but the reality is we need a just transition. We need to advocate for clean jobs, although defining “clean” jobs is problematic. Often, when we think about clean jobs, we think of solar panels, wind farms, and even clean coal. Ugh. The reality is that Indigenous communities have been engaged in clean economies for thousands of years but this isn’t valued in a capitalist economy. Under capitalism, unless there is a return on investment, unless you can commodify and accumulate wealth away from the masses, then it is not considered viable. We have to challenge what a just transition looks like and what it upholds. Are we upholding the status quo of predatory capitalism? Or are we moving towards an economic system that redistributes wealth and creates a just system, and not simply a green one.
I think that Indigenous communities and those that have been on the front lines of environmental racism should benefit the most from these transitions. They should be leading them. If your community has been the site of a toxic waste dump, as those industries shift, you deserve reparations. The profits must go back to the impacted communities, and the people, not the corporations, should be leading the transition.
Phasing out fossil fuels is part of the just transition dialogue. We’ve got to get ourselves off of fossil fuels. It’s so paramount at this point, not just for the environment, but from a human rights and an Indigenous rights perspective.
The federal government is also talking about a “just transition,” but they aren’t using the foundations of a justice framework. And you can’t have true justice being given from a colonial system that was actually created to oppress others. A just transition cannot be led by the oppressor. A just transition can only be driven by the grassroots and those communities that have been disenfranchised and oppressed. If we allow the federal government to lead a just transition we are at risk of them replicating those same systems of harm. We have to allow Indigenous peoples and oppressed peoples to define what those systems of transition really are. We also have to broaden our scope of what viable economies are by looking beyond the present, to what existed for centuries before colonization. Once we’re able to undo the legacies of colonialism, we can start to actually move towards a just transition. *