Report Back: CJM Workshop on “Landed Resistance: How Land Rights Struggles Fight Climate Change”

Today I had the privilege of attending a workshop put on by Climate Justice Montreal at McGill University on the issues of land, resistance, and climate change. The workshop facilitated active participation to draw out the participants own ideas of their own name, lineage and family history, and encouraged them to compare that history with the narrative structures “Canadian History” is given in the state school system. The power of narrative was stressed – the idea that society is not made up of matter or even institutions but primarily of stories which we tell ourselves, tell our children, and are told by those who have something to gain by our believing them. The framework of narrative power enabled the group to criticize their own ideas of their own history, and reclaim a more genuine grasp on the relationship between their personal history and the social narratives which structure the way that history is expressed in dominant social stories.

To give a specific example, the idea of the “hard working farmers who came here because they wanted to” was critiqued. The example of Irish immigration to make this case is particularly poignant: Ireland was depopulated in the 19th century through a purposeful genocide, in order to encourage immigration to North America. In other words – many Irish immigrants did not come “to seek a better life in a new land”, but because their old life had been strategically destroyed by a colonialist power. Ireland itself was a feudal state where the British had installed Ulster-Scots as the ruling people – to dominate and oppress the Irish while themselves being second-class compared to their English masters. The Irish who then arrived in Canada were largely directed towards the United States, because social darwinist theory of the time asserted that Eastern Europeans were harder workers – and Canadian colonial services preferred to install Polish and German immigrants as prairie farmers.

We were then encouraged to think about how Western society uses land, and sections off some land as “preserves” (i.e. Parks). What narratives are supported by the preservation of these spaces? What emotional attachments do they satisfy, and what is the political goal satisfied by the creation of those feelings? It was suggested that all of the ways in which colonialist powers use land contributes in one way or another (including mitigation by the way of allowing for the continuation of catastrophes elsewhere) is destructive to the environment – and almost entirely contribute to climate change. So, in our attempts to resist climate change, we should become more aware of the role of narrative power in defining the value of land, certainly when all the ways that land is defined as valuable contribute to destructive expansion. Moreover, it was suggested that essential to this destructive way of consuming land is our alienated ability to care deeply about land at a distance (i.e. National Parks, etc…) and yet have no relationship to the land we reside on. And it is certainly true that, for the most part, we know little about the stories of even the settler history of the land on which we live, let alone the first nations histories which extend far back beyond European domination of these lands.

The idea of “landed resistance” was then expressed in a double sense: it can mean both “struggle over land” or “landed resistance”. Examples of struggles over land include Ducks Unlimited’s political efforts to have wetlands preserved, a political party’s attempt to establish a provincial park, or a struggle between different nations over a piece of disputed territory (i.e. the Falkland Islands). Struggles over land are constituted by disputes where different parties, none of which have a special or historical connection with the land in question, are engaged in a conflict about how a piece of land is to be used, who is to control it, who will benefit from its exploitation etc… Landed resistance, on the other hand, are instances where a people or a community which does have a special relationship with a piece of land engages in a struggle to maintain control over it – or to gain control over it if it does not already have legal title. Examples of landed resistance include the Oka crisis, UBC Golf Course dispute, perhaps even the halting of the Spadina Express way (insofar as those resisting actually were the inhabitants or allies of inhabitants of the communities which would have been affected). The key thing which I think differentiates struggles over land and landed resistance is whose end is being served by pursuing the struggle – if the end pursued in the struggle is the community which itself has the connection to the land, then it is landed resistance, whereas if the end is some benefit for a community which is actually alienated from the land, then it is only a struggle over land. Perhaps the very notion of “resistance” in landed resistance is referring to the natural right of those with a special relationship to a piece of land to maintain that relationship – a right sometimes recognized in law under the rubric of “squatters rights”. It’s important to remember that during the de-population of Stanley Park, the law used to evict First Nations people living in the park evicted them on the basis that they had not lived there for a sufficient timespan to be eligible for squatters rights.

It was then suggested that climate change will not be solved in a board room or by the UN – the failures we’ve seen recently show no sign of turning. If the burning of all carbon is stopped, it was stated, this will not happen due to the decision of a president or a business owner, but due to successful struggles on the ground by communities protecting their lands.  It was also asserted that we will not stop climate change, rather the best we can do is prevent the planet from exceeding a tipping point, and beginning to deal with the mass migrations which climate change will cause.

It is our decision not only whether or not we will involve ourselves politically with the needs to mitigate climate disaster – but also how we choose to engage in that struggle, which people’s rights we will fight for, and who can be dispensed with. It seems to me quite strange that those who wish to stop coal mining and oil sands expansion would not engage in the difficult work of being strong allies to landed resistance struggles which do stand a chance of stopping oil sands or mining expansion, and crucially stopping the oil pipelines which are required for oil sands expansion. The water pollution and wildlife poisoning that affected communities experience today are like tiny examples of the future devastation and destruction of arable land which the continued burning of fossil fuels will only worsen.

