At a momentous conference in fall 2017, Chiefs of Ontario and the Ontario First Nations Young Peoples Council hosted a diverse group of Youth and Elders to discuss climate change from an Indigenous perspective: its impacts on communities, regions, ecologies, and species; how to foster better dialogue and exchange on the topic; and how different communities can adapt to our changing planet.
During the first weekend of November 2017, Scout Environmental had the privilege of hosting a workshop at “Reconnecting with Mother Earth: A Youth and Elders Gathering on Climate Change.” Organized by Chiefs of Ontario (COO) and the Ontario First Nations Young Peoples Council (OFNYPC) in Thunder Bay, the conference brought Youth and Elders together to discuss the subject of climate change for the first time in this province. Specifically, it set out to explore what climate change means — really means — to Indigenous communities, ecosystems, food sources, and ways of life.
Enabling timely reflections on food sovereignty, natural spiritual law, youth leadership, and more, those three days were charged with hope and optimism, active engagement and empowerment — excitement over the chance for vital dialogue across multiple generations. But they were also charged with gravity, solemnity, and grief: for the Missing and Murdered, for the youth lost to suicide, and for those who have lost their livelihoods, languages, and families across Canada. This was a significant event, grounded in a resolution that collective solutions were necessary to overcome today’s most complex challenges.
The following is our record of the workshop and the wide-ranging discussions that took place, with an expression of thanks to all the organizers and participants. Special thanks are also due to Environmental Defence, which provided funding to Scout to support work on delivering education and awareness centred on tackling climate change and enabling climate action.
The Climate Change Workshops: An Overview
Over the afternoon of Saturday, November 4th, Scout Environmental facilitated three workshops, each involving a different selection of Youth and Elder attendees. Participants were seated in a circle to invite open, face-to-face discussions. And each group was asked three questions.
First: what does climate change mean to you, and your community? Second: what forms of communication are you currently using — and which would you like to use — in order to discuss issues related to climate change? And third: what would you like to know more about the subject? After a broad discussion, participants were invited to record any insights and reflections they had on communal sheets of paper to help Scout gather a growing multiplicity of responses.
Finally, each workshop ended with an open forum: a chance for final thoughts on communication strategies, on how climate change is affecting particular regions or sectors, on funding opportunities to deal with changing environmental conditions, and where we might go from here.
What Does Climate Change Mean to Indigenous Youth and Elders?
According to attendees, traditional practices and ways of life are being jeopardized by sudden, acute changes in weather, plant and animal behaviour, and pollution levels.
Fluctuating temperatures mean waterways are proving dangerously unpredictable. In warm months, lakes, rivers, and streams are overflowing (thus flooding and damaging settled areas) or drying up, preventing access to fresh water and fish. In the winter, ice roads are thawing sooner in the year, endangering those traveling by foot or vehicle, and obstructing usual methods of trade and communication. And in the summers, wildfires threaten enormous tracts of land, while extreme heatwaves pose a very real danger to communities and ecosystems.
Moreover, polluted waters, sport fishing, extreme weather, deforestation, and other forces have had a calamitous effect on plant and animal life. Participants noted that many species are encountered in fewer numbers than before. Others are suffering from new and troubling diseases — as are a wide variety of plant and tree species. Animal migratory patterns have changed, often dramatically, in response to hotter temperatures and a lack of food, creating problems for hunting and trapping. And new invasive species — plant, animal, and insect (including the deer tick, which carries Lyme disease) — threaten to unbalance ecosystems and cause further health crises.
How Can We Better Communicate About Climate Change?
One of the key outcomes of the workshop were our discussions around communication, knowledge-sharing, and education. Attendees spoke about the need to share information from different communities, often across vast distances. They also discussed optimal strategies for sharing across generations and languages: how to connect people with varying levels of comfort with technology and communication channels, as well as access to WiFi.
Harnessing Tradition and Making Things Accessible. Most importantly, attendees expressed a desire for more opportunities for Youth and Elders to join together, share their perspectives, and exchange ideas: for Elders to pass on traditional knowledge, histories, languages, and ways of life, and for Youth to share contemporary strategies for organizing, communicating, and learning about climate change-related issues.
Accessibility is thus paramount. Both Youth and Elder attendees acknowledged that, where possible, climate change should be taught on the land — and not in the classroom. But for those learning about climate change in public schools, participants expressed a need for age-appropriate curricula, and for all students, to mitigate the mixed messaging of online discourse.
Developing More Climate Change-Centric Events. Participants noted that where climate change has been discussed, conversations have taken place online via social media, email, and newsletters; and in person at conferences, town meetings, school functions, band meetings, and ceremonial events, organized using word of mouth, radio, and online reminders. However, attendees felt that community discussions weren’t happening nearly enough: more individuals need to become advocates for change and education. Discussions around climate change need to be a more prominent element of annual events and sharing circles. And more events like “Reconnecting with Mother Earth” would assist in achieving these goals, allowing Youth and Elders focused and concentrated periods of time to listen and learn from one another.
Using New Media. Social media messaging — from and for an Indigenous audience — needs to be organized and amplified. (Note: the conference used the hashtag #YouthEnviroChange to collect photographs, videos, and text responses). A digital network — or series of networks — around climate change awareness, much like the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), would also be warmly received and highly effective in centralizing clear, coherent, and useful information. A web-based network would also help reach people in remote Northern communities who have access to the Internet: people who are facing the immediate effects of climate change but have limited access to urban-based events or resources.
Looking Forward to Future Events
Ultimately, Scout Environmental was honoured to participate in a function that held so much promise and importance: for both Indigenous communities and our shared environmental wellbeing. Attendees left with renewed energy and a resolve to keep discussions around climate change going: in their own communities and across public channels.
With a sense of hope and empowerment, organizers see “Reconnecting with Mother Earth” as only the beginning — a springboard for future events. Both the COO and OFNYPC are planning a series of upcoming workshops and conferences that aim to tackle climate change from an Indigenous point of view. These events are designed to harness the potential of multi-generational sharing, traditional knowledge, and cross-community conversations to maintain health, wellbeing, and safety on our changing planet.
Scout Environmental looks forward to all future opportunities for learning and dialogue around climate change and, once again, wishes to thank everyone who listened, spoke, and participated at “Reconnecting with Mother Earth.”