A seal pup and a hunter — and a Greenpeace activist standing between them.

That’s the image many indigenous inhabitants of Northern Canada still see when someone says the word ‘Greenpeace’ — even though we have not actively campaigned against the seal hunt for many years now. And they have good reasons for that. Our campaign against commercial sealing did hurt many, both economically and culturally.

The time has come to set the record straight.

In the eight months since I took on the challenging role of executive director for Greenpeace Canada, one thing has come up again and again in discussions with staff across the country: a deep desire to make amends with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples for past mistakes, to decolonize ourselves, and to better communicate our policies and practices going forward.

At staff meetings, on patios after work, and in email chains across the country, the people I work with are telling me they want this. They need this. That this is not just how they work, but what they value as individuals — and as the new executive director of Greenpeace Canada, I’d better make sure this is reflected in our work. We’ve made great strides in the past, but we can do better. I’m hearing my team, I’m inspired, and so now, we’re taking action to make this a reality.

So how did we get here?

In 1976, when we were just a few years old, Greenpeace Canada began a campaign that would come to define us as an organization for many years. The campaign had good intentions: to expose and end the commercial hunting of marine mammals, in particular Canada’s commercial seal hunt. By some standards, it was a successful campaign. But in one major way, it failed very, very badly.

Though the campaign was directed against the commercial hunting of seals — and not the small-scale, subsistence hunting carried out by Northern Indigenous and coastal peoples — we did not always communicate this clearly enough. The consequences of that, though unintended, were far-reaching.

It was a complicated time. The federal government often tried to include small-scale Indigenous hunts in their communications, selectively addressing issues and manufacturing content that roped everyone into the same basket. But the differences are stark, with perhaps the most important one being the relationship that Indigenous Peoples have with the animals they hunt for food, clothing and cultural purposes. They take only what they need, and no more. They honour the animals, the land and the ocean. This special relationship has existed since time immemorial, and Greenpeace respects and honours this Indigenous knowledge and those relationships.

But the campaign took on a life of its own and became global. Many other organizations were involved — culminating in, among other things, the U.S. ban on seal products and the EU ban on products originating from whitecoats. To be clear, Greenpeace’s campaign focused on the Canadian government’s ongoing mismanagement of the species and on bringing an end to the commercial hunt.

But we acknowledge the role we played in the unforeseen consequences of these bans. In 1985, we issued an apology for our role in this. Now we must go further.

Like the corporations we campaign against, we too must be open to change. Open to examining ourselves, our history, and the impact our campaigns have had, and to constantly reassessing ourselves — not just by apologizing, but by humbly making amends and changing the way we work. And we have a responsibility — not just as an organization that once campaigned against the commercial hunt, but also as conscious, socially responsible human beings — to right wrongs, to actively stop the spread of misinformation, and to decolonize our thinking, our language and our approach.

There is far more that unites us than divides us. And if we’re to have any hope of protecting our homes for future generations, of keeping the water and land free from oil spills and healthy enough for people to live and thrive on, then we must work together.
To back up our words, we have drafted and adopted a policy, written in conjunction with First Nations, in support of Indigenous rights to a subsistence lifestyle and the right to sustainable development. The policy can be found online and is extensive — covering land rights claims, the UN declaration on Indigenous Peoples requiring free, prior and informed consent — and recognizes the various forms of leadership in many First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. It also challenges the Canadian government to respect Indigenous rights and support the just settlement of outstanding aboriginal rights and title issues.

But we’ve gone further than putting pen to paper. In Canada, Greenpeace employs three talented, passionate Indigenous women, who are working in Yellowknife, Vancouver and Edmonton on issues affecting their communities. They are often the first to know about oil spills or other incidents being ignored by the local or national government, and they are empowered to act in whatever way the affected communities choose.

In the Great Bear Rainforest, we worked side by side with Coastal First Nations to develop and implement the most comprehensive rainforest conservation plan in North America’s history, hailed as a model for forest conservation globally, and we continue to work with them now as the plan is being implemented.

In the tar sands, we work alongside Indigenous organizations and support communities affected by oil spills in whatever way they need, amplifying their voices on a global level, and facilitating solutions. The Alberta government even pressed charges against Plains Midstream Canada ULC following a Greenpeace report on the pipeline company’s oil spill near Little Buffalo, Alberta on April 28, 2011. We have provided support for the Healing Walk — both organizational and financial — since it began four years ago and our campaigners always look forward to attending to learn directly from First Nations on the ecological, spiritual and health impacts of the tar sands.

Two years ago, we hosted our first Arctic Indigenous conference in Russia, bringing together traditional hunters, trappers, reindeer herders and others from across the region to share stories and discuss solutions. The individuals and groups there drafted a Joint Statement of Indigenous Solidarity for Arctic Protection. The year after, on the eve of the Arctic Council meeting in Kiruna, we hosted our second conference, with Indigenous Peoples from every Arctic nation and beyond. There, 16 more individuals and groups signed onto the declaration, bringing the total to 43.

In Russia, where Indigenous Peoples are constantly dealing with the impacts of a lawless oil industry that each year spills five times more oil on land than BPs Deepwater Horizon disaster, Greenpeace works deeply within communities to help them fight back against the oil companies and clean up the spills on their traditional territories. Recently, Greenpeace Russia commissioned satellite data of northern Russia, identified spills that the oil companies denied existed and handed the data to the local prosecutor. As a result, the company in question, Lukoil, was fined 20 million USD, the largest such fine in Russia’s history.

In 2012, Greenpeace launched another campaign, this time to protect the Arctic from the oil companies and destructive industrial fisheries that are seeking to exploit the melting ice at any cost. It’s the largest global campaign we’ve ever run, and we’re doing this in consultation with Indigenous Peoples from every Arctic country, to ensure that the solutions we propose are forged together. We have translated our Arctic campaign pamphlets into Gwich’in and Inuktitut languages and we are proud to be launching our Arctic campaign website in both of those languages as well, in an effort to provide clear, factual information — on community terms — about who we are and our campaign to the protect the Arctic.

For hundreds of years, industry and government has ignored critical Indigenous knowledge to its peril, all in the name of “progress”. That era needs to end. For our part, we’ll do whatever we can to amplify these voices, acknowledge the power of Indigenous knowledge, and seek to apply the lessons from their holistic approach to a new model of conservation. An industrial disaster would forever destroy the subsistence lifestyle, and the risk of that happening is too high. To preserve that lifestyle, these traditions, and the right to livelihood, we must work together to stop the destruction of the Arctic for profit by multinationals.

There is far more that unites us than divides us. And if we’re to have any hope of protecting our homes for future generations, of keeping the water and land free from oil spills and healthy enough for people to live and thrive on, then we must work together, in respect for each other, for the water, for the animals, and for this incredible planet that we all share.

Joanna Kerr is executive director of Greenpeace Canada

This article was originally published on iPolitics.ca