8 thoughts on “Report Back: CJM Workshop on “Landed Resistance: How Land Rights Struggles Fight Climate Change”

  1. Tristan Post author

    Climate Justice Montreal’s Blog has a good post entitled “10 Indigenous struggles Canadian Climate and Environmental Activists should support”

    “Lubicon Lake (Alberta): The First Nation in northern Alberta has seen their traditional lands overrun by massive oil and gas exploitation which has destroyed their traditional lands and way of life. To protect their fragile boreal forest homeland from even greater depredation, the Lubicon have fought back to defend their land and lives by patiently building a global network of organizations and individuals to support their legal battles, boycotts, lobbying, negotiations with the Canadian government and – when all else failed – blockades. Despite 20 years of condemnation by United Nations human rights bodies, the right of the Lubicon people to maintain their culture and rebuild their society is still not respected by the federal and provincial governments and industry. They have been subject to economic sabotage and draconian internal interference. And even more destructive forms of development – including oil sands extraction – are planned for the future.

    Grassy Narrows (Ontario): Mercury contamination of their river system in the 1960s by a paper mill upstream devastated their economy, plunging the community into extreme poverty from which it has never fully recovered. After decades of petitions, letter writing, speaking tours, environmental assessment requests, and protests failed to halt the destructive clearcut logging of their traditional territory, grassroots women and youth put their bodies on the line and blocked logging trucks passing by their community. The blockades are the longest running in Canadian history, now in their 8th year. 3 major logging corporations have bowed to pressure and committed not to log against the wishes of the community, and logging has been suspended on Grassy Narrows territory as of July 2008. But under pressure from corporate lumber giant Weyerhaeuser, the province appears ready once again to give the green-light to logging in the fall of 2010. The community is determined to prevent this.

    Pimicikamak (Manitoba): Five hundred kilometres north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, the Pimicikimak Cree have been struggling against the consequences of hydro-electric damming on their lands. The dams have turned pristine rivers into power corridors, ancient lakes into holding tanks and a sacred homeland into an industrial complex. Manitoba Hydro company promised clean and green development when they and two levels of government signed a 1970s agreements with Manitoba indigenous communities. Pimicikamak is now fighting to force Manitoba Hydro to live up to its treaty commitments and to restore their lands and waters. The community is teaching us that hydro development, far from being a panacea for climate change, harms lands and Indigenous peoples, and also destroys the boreal forest, the world’s largest terrestrial carbon reservoir, causing the release of global-warming methane gas.

    Wet’suwet’en (British Columbia): Located near the town of Smithers in central interior British Columbia the Wet’suwet’en First Nation is currently engaged in a struggle to stop several oil and gas pipeline from being built across their traditional territory. Grassroots community organizers have taken a stance against not only the pipelines, but the entire tar sands giga-project, working in solidarity with other frontline communities and solidarity activists against “refineries, terminals, tanker traffic, and the systemic scope that is Carbon Marketing, Offsetting, and REDDS.”

    Gwich’in (Northwest Territories): The Gwich’in, whose traditional territory overlaps with the Peel Watershed Region – a 68,000 square kilometer stretch of land near the Northeastern edge of the Yukon – are fighting mining corporations and the provincial government for total protection of their traditional territories. Mining companies currently hold over 8,400 mining permits in the watershed, five tributaries that make up North America’s largest network of mountain rivers. The Peel Watershed Planning Commission has called for 80 per cent protection that maintains grandfathered leases, but local communities are working for the full protection of their lands.

    Baker Lake (Nunavut): Baker Lake, a mostly Inuit community in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut, has a long history of struggles against uranium mining and exploration. In the late 1970s, legal action was taken against the Canadian Government and a variety of uranium exploration companies. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, they successfully fought against a proposal to mine uranium from the Kiggavik ore body, located on the post-calving grounds of caribou herds. But the Aveva mining company still wants this ore, and ignoring community concerns about impacts on caribou, health and nuclear weapons development, have launched an aggressive public relations campaign. Feeling their views are not represented by the Inuit Organizations, Inuit from Baker Lake and elsewhere in Nunavut have formed Nunavummiut Makitagunarningit (Nunavummiut can rise up).

