Symposium addresses Indigenous community perspectives on environmental justice

On May 26, Osgoode Hall Law School in partnership with the Faculty of Environmental Studies hosted the 2016 Symposium on Indigenous Environmental Justice to address the harmful effects of environmental injustice and racism towards Indigenous peoples and communities, as well as peoples of colour.

Panel left to right: Lynzii Taibossigai, Atuumn Peltier, Susan Chiblow and Josephine Mandamin
Panel left to right: Lynzii Taibossigai, Atuumn Peltier, Susan Chiblow and Josephine Mandamin

The event brought together academics, community members, and youth from across North America.

In his opening address, Osgoode Dean Lorne Sossin noted the historical complacency of the school, as well as the profession, in the continuation of environmental and social injustice towards Indigenous peoples in Canada, but celebrated the proven for the law to operate as a powerful tool to recognize and reject these same forces.

The difficult position of the institution of law was central to the day’s conversations, as various speakers discussed innovative approaches to the study and elimination of environmental injustice.

The day featured an ambitious slate of speakers from a variety of backgrounds and positions, and placed central emphasis on environmental justice and racism considerations emergent from Indigenous communities and grassroots movements.

Josephine Mandamin and Professor Deborah McGregor
Josephine Mandamin and Professor Deborah McGregor

Speakers compare common western scientific and legal approaches to the environment rooted in considerations of ‘justice in terms of law’, to Indigenous community-based considerations of the environment that focused on issues of human-ecological relationality and ‘natural law’.

The symposium created space for Indigenous young people to share their stories throughout the day during a Young People’s Roundtable on Environmental Justice. Indigenous youth also participated in most panels, and contributed heartily to the day’s discussions..

Deborah McGregor, the symposium coordinator, said it was her intent to provide a forum in which young people could engage in conversations about justice “on their own terms”.

There was a clear burden placed on these individuals as both knowledge holders and facilitators of change, an observation reinforced by Quinn Meawasige, 22, in his reflection on the symposium.

“These young people know these issues, and they know they are going to inherit these issues,” he said.

It was also identified through Taryn Bobbiwash’s focus on centering spirituality in working toward justice.

During the first panel on Water (Nibi) Justice and Law, global youth activist for environmental justice Autumn Peltier raised concerns about climate change. The 11-year-old followed with a resolute commitment to environmental justice and protection saying “without that water, none of us would be here – nothing would be here”.

Youth speakers also offered a variety of paths forward for educators and lawmakers, many speaking towards their own community-based capacity-building projects or arguing for transformations in environmental and other forms of education.

Kyle Whyte and Dayna Scott
Kyle Whyte and Dayna Scott

In addition to the youth activists, the symposium marshalled a variety of important academics in the environmental justice field, including Ingrid Waldron, Kyle White, Dan Longboat, Dawn Martin-Hill, and Dayna Scott. The conference was also able to attract guest activists and academics, including Professor Kristie Dotson, Indigenous Environmental Networks’ Dallas Goldtooth, grandmothers Josephine Mandamin, Dorene Bernard, Annie Clair, as well as Chief of Manataka Arvol Looking Horse. Martin-Hill presented on the dire situation of the Lubicon Cree, with a short video featuring Bernard Ominayak.

Dotson, professor of Philosophy at Michigan State University, epitomized the event, suggesting that “our environments are conditions for beauty and atrocity”.

The event was attended by a captive crowd at Osgoode Hall School of Law and was streamed live globally, and accessed by more than 300 people.

By Dylan McMahon, FES student