In September, representatives from almost 300 Indigenous nations gathered in North Dakota to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline was intended to pass by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation, which raised alarming concerns about potential contamination of their land and water. The protests against the project were not limited to what happened on site — solidarity was evident across the continent, including in the form of a demonstration in Toronto.
U of T is situated on land that has been used by humans for over 15,000 years. The land is the territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River.
As students of U of T — an institution that has inarguably benefited not only from Indigenous land, but from the power dynamics that govern relations between settlers and Indigenous communities — we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves with respect to the injustices faced by Indigenous peoples across the continent and the globe.
Since first contact, Indigenous-state relations in Canada has mostly revolved around the environment, land, and water. For Canada, natural resources have been an economic commodity — yet for Indigenous peoples, they are tools of resistance and self-determination. Land and water use practices are so intertwined with everyday Indigenous life that the government’s regulation of the environment without consultation of the communities who utilize it is inherently oppressive.
In this way, environmental conflicts over Indigenous land and resources are more than a public health crisis. They exemplify the ongoing effects of past and present colonial oppression and the denial of Indigenous identity by the Canadian government.
Canada has a long history of environmental injustices towards Indigenous peoples, and we need not dig too deep to unearth its ugly truths.
The Oka, Ipperwash, and Burnt Church crises were violent conflicts in the 1990s that emerged from land and resource disputes. In the 1999 Burnt Church crisis, under pressure from non-Aboriginal fisheries, the federal government spent almost $15 million to enforce the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) resource management regime, which used violence to prevent the Mi’kmaq people from exercising their Supreme Court-affirmed treaty right to fish in the Miramichi Bay. Though the Burnt Church First Nation intended on managing their own fisheries, the DFO essentially denied them their right to self-government.
More recently, production of oil in the Athabasca oil sands has devastatingly impacted the surrounding nations, polluting their air and water supplies. It is common knowledge that fossil fuels are accelerating climate change. What many people fail to see is that oil and gas extraction directly and disproportionately impact the health and livelihood of Indigenous peoples, as reservations are often located near the sites of extraction.
Studies have shown increasing cancer rates in the Fort Chipewyan area reserves. This rise in serious health issues is likely connected to the pollution and waste produced by the oil production processes as it flows downstream into Lake Athabasca, contaminating the main source of water and fish for many First Nations in the area.
The Crown has a fiduciary duty to consult and accommodate Indigenous peoples when the risk of infringement of treaty rights may result from any project. However, in reality, consultation is a mere formality and First Nations are given little to no input on resource extraction and land development projects that directly affect them.
The province of Alberta has come under much deserved criticism regarding the oil sands: first, for the lack of consultations when development of the sands began, and then, for favouring continued extraction of oil over the public health and social interests of local residents.
What is also clear is that U of T is far from blameless in such affairs — the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation, the university-owned financial investment company, invests in fossil fuel companies such as Suncor Energy Inc. and Imperial Oil Ltd., which both currently operate in the Athabasca oil sands and wreak havoc in Indigenous communities. U of T President Meric Gertler chose to reject the presidential committee’s recommendations to divest from fossil fuels in March this year, not only demonstrating a lack of respect and insight in regards to the environment, but also disregarding how its protection affects the well-being of Indigenous groups.
In 2015, Justin Trudeau committed to rebuilding nation-to-nation relationships with the First Nations in Canada by treating them as equal partners. But, as the approval of the Site C dam occurred despite the lack of proper consultation with Indigenous groups, this commitment already seems to be falling short. To meaningfully reconcile with the more than 600 First Nations that exist in Canada, the government must not just purport to engage with them — it is necessary to give Indigenous communities the power to make their own decisions about development on their own land.
Moving forward, the Canadian government must put the rights of First Nations above economic and political interests when crafting environmental policy. There are isolated instances of co-management and self-governance throughout the country, such as in Clayoquot Sound, BC, where land development projects must be approved by a council, as well as the majority of the general Indigenous population.
Though these types of management regimes are a step in the right direction, a more cohesive plan, one that harmonizes resource management and respect for Indigenous governance on a larger scale, needs to be put in place. Proper co-management solutions must combine scientific knowledge with traditional practices, which will develop systems of management that are both sustainable and just.
While such policy changes are in the works at the federal level, it is imperative that the university administration take seriously the recommendations that have been made to divest from fossil fuels, for doing so is a matter of much more than just symbolic importance.
Finally, as students in Toronto, we have a responsibility to learn about the land we live on and continue to use for our educational pursuits. Perhaps that means taking an Indigenous Studies course, pounding on the administration’s door and demanding divestment, or promoting and supporting Indigenous ventures within the community.
Fundamentally, it means acknowledging our place within settler-colonial power dynamics in Canada and the noxious ways in which we all benefit from them.