    Barriere Lake (Quebec): The Algonquins of Barriere Lake continue to hunt, fish, trap, and harvest on more than 15,000 square kilometers of territory north of Ottawa in north-western Quebec, which they have sought to protect from clear-cut logging through a landmark conservation agreement. The 1991 Trilateral agreement undermines the Canadian government’s Comprehensive Claims policy, which forces First Nations to extinguish their unceded title to the land in exchange for paltry sums of lands and money. For this reason, the federal and provincial governments and multinational industry have conspired to avoid implementing the agreement, instead criminalizing the community and attempting to abolish their traditional governance system. The community attributes the strength of their Algonquin language, their culture, and their protection of the land to the endurance of this own governance system, the Mitchikanibikok Anishinabe Onakinakewin.

    Innu (Quebec/Labrador): The Innu have for years been struggling against the exploitation of minerals, hydro-power, animals, and timber on their lands, and military low-level flying exercises and bomb testing. Today, some Innu communities are facing proposed plans to build the Lower Churchill Hydro Project, which would mean the construction of two hydroelectric dams on their territory, causing vast environmental devastation. The project is slated to flood 12% of the Lower Churchill Valley, increase mercury levels in the water, and destroy some of the most diverse wildlife habitat in Labrador – home to black bear and caribou, among other animals. Since the traditional Innu way of life is based on hunting and fishing, this project, if not stopped, will also affect the ability of the Innu to live their lives freely and choose their own ways of living.

    Tsilhqot’in (British Columbia): The Tsilhqot’in people have a long history of fierce resistance and independence. In 2007, they set an important precedent in the British Columbia court by proving their aboriginal title and rights to 2,000 square kilometres of their lands, potential supplanting provincial jurisdiction over land-use planning, but the federal and provincial have ensnared them in legal appeals. Today, they are confronting a proposal for an enormous open-pit gold-copper mine on their land. The mine would turn a lake that is sacred to the Tsilhqot’in and that holds 90,000 unique rainbow trout into a tailings dump, replacing it with an artificial lake. Some community members have pledged their life to stop it.

    Bear River (Nova Scotia): The First Nation has their own vision for a food and livelihood fishery, based on a long historical relationship to the natural world that is premised on respect and self-sufficiency to avoid hunger and sickness for all people. This relationship is known in the Mi’kmaq language as “Netukulimk”. But the commodification and privatization of the commercial fishery sector continues unabated, leaving no room for community sustainable practice and knowledge. It has become clear to Bear River that these fishing agreements serve only to integrate First Nations into a commodification process, watering down their treaty rights. Bear River has chosen not to sign any fishing agreements with the federal government, continuing instead to pursue its vision of a small scale food and livelihood fishery by aligning themselves with other local non-Indigenous fishermen who have also been impacted by privatization and commodification, and by continuing to learn and practice “netukulimk”.

    Defenders of the Land (National): This network of First Nations in land struggle working with urbanized Indigenous people and non-Native supporters in defense of Indigenous lands and rights was founded at a historic meeting in Winnipeg from November 12-14, 2008. Defenders is the only organization of its kind in the territory known as Canada – Indigenous-led, free of government or corporate funding, and dedicated to building a fundamental movement for Indigenous self-determination and rights. They have called for a second annual Indigenous Sovereignty Week, a series of educational events and action that took place last year in two dozen cities, towns and communities, between November 21-27, 2010.

  2. Milan

    I see a couple of problems with a focus on the impact of processes like coal mining and oil sands extraction on the local environment.

    First, most of the damage associated with such activities is not imposed on the local area. Rather, it is spread around the globe and across thousands of years. This is especially problematic when it comes to local cost-benefit calculations. It may well be that the economic benefits associated with fossil fuel production exceed the local environmental and health costs. That may be especially true when it comes to relatively poor communities. Just as it is challenging and perhaps ethically questionable to object when poor farmers cut down rainforests to expand their farmland, it can be challenging to argue that poor communities with high unemployment should not take advantage of local fossil fuel reserves.

    The connection between oil discoveries off Greenland and the movement for independence from Denmark is an interesting situation where First Nations, sovereignty and land, and environmental issues overlap.

    Second, a focus on local environmental quality is vulnerable to the kind of greenwashing campaigns being undertaken by the fossil fuel industry. It is expensive but possible to protect things like local water quality and wildlife, while simultaneously pumping out huge quantities of greenhouse gas emissions.

    None of this is to say that there can be no useful alliances between First Nations groups concerned about land and people campaigning against climate change. I simply mean to say that local thinking may not be well matched to addressing this global and inter-generational problem.

  3. Tristan

    “First, most of the damage associated with such activities is not imposed on the local area. Rather, it is spread around the globe and across thousands of years.”

    I entirely agree. This is why CJM advocates land based resistance, not struggles over land. The land, while important to the people engaged in the land-based resistance, is not the goal of land based resistance. Control over land is the goal of a struggle over land, but the goal of land based resistance is resistance to the oppression which is expressed in the assault on the land. And climate change is about oppression – it’s about universal oppression of future generations by climate criminals. So, just as the struggle of first nations people does not end with a single victory to control a piece of land, the struggle against climate change does not end with the blocking of one pipeline.

