By: Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Colonialism causes climate change, and Indigenous rights are the solution.
That phrase — a tagline from Indigenous Climate Action, an Indigenous-led organization that works at the intersection of climate justice and Indigenous rights — has found new meaning as fires stretching across Alberta and Saskatchewan have devastated local communities.
Last week, the East Prairie Métis Settlement in northern Alberta lost 27 homes and a bridge to the wildfires, which have prompted a state of emergency in the province. Residents fought the blaze on their own, even using a water truck to extinguish flames coming up the community’s road, CBC reports. An evacuation order later came, forcing members to wait a week before they could return to see what was left.
In nearby Drayton Valley, a non-Indigenous community, military aid arrived to help fight fires outside the community, according to a press release by Indigenous Climate Action published Wednesday.
“As Indigenous people, we should have access to the same financial and technical assistance as other communities and individuals across Turtle Island,” Rosalyn Boucha, communications manager at Indigenous Climate Action, said.
As of Wednesday, nine First Nations in Alberta and five others in Saskatchewan were under an evacuation alert, Indigenous Services Canada said in a media statement regarding the ongoing wildfires. Nine other First Nations in Alberta have been identified as threatened and have begun preparing for the imminent threat of the fires.
A map created by the federal government and viewed by Canada’s National Observer shows that almost all of Alberta’s risk status for First Nations is categorized as extreme. On Thursday afternoon, 92 fires were burning in the province, with 26 listed as out of control by Alberta Wildfire. Yet, provincial funding for forest firefighting has been cut.
Indigenous communities in Canada, 80 per cent of which are located in fire-prone regions, are increasingly feeling the brunt, Boucha said.
Last November, federal auditor general Karen Hogan released a report that found Indigenous Services Canada spent three and a half times more on responding to and recovering from emergencies in First Nations than it did on prevention.
Boucha calls the report’s finding “disheartening,” adding it indicates Indigenous communities are an afterthought for Ottawa.
Wildfire rates are only expected to worsen over the next 40 years, the Indigenous Climate Action press release said.
Displacement of Indigenous Peoples from their territories stretches back to the Indian Act and the inception of reserves, said Boucha. Now, the climate crisis is creating a second exodus, she added. She points to the oilsands tailings pond breaches near Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, floods in Manitoba displacing members of the Peguis First Nation, and now wildfires in Alberta as signs Indigenous Peoples may become the first climate refugees in Canada.
Boucha said colonization is a significant cause of climate disasters, which are worsening over time. The fossil fuel industry, including in northern Alberta, is a proven driver of the climate crisis. Paired with the extinguishing of Indigenous land management practices, such as cultural burns, the conditions are ripe for ongoing climate disaster, Boucha said.
Cultural burns — minor, controlled burns to remove flammable dead brush — had long been used on the landscape before Canada suppressed the practice when they gained control of Crown land.
Boucha sees the continued restraint of Indigenous land management as a violation of articles 25, 26 and 29 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The articles declare the right of Indigenous Peoples to maintain, conserve and strengthen their relationship with their ancestral territories, including the right to use and develop those lands, including through ancestral practices. Canada passed a law recognizing UNDRIP in 2021 and is currently developing an action plan, to be released in June, that will lay out how to align Canadian law with the declaration.
“We would like to see Indigenous communities leading the decision-making, and that they should be local and community-based solutions,” Boucha said.