Content warning: environmental racism, colonial violence
Approximately 500,000 people attended the Montreal Climate March on September 27, including Swedish youth climate activist Greta Thunberg. Indigenous activists in Montreal reported widespread discrimination at the protest, bringing attention to the ways in which the environmental movement has been co-opted and whitewashed.
In a display of performative allyship and blatant disrespect, non-Indigenous attendees pushed the Indigenous Youth Delegation away from the front in order to take a photo of Thunberg. The Delegation was also confronted with racist remarks, being told: “this isn’t just your land, you know.” Twitter user @salishmemer also reported that Indigenous activists were denied their request to sing the Women’s Warrior song on the main stage “in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women targeted by extractive industry and climate change.” The group was told that “this would break apart [the] organizing coalition,” implying that they would somehow be interrupting the march.
On the same day as the strike, Thunberg was given the Key to the City of Montreal by mayor Valerie Plante. The mayor of Victoria, BC also offered Thunberg a standing invitation to visit the city, which is home to the province’s second-largest Indigenous population and has a long history of Indigenous-led climate activism. While Thunberg’s work has been celebrated and encouraged, all levels of the Canadian government have consistently worked against Indigenous land protectors.
Despite Indigenous peoples having spent centuries as environmental stewards and climate justice advocates, white voices are being centred in the conversation surrounding climate action. This suppression of Indigenous voices is part of an ongoing pattern of racism and colonialism, wherein people in power praise white activists while opposing Indigenous and other activists of colour.
It is important to recognize that the kind of climate activism performed by white people like Thunberg is more palatable because it does not involve civil disobedience. The latter form of activism, as opposed to to the parade-like atmosphere of the Montreal Climate March, challenges not only the environmental crisis but also the racist, colonial structures which perpetuate it, making those in power uncomfortable. We must acknowledge and combat the capitalist and colonial agendas that perpetuate the climate crisis. It is also vital to recognize that the media – and new activists unfamiliar with these spaces – have begun to focus on the climate crisis solely because it has started to impact majority white populations in the Global North.
The problem is not Thunberg herself – the problem is that the media has made a white teenager the face of a movement that she did not start. The problem deepens when politicians immediately and enthusiastically validate the efforts of a white teenager, while continuing to criminalize Indigenous activists for doing the same work. White activists are taking up space and resources that should be reserved for Indigenous activists and other activists of colour.
Young Indigenous people are fighting for climate action all around the world, and these are the voices we must uplift.
Autumn Peltier, a 16-year-old activist from the Wiikwemkoong First Nation, has been advocating for climate justice, specifically access to safe drinking water, since she was eight years old. She is the Chief Water Commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation, a political organization representing 40 First Nations in Ontario comprised of approximately 65,000 people. Peltier spoke at the UN Global Landscapes Forum on September 28, telling those in attendance, “I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, we can’t eat money, or drink oil.”
Vic Barrett is a 20-year-old Honduran-American who belongs to the Afro-Indigenous Garifuna community. His activism is informed by the disproportionate effects of Hurricane Sandy on people of colour. He is a fellow with the Alliance for Climate Education, an organization that works to “educate young people on the science of climate change and empower them to take action.” Barrett, along with 20 other youth activists, is a plaintiff in the Juliana v. United States lawsuit, which states that “through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”
Makaśa Looking Horse, a 22-year-old activist from Mohawk Wolf Clan and Lakota in Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, is involved in the fight against Nestlé’s theft of water from Six Nations communities, which do not have access to clean water themselves. She has organized marches and boycotts of Nestlé products at McMaster University, where she is working towards a degree in Indigenous Studies.
The McGill Daily urges readers to centre and uplift Indigenous voices in the climate justice movement. Be mindful of the media that you are consuming and the space you take up when attending protests. Remember that any environmental activism that does not prioritize Indigenous voices is not legitimate.