The following text first appeared in The Narwhal (link here), under the title “The ‘New’ face of environmental racism in Quebec”, and was co-written by Adrienne Jérôme, Chief of the Lac Simon First Nation and spokesperson for the Council of Elected Women of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) and Christy Ferguson, Executive Director of Greenpeace Canada.

The Earth is sick and so are its peoples, with Indigenous peoples being affected more than most. Despite the warnings and the solutions Indigenous peoples have provided, they continue to be ignored. This is environmental racism.

Take, for example, the Quebec government’s recent decision  to again postpone its  strategy to recover caribou across the province. For an animal of profound cultural and spiritual significance, that is also central to Indigenous food systems, the decision is a death sentence. This is a direct affront to the Indigenous communities for whom the caribou play a fundamental role. Not only the lack of action for caribou recovery, but the lack of real dialogue or meaningful efforts to listen to Indigenous perspectives is in itself a form of environmental racism. Through the inaction and inertia of the Government of Quebec, the ancestral rights of Indigenous peoples have been and are still widely violated. 

Forests are home to over 80% of all terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects,  and are a source of livelihood for 1.6 billion people, including many  Indigenous communities in Quebec. Forests managed by Indigenous communities exhibit a high degree of ecological integrity and are able to act as a life-support system for entire human populations. With a presence on the land since time immemorial and a multi-millennial empirical knowledge of their territories, Indigenous traditional knowledge offers a real compliment to modern science. Given the depth of their knowledge, not to mention their rights to govern the land, our responses to current ecological crises must be grounded in Indigenous knowledge and leadership.

“Consulting” with Indigenous peoples downstream of projects and doing so in a one-way, paternalistic, briefing format is not good enough. Nor is ignoring experts and insulting scientists when it serves political interests any more of a winning strategy. 

The Persistence of Colonialism

To this day, Indigenous communities bear the brunt of systemic discrimination. This discrimination perpetuates a colonial model in which resource grabbing and extractivism dominate. When the Quebec government makes statements like “a forest logged is worth more than a forest standing” – to paraphrase, or “[we will not] sacrifice forestry jobs for one caribou”, we see clearly the narrow and exploitative mindset. 

When it comes to the forest, we are told the goal over all others is profit, but the ongoing destruction of Indigenous lands robs Indigenous communities of their ‘grocery stores and pharmacies’. The consequence of this is the oppression and impoverishment of Indigenous peoples, forcing them to change their diet and lifestyle, resulting in communities that suffer physically, mentally, and spiritually. It’s not just the caribou that are endangered in the boreal forest, it’s the delicate balance that is essential to life.

Systemic and Environmental racism

The Anishnabe First Nation of Lac Simon has experienced  a history of governmental discrimination by successive governments, exploitation of minors, kidnapping and murder of women and children, in addition to  systematic impoverishment through the loss of its territory and resources. In Quebec, and elsewhere in Canada, the lack of consent and the violation of rights along with the refusal to sincerely consult with Indigenous communities regarding their forests constitutes a form of systemic and environmental racism. This aggravates and accelerates a pervasive cultural genocide that began with colonialism.

Let us remember the obligation of governments to recognize and redress past and present injustices suffered by Indigenous Peoples, to respect treaty rights and international law, and to ensure the well-being of Indigenous communities, and cultures. It is impossible to deliver on these responsibilities without the input of impacted communities. In Quebec this starts with the protection of caribou, a living barometer of the health of our forest ecosystems.

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