    Land-based resistance is a tactic, an alternative to trying to convince the elites with arguments. Of course, anyone should be engaged in a diversity of tactics based on their effectivity in different situations.

    Land based resistance appears to fall into a false romanticism about “land” – but actually it’s struggles over land which do this. Struggles over land, such as a Ducks Unlimited attempt to save a wetland, are seen as a complete success if the nature preserve is established – this is fetishizing the local, ignoring the global problem.

    Land based resistance goes along with an argument I’ve made before – if you can’t give a shit about these people right here who’re being oppressed, about some actual community attempting to stand up against the tide, then all talk about caring for future generations is empty romanticism – just like caring about the beauty of a national park you’ve never been to rather than a local band’s struggle to have their treaty rights respected. It’s the positing of a value you bear, and can bear, no relation to – because you haven’t reached the basic moral level of caring about another person that you don’t know.

  4. Milan

    Ultimately, restricting fossil fuel extraction will require restricting what people can do with ‘their’ land. That makes it a bit surprising and ironic that people struggling for increased control over land can play a positive role.

    Of course, one of the things you can do with control is restrain your more short-term impulses.

  5. Tristan Post author


    But what proportion of people with a traditional, historical relationship to a piece of land would, for short term profit, sacrifice the long term health of that land? There are of course theoretical problems about the externalization of costs – but on the ground these struggles are against pipelines, against tar sands projects. From what I know of first nations groups which are opposed by environmental or ethics groups, the issues tend to be logging old growth, or the seal hunt. Now, we could have an academic argument about whether telling first nations groups they shouldn’t log old growth or hunt seal is racist or not – but I don’t think this is central to climate change activism.

  6. Milan

    But what proportion of people with a traditional, historical relationship to a piece of land would, for short term profit, sacrifice the long term health of that land?

    I would like to see some empirical data on this. For instance, someone could look at First Nations land claims in areas with oil and gas reserves. After successful land claims, does production rise or fall? Also, is more or less attention paid to protecting local environmental quality?

  7. .

    Inupiat Health and Proposed Alaskan Oil Development: Results of the First Integrated Health Impact Assessment/Environmental Impact Statement for Proposed Oil Development on Alaska’s North Slope

    We report on the first Health Impact Assessment (HIA) for proposed oil and gas development in Alaska’s North Slope region. Public health is not generally analyzed in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process in the U.S. We conducted an HIA for proposed oil development within the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska in response to growing concerns among North Slope Inupiat communities regarding the potential impacts of regional industrial expansion on their health and culture. We employed a qualitative HIA methodology, involving a combination of stakeholder input, literature review, and qualitative analysis, through which we identified potential health effects. The possible health outcomes identified include increases in diabetes and related metabolic conditions as a result of dietary change; rising rates of substance abuse, domestic violence, and suicide; increased injury rates; more frequent asthma exacerbations; and increased exposure to organic pollutant, including carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. There are also potential benefits, including funding for infrastructure and health care; increased employment and income; and continued funding of existing infrastructure. Based on these findings, we recommend a series of public health mitigation measures. This project represents the first formal effort to include a systematic assessment of public health within the U.S. EIS process. The inclusion of public health concerns within an EIS may offer an important and underutilized avenue through which to argue for environmental management strategies that focus on public health, and may offer communities a stronger voice in the EIS process.

  8. .

    Enbridge pipeline project faces increasing native opposition

    VANCOUVER — From Friday’s Globe and Mail
    Published Thursday, Dec. 02, 2010 1:59PM EST
    Last updated Thursday, Dec. 02, 2010 7:56PM EST

    A $5.5-billion pipeline project that the proponent has described as of “national strategic importance” is running into increasingly fierce opposition from first nations in the West.

    At a news conference in Vancouver on Thursday, several prominent leaders spoke against the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines Project and released a declaration of opposition signed by 54 British Columbia bands. Over the past year, 11 other native organizations across northern B.C., including the Haida Nation and the Gitga’at, who live along the marine part of the route, have rejected the pipeline.

    “The message is clear. Enbridge go home. You are unwelcome intruders,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, ramping up tensions even as the company awaits the outcome of federal reviews.

    “We will do what it takes to protect our land, our salmon, our rivers. Just watch us,” said Chief Larry Nooski of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation.

    Gina Jordan, a spokesperson for Enbridge, said the company remains confident the project will go ahead and dismissed the growing opposition.

    “I will say the protesters don’t speak for everyone,” she said, noting Enbridge has signed working protocols with 30 bands in B.C. and Alberta.

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