Settler-led climate discussions often treat Indigenous rights as an addendum; textbooks will add a chapter or an asterisk on how the topics of climate justice or environmental activism relate to Indigenous peoples, treating these two areas of social justice – that is, Indigenous rights and climate justice – as related but separate areas of scholarship. In their new book, The End of This World: Climate Justice in So-Called Canada, co-authors Angele Alook, Emily Eaton, David Gray-Donald, Joël Laforest, Crystal Lameman, and Bronwen Tucker reverse this trend. Situating the book within a growing global discourse about how to combat climate change in a fair way, the authors’ central thesis is that grappling with the climate crisis is inseparable from Indigenous rights: we cannot and must not achieve one without the other.
Contemporary capitalism depends on a deeply rooted structure of land theft. Everything in North America, from farms to cities to political systems, is built on land that was stolen from Indigenous nations. That theft continues today with an economy that is primarily extractive, relying on fossil fuel resources that are forcibly removed from Indigenous lands. A climate solution – and, for that matter, any political solution to any political problem – that does not actively reverse this trend only serves to continue it. This means that a climate justice solution that is not anti-colonial will be a new kind of colonial: “greening theft.” Morally wrong, a green colonialism is also practicably misguided, because Indigenous knowledge (including but not limited to traditional ecological knowledge [TEK]) offers transformative and necessary solutions. What’s more, political sovereignty puts necessary limits on capitalism – as Indigenous peoples exercise a right to say “no,” resource capitalists will be forced to think outside of the extractive economy.
A non-extractive economic future begins and ends with Indigenous sovereignty. This can be a challenging place to start, especially in the Prairies, where the extractive economy is very strong and where families have deep roots in farming.
I had the chance to sit down with co-authors David Gray-Donald and Emily Eaton. I opened the conversation with a question about the book’s central thesis about the interdependence of climate justice and Indigenous sovereignty, as well as how it feels to combine these concepts on the ground, with the people.
“We had some interactions at a book launch event with people who were very offended by the term settler,” Gray-Donald shares. “This comes up in organizing spaces, where people have very strong feelings about their experience, their families’ experience, and not wanting to feel shame, not wanting to confront what’s really going on. It happens with men, especially with white people […] it’s been a big issue in the climate movement.”
A shared vision of a good life is both a requirement for and a by-product of a successful social movement. If we meet people where they’re at, finding parallels with where we’re at, and if we build relationships with them, we will end up far more aligned than when we started.
Co-author Eaton points out, on the other hand, how this barrier can be overcome by shared visions. We spoke at length about a teaching co-author Angele Alook describes in beautiful detail throughout the book: the nehiyaw concept of miyo-pimatisiwin, which I understand to mean living a good life with balance between family and meaningful, decent work, within an economy centred on care for human and non-human creatures, and for the land.
Eaton described to me how Alook is guided by this concept in all the work she does, and Eaton has come to see its influence in her own work as well. Eaton regularly sees a similarly articulated vision for good, hands-on, meaningful work for farmers, their loved ones, and those who come after them: “[If you] really try to represent peoples’ stories in the ways that they see the world, they want good, dignified work, because they want to live well in the world – it’s different than how we would say it in the climate movement […] but what they do [discuss] are good, wholesome values about working outdoors because they like being in nature, they want to raise children. A lot of them are engaged in this work because they want a future for their children.”
Ultimately, Eaton posits, the people she meets in rural Saskatchewan also on some level intrinsically understand the need to overcome the colonial paradigm in Canada: “Although there’s a lot of backlash against reconciliation, I think in the end there is a deep unease [...] and they want to right it.” Eaton reflects that this concept – carefully and patiently woven into every chapter of this book by Alook – is shared by all the people she works with, regardless of how they are socially situated: “We are part of systems that make living in this world impossible and everyone has this basic urge and drive. They want to live in a good relationship with their neighbours and the world.”
“It’s a matter of not individualizing blame onto people, but helping us see what the system is that is acting on us, how we fit into it, and finding solutions, being part of a movement together.”
A wonderful paradox emerges: a shared vision of a good life is both a requirement for and a by-product of a successful social movement. If we meet people where they’re at, finding parallels with where we’re at, and if we build relationships with them, we will end up far more aligned than when we started. And it is only from this place that we achieve real change.
