“It’s no joke. We’re almost under the ocean,” said Pete Keevik, an Inuvialuk hunter, trapper, and fisher, in a message to the global COP26 climate conference.
Earlier this month, the Glasgow, Scotland-based conference ended in an 11th-hour deal in which the nations of the world promised more steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
In a video posted to Twitter, Keevik described the thinning ice, water rising, and waves lapping at his home in Tuktoyaktuk, a Northwest Territories community that has been battered by Arctic coastal erosion.
“Come down to my part of the country and I can literally show you that climate change is happening,” he said.
Keevik’s message was echoed by Indigenous delegates at COP26, so named because it was the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) since the 1994 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change came into force, a landmark treaty that first acknowledged human-induced interference with the climate.
“Indigenous peoples are in the front line of the climate emergency and we must be at the centre of the decisions happening here,” said Walelasoetxeige Paiter Bandeira Suruí, from the Paiter Suruí people in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, who was the third speaker at the opening of COP26.
Though the Northwest Territories’ four-person delegation contained no Indigenous representation, those on the trip insisted they brought Indigenous views with them.
Environment minister Shane Thompson, whose territory is experiencing three times the globe’s average rate of warming, said he shared stories at COP26 such as a warning from Mayor of Tuktoyaktuk Erwin Elias that the whole community will be flooded by 2050 – the date by which the Canadian government has said it will reach net-zero emissions.
Katrina Nokleby, the Great Slave MLA, accompanied Thompson to Glasgow. Spending most of her time at COP26’s Indigenous Peoples’ Pavilion, Nokleby said the message of Indigenous ownership and capacity-building, “so that they can be the ones directing the work and decision-making,” resonated with her.
“I truly believe that’s the way we solve the climate crisis,” Nokleby said, “if we empower our Indigenous people.”
Thompson said that message is getting through. Indigenous people are stewards of 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, he said, and “we need to listen to them.”
Indigenous speakers at the climate summit were far more blunt.
“It took you 25 COPs to understand what Indigenous peoples have known forever: our planet is alive,” said Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an environmental activist from Chad, in central Africa.
“Soil are her skin, forests are her hair, rivers are her blood, and today, the Earth is sick. Probably dying.”
With vast historical and contemporary knowledge of biodiversity, Oumarou Ibrahim said Indigenous peoples have “a PhD in reforestation and sustainable management of land” that is only now barely recognized by governments.
Even so, Indigenous peoples cannot simply be recipients or beneficiaries of climate conservation policies that come from above, she said. They must be leaders.
“We have the map,” Oumarou Ibrahim told COP26. “We know where we are going, and we know how to drive. So give us the key.”
NWT shows leadership can begin at home
COP26’s latest pledges to limit emissions received a lukewarm reception in some quarters. Promises made still fall far short of the stated goal of limiting the Earth’s temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
Asked how COP26 would affect the NWT’s response to the climate crisis, Thompson reiterated his territory’s reliance on federal leadership and pointed to existing mitigation plans.
But Steven Nitah, a former NWT politician who helped to create the Thaidene Nëné National Park and Indigenous Protected Area, believes people can take action locally without waiting for major summits like COP26 to change things.
“For too long, we put too much emphasis and faith in national leaders,” said Nitah, now a member of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, or ILI, which helps to establish more Indigenous protected and conserved areas.
“The action required is on the ground,” Nitah told Cabin Radio, contradicting Thompson’s message. “It’s at the regional level, at the jurisdictional level of the Northwest Territories.”
Nitah believes the NWT’s peoples have already achieved some of the action he is talking about, in the form of land conservation. He says that not only achieves environmental goals but forms an economic policy.
“Most of the energy around supporting Indigenous initiatives is for the global south. Can’t argue against that,” he said.
“The fact is, the boreal region of the country is probably one of the most economically depressed areas, but one of the four regions of the Earth that’s absolutely critical for addressing climate change.
“It’s very difficult to create employment and economies in the boreal region, outside of resource development. Creating Indigenous protected and conserved areas, as well as associated guardian areas, as well as tourism, knowledge transfer, and research programs… could create sustainable employment across the boreal region.”
Dahti Tsetso, who is Tłı̨chǫ Dene, is a deputy director of ILI and played a key role in forming the Edéhzhíe Dehcho Protected Area. Together, Edéhzhíe and Thaidene Nëné protect an area of boreal forest one and a half times the size of Great Slave Lake.
Tsetso says COP26 was not a complete write-off for the NWT as two of its more promising outcomes – an agreement to halt deforestation and associated funding for Indigenous peoples – can apply to the boreal forest as much as massive tropical rainforests like the Amazon and the Congo basin.
The ILI argues the boreal forest stores carbon deep in permafrost, peatlands, and soil, a form of long-term storage that is unique compared to those tropical forests. ILI says the boreal forest holds twice as much carbon, per hectare.
Much of the boreal forest’s conservation is being led by Indigenous nations.
Edéhzhíe and Thaidene Nëné have led the way. Many other proposals across Canada are advancing, including the Seal River Watershed, a Nova Scotia-sized section of northern Manitoba estimated to hold 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon.
Tsetso says protecting areas like Edéhzhíe requires “a fundamental shift in your approaches to land management, when you take an Indigenous worldview.” Making decisions with that worldview, she argues, naturally provides solutions to many challenges of climate change.
When the process to establish Edéhzhíe was languishing and the community was frustrated, Tsetso recalled the inspiration she took from meeting Australian Indigenous rangers. Her goal became that her own children would one day have the ability to dream about being a guardian.
As “eyes and ears of the land,” the Dehcho K’ehodi Guardians play a substantial role in monitoring Edéhzhíe. On a broader scale, the pride people take from that work is healing and creates a ripple effect on community well-being, Tsetso said.
“The assimilation policy of Canada,” sad Nitah, “was to take Indigenous people off the land, take their lands away from them, and they did it in large part by taking away their responsibilities.”
He argues the key is restoring not only Indigenous peoples’ rights but, critically, their responsibility for “creation, governance, management, and operation” of protected areas.
Jobs and tourism opportunities linked to this kind of protection are being created in the community of Łutsël K’é, outside Thaidene Nëné, sometimes in partnership with federal agencies.
“That’s pretty-much the reversal of the assimilation policy,” Nitah said.
“To me, that’s the best reconciliation initiative. It talks about land, it talks about responsibility, addresses biodiversity protection, and addresses climate change.”
There are now more than 25 proposals for Indigenous Protected Areas and more than 70 active guardian programs, Nitah said. The federal government put $340 million toward these programs in the last budget.
“The world is starting to wake up to the value of Indigenous leadership in conservation, and in stewardship efforts, and the true value of Indigenous guardian programs and Indigenous-led protected areas,” Tsetso said.
“That is my little candlelight of hope on the outcomes of COP.”