Climate Change Symposium: Solutions will require human intervention

By John Copley

(ANNews) – Last month, Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta joined with Treaty 6 and 7 First Nations to hold a symposium hosted by Indigenous Climate Action: An Indigenous led climate change initiative. The November symposium followed an event held in May 2017 when MacEwan University and the Solar Energy Society of Alberta (SESA) played host to a public seminar focused on First Nations Solar, an energy source that is creating attention, gaining momentum and changing the habits of Canadians from coast to coast. Though not a direct follow-up to the May gathering, the latest symposium, which was held at the River Cree Resort, remained focused on what First Nations in the province can do to ensure that their futures remain bright, strong, well-lit and warm.

Symposium emcee Tanya Kappo spoke briefly about the day’s events and topics and introduced the first speaker, Alberta Treaty 8 First Nations Chief Operating Officer, Joseph (Joe) Jobin.

In a brief welcoming, Jobin noted that the plan to host the climate change symposium was hatched last year, soon after the Chiefs of Treaties 6, 7, and 8 met with Alberta government Ministers Richard Feehan (Indigenous Relations) and Shannon Phillips (Environment) on climate change issues and concerns. Ms. Phillips is also the Minister Responsible for the Climate Change Office.

“Alberta wanted to hear what we thought about climate change, what First Nations priorities are and what role the Chiefs see themselves playing. They told ministers that they do want to participate, that they are very concerned about climate change but (that until now) they hadn’t yet been presented with a path for that participation.”

Being of like-mind, noted Jobin, the Chiefs began to speak together about the reality of what lies ahead if climate change continues or worsens. He also acknowledged the ongoing work of Treaty 8 staff who went to conferences and seminars and made contact with Chiefs and communities throughout Treaties 6, 7 and 8.

Treaty 8 Chief Operating Officer Joseph Jobin

“That’s what this meeting is all about,” explained Jobin. “It begins with our commonalties, what we can do together, what we can do as individuals. We looked for allies; today we have leadership involved, we have community technicians, activists, and so far, more than 200 people in Treaties 6-7-8 communities have registered. There are many different ways we can work together to address climate change strategies within a treaty perspective. We need to get together on this one; we need to work together. Climate change is something that is going to affect us all.”

After the symposium, additional meetings were held with First Nations throughout the province and reports are being written based on the studies and findings that came out of those meetings.

Treaty 8 Deputy Grand Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom is a member of the Woodland Cree First Nation. When he took to the podium he firmly noted: “Climate change is here; it’s hard to deny it.”

He told the gathering that during a recent meeting in Ottawa with several other First Nation Chiefs, Inuit and Métis leaders, there was a push to limit the climate rise to no more than two degrees. 

“The Inuit,” he said, were taken aback by that figure because, noted the Chief, “they said the temperature had already risen by more than 14 degrees over the past 10 years.”

Treaty 8 Deputy Grand Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom

He also spoke about “food shortages, overheating, flooding, and the worsening fire situations – like the ones in B.C. this past year. Climate change and the changing environment is something we are seeing with our own eyes. Hunting is also being affected; 20 years ago, we could go out and find a moose in a few hours, maybe a day or two but now you can look for two weeks. Our Elders have to travel further and further, even hundreds of miles to find a better hunting ground. These areas have sustained us for hundreds of years.”

Finding solutions, he noted, may only come if each person who lives on this earth is willing to do his and her part to ensure the longevity of the planet. He talked about the various forms of pollution and noted that even the vehicles we drive, the lights we burn and the heat and water we both use and waste are also responsible for rising temperatures and a decaying layer of ozone.

“Even if we can use more efficient light bulbs, maybe drive an electric car in the cities and smaller engined vehicles in the communities – we could help to lessen our impact on the environment. Maybe most important, we have to increase our standards; we have to say, hey, I’m going to walk down to the band office instead of driving my truck today. Change that light bulb today so that we can start showing our kids and teaching them about climate change. We all need to make some changes; if we carry on like we always have, our kids won’t have a future. We have to be both creative and innovative in our actions and our policies around climate change; together we can make a difference.”

Event Emcee Tanya Kappo

A slight change in the morning schedule gave Tanya Kappo an opportunity to address the subject of climate change and what it means. Kappo is a Treaty 8 First Nations employee who provides advisory assistance and support. A graduate of the Faculty of Law at the University of Manitoba, Kappo also completed International Law at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is also a practicing lawyer who specializes in representing Indian Residential School survivors.

“It’s really important,” she stressed, “to get the communities to start talking about climate change – what is it and what does it mean? When I think of climate change the foremost thing that comes to mind is our responsibilities. I was taught that our treaty relationships and the treaties themselves translate to our responsibility to the lands, to the waters and to the ones who cannot speak for themselves, and for the ones who are not born yet. My mother told me that our most stringent environmental covenant, no matter what treaty we are from, is based on the term: as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the waters flow. This statement (from the treaties) alone tells us about the important responsibility we have. Our treaty relationship isn’t just about the rights that it gives us, but also about the responsibilities that we have to honour (the treaties).

“When you think about climate change you think about the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. I think that it is no secret that as Indigenous people we have known for a long time that the situation has grown worse and is becoming very dire. Our actions as human beings, especially as they relate to resource development, are having a significant and very detrimental effect on the land and in the water. The consequences of this development are affecting us, just as they are affecting our wilderness relatives, the animals.”