The authors repeatedly state that we cannot bring about substantial climate justice without functional, effective collective action. Right now, extractive fossil fuel capitalism is hegemonic – it seems insurmountable, irreplaceable, and inevitable. The wealthy capitalist class is more organized, better resourced, and winning. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The authors point out that some opinion polls show that 79 per cent of people in Canada express moderate support for a transition away from fossil fuels in which financial support is provided to low- and moderate-income households, and 72 per cent support accelerated action to implement the calls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Chapter 7 discusses solidarity in great depth, pointing out that “a failure to put relationships first has instead often led to our movements being unable to have generative conflict […] without building up the skills and relationships to do so, groups either generate ‘laundry lists’ instead of focused strategies or they collapse at the first sign of differences.”
The question of overcoming conflict and difference is critical if we are to build mass movements, especially because “large numbers of working-class people, suffering the effects of job loss and the decline of social welfare [...] get recruited into white supremacist and nationalist movements.” I ask Gray-Donald and Eaton to share their personal thoughts on solidarity and tolerance. I am wondering about these ideas particularly because of the heightened state of political tension that I personally feel is pervasive within activist communities.
“We are part of systems that make living in this world impossible and everyone has this basic urge and drive. They want to live in a good relationship with their neighbours and the world.”
My question is long-winded: “The book really emphasizes that we need everyone and that we need to build up our movements in a substantial way. But there are also huge divisions that emerge within and between groups that work toward different areas of social justice. Land Back, defunding the police, migrant justice, racial justice, gender justice, and class justice are woven together very thoughtfully throughout this book, but many people have not yet even begun to link these things together, and they disagree – sometimes vehemently – on how these concepts relate to each other. If we need everyone, how do we balance the visions we don’t share with the ones we do?
My interviewees pause for a moment, glancing at each other. We are all a little uncomfortable, I think, but Eaton offers the following: “The book talks about meeting people where they’re at [...] definitely most of our members in [the Treaty Land Sharing Network] did not come to the network understanding [treaties] completely, but there’s a certain base level understanding of Treaty as a need to share things and we want to be good neighbours, and that’s maybe where we start [...] But then the work doesn’t end there. In the network, people are exposed to deeper understandings of what Treaty means. I think it really is about meeting people where they’re at, [even] somebody who hasn’t been involved in […] all of the axes of inequality [and who] may never have interacted with people in ways that really recognize their identities and struggles.”
Gray-Donald, nodding, expands on the importance of being harder on systems than we are on each other: “We talk in the book and in the climate movement about not trying to blame individuals for emissions […] these things are much bigger than an individual level, and individuals may not have thought about or might not situate themselves regularly within that bigger picture [...] it’s a matter of not individualizing blame onto people, but helping us see what the system is that is acting on us, how we fit into it, and finding solutions, being part of a movement together.”
“Green energy infrastructure; safe, secure, and social housing; and clean transportation for all are tangible goods that we can deliver collectively through well-paying unionized jobs while righting the relationships that allow for the coexistence of Indigenous and settler peoples in these lands.”
Eaton and I bounce some ideas back and forth about the importance of collective work being project-oriented: less talking, more doing, building relationships through hands-on active labour, coming together to physically work toward a shared goal. “That is how solidarity is built,” says Eaton. “It’s not built on an abstract sense of [being committed] to all the axes of inequality in the world – it’s built [when] we both want the same future, and we both have our eyes on the prize.”
Something Eaton says in passing sticks with me: “we should evaluate what we’re putting our time toward.”
In chapter 6, “Changing the Political Weather,” the authors dig into the importance of winnability, of transformative strategy that achieves real, tangible goals. In Eaton’s words, “there is an importance of working collectively toward an achievable goal, and an importance of kindness: It’s amazing what a handful of people can do and the gains that can be made by a handful of committed people if they work well together and they pick something that’s winnable or there’s measurable progress, tangible success […] We also have to treat each other well – conflict and bad feelings can really be formative in the process, but it has to be with good people and there has to be a sense that we’re making a difference.”
The authors are clear that we have a lot of work to do, and nobody is going to do it for us: “Today’s movements are not yet strong or interconnected enough to force meaningful concessions from Canada’s ruling colonial and capitalist political alignment, let alone replace it with an alternative one.” On the other hand, they outline several simple steps for getting started, and they describe the tangible, achievable results of the work we must do: “Green energy infrastructure; safe, secure, and social housing; and clean transportation for all are tangible goods that we can deliver collectively through well-paying unionized jobs while righting the relationships that allow for the coexistence of Indigenous and settler peoples in these lands.”
Their message is firm, but also hopeful.