She reiterated Chief Laboucan-Avirom’s words about the diminishing hunting grounds and noted that “it is heartbreaking and devastating to hear the Elders, the trappers and hunters, talk about the changes in their lifestyle. They are often very emotional, stressed and crying about these changes to the land. These negative effects of a warming climate affects each one of us because of our close relationship with the land and the water.”

Kappo talked about other influences, that combined with climate change, continue to have a negative impact on Indigenous peoples and communities. These included the impact of residential schools, a near 200-year period of church-run schools that worked tirelessly to eliminate Indigenous language, tradition and culture. Racist government policy, coupled with cruelly misguided intentions and forced religious beliefs interrupted Indigenous connections to the land for nearly two centuries. It was a time, noted Kappo, “where we as Indigenous peoples lost much of our knowledge.”

Slave Lake Climate Leader Becky Abalon

She also spoke about how climate change and the ramifications of the Residential School era have forced more and more Aboriginal people into the urban areas and away from the land.

“It’s important to maintain our connection to the land,” assured Kappo, “because if we are unable to have those relationships with the land anymore, I think it may be easy for the government to say ‘we don’t have to acknowledge and recognize treaties or Aboriginal rights anymore because you don’t live like that anymore. And that’s not a choice that any of us would ever make.”

Kappo also spoke about political changes.

“We have a provincial government that is open to having this conversation about climate change, although we still have a lot of work to do to get to talk to them about what it really means, as opposed to the energy efficiency ideas that seem to be their priority. There is a lot more to climate change than putting solar panels on our buildings or staking our economic development goals for bio-mass fuel or whatever is out there. These are important parts to it but there’s a lot more to consider.”

In closing, Kappo promoted conversation and awareness and noted that there “are a lot of things to think about as we move forward, things that we can do collectively to support these climate change efforts for all of our communities and for our children’s communities tomorrow.”

Louis Bull First Nation councilor Desmond Bull was the next speaker. A former educator, Desmond Bull is in his second term as an elected councilor. Last year he enrolled in a five-day solar energy course and then went on to develop energy efficiency and solar projects for his home community. Last summer he was appointed to the Alberta Energy Efficiency Advisory Panel by Minister Shannon Phillips. During the last seven years Bull has been successfully involved in various projects and continues to develop his skills in environmental science, solar distribution and business management. As a first-year councilor he became involved in solar energy after his band saw a successful initiative undertaken by the Montana Tribe to install solar power in their community.

Louis Bull Tribe Councillor Desmond Bull

At a meeting this May he said, “the goal with solar is to offset our energy costs and to repurpose the savings into other much-needed programs within our Tribe’s various departments. This type of project allowed us to create our own energy, pass that development on through training and be environmentally responsible.”

Taking the podium at the River Cree Resort, Bull talked about Louis Bull’s solar initiative and how it was making a positive difference in the community. He also noted the importance of educating the community, saying that knowledge about solar technology would go “a long way to benefit” our community, “but more important, it will enhance environmental responsibility and sustainable practices.”

Bull went on to talk about the numerous solar projects that have been completed on the Louis Bull Nation, noting that in 2016 the band was able to connect solar power to four of the community’s main buildings: Louis Bull’s Tribal Training Centre, Public Works Building and Fire Hall, and the Maskwacis Health Centre.

Vickie Wetchie, General Manager of the Montana Band’s Green Arrow Corporation.

Other topics introduced by Bull included waste treatment, reclamation, restoration, community project partners & sponsors and training initiatives that saw community members participate in the installation of a “100 percent fully funded, eight-kilowatt solar system on our community daycare,” a project he said was “truly enhanced by the cultural integration that my tribe offered as host, including cultural ceremony, practices and protocol.”

The cultural integration initiative also included “a cultural celebration with our Elders giving their blessing to the project. Our local school students performed powwow music with traditional dances and a traditional meal of moose meat, with gifts in exchange.”

Solar Energy Society of Alberta (SESA) Executive Director Rob Harlan addressed the symposium and spoke briefly about SESA and its 41 years of commitment to the environment.

Rob Harlan

“I can think of nothing more important to do than sit together and talk about balance in this day and age of climate change,” he assured after taking the mic. SESA is up to date in the solar industry and a leader when it comes to promoting environmental safety and awareness training and initiatives.

During his talk to the gathering, Harlan welcomed First Nations and invited them to get involved with the Society and to utilize the information and services it has gathered, developed and offered over the years. Formed in 1976 as the Northern Alberta Chapter of the Solar Energy Society of Canada Inc. (SESCI-NAC) the society is mandated to advance the awareness, understanding and use of solar energy as well as other renewable energy and conservation technologies.

Other speakers during the day-long symposium included Green Energy Corporation manager, Vickie Wetchie, Treaty 8 Elder Mike Beaver, Elder Jane Dragon, Peter Cardinal, Glenda Abbott, Cowboy Smith X, Sadie Phoenix Lavoie and Curtis McAdam.

Indigenous Climate Action (ICA) was formed in 2015 and remains the only Indigenous-led climate justice organization in Canada that prioritizes Indigenous peoples and communities as agents of change for climate change solutions.

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