What does environmental justice mean to Indigenous Peoples? How can it be addressed? These are two of the foundational questions raised by the Indigenous Environmental Justice Project (IEJ), a five-year initiative funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). The York University-based project is the brainchild of Osgoode Hall Law School’s Professor Deborah McGregor, Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Indigenous Environmental Justice, cross appointed to the Faculty of Environmental Studies.
“We hope that this project – specifically, our well-developed website – will be a key resource for community members, students, activists and scholars,” McGregor explains. “The website provides support to communities currently fighting an environmental injustice, resources to teachers or schools interested in educating students about environmental justice; and it creates a place for inclusive dialogue on how to move toward greater justice,” she adds.
What is environmental justice?
According to the project’s website, environmental justice refers to the inequitable distribution of costs and benefits of environmental degradation, such that people of colour, the marginalized and the poor tend to bear a significantly greater portion of the costs, while receiving relatively little in terms of any benefits.
“In Canada, environmental (in)justice is a constant undercurrent for arguably most (if not all) environmental challenges that Indigenous peoples face,” McGregor explains. “The field of environmental justice studies therefore forms a critical theoretical and applied framework for addressing key environmental issues of concern to Indigenous peoples in Canada,” she adds.
McGregor brought wealth of expertise to York in 2015
McGregor is ideally situated to embark upon such an ambitious venture, the Indigenous Environmental Justice Project. She came to York three years ago, in 2015, and brought with her vast research expertise in Indigenous knowledge systems and their various applications in diverse contexts.
With one foot in law and the other in environmental studies, she brings a multidimensional kind of scholarship that ranges from water and environmental governance to forest policy and sustainable development.
McGregor explains the profound interconnectedness of law, the environment and Indigeneity: “Anishinaabe philosophies, principles and values are the foundation of the ethical conduct required to ensure appropriate relationships with all of creation, and thus a just world.”
Her work has been published in numerous national and international journals. A highly engaging speaker, she has delivered numerous public and academic presentations relating to traditional knowledge and governance. She remains actively involved in a variety of Indigenous communities, serving as an advisor and continuing to engage in community-based research and initiatives.
Project creates unique forum to share ideas, knowledge and experiences
The Indigenous Environmental Justice Project ̶ a venture greatly bolstered by York collaborators Dayna Scott and Martha Stiegman ̶ provides a variety of opportunities for dialogue, learning and exchange. It organizes well-attended special events and symposia, and in doing so, creates a forum to share ideas, knowledge and experiences to help participants and visitors to the website understand what environmental justice means.
For example, in May 2016, the project team organized a knowledge-sharing symposium to advance the theory and practice of environmental justice scholarship. Symposium participants engaged with Indigenous peoples to more fully develop the concept of justice, and the policies and law necessary to enable just relations. At its core, the symposium posed these two questions:
- What does environmental justice mean in Canada, in an Indigenous context and from an Indigenous perspective?
- What is currently known about Indigenous environmental justice in Canada?
“By bringing together activists, youth, women, artists, Elders, scholars, leaders, environmental practitioners, advocates and community members, the symposium was intended to initiate and invite dialogue,” McGregor explains.
Additionally, in 2016/2017, the project team members hosted a five-part speaker series that highlighted Indigenous women and youth perspectives on environmental justice. In the spirit of social justice, four of the five events were live streamed via the project’s social media channels (Facebook and Twitter) to ensure that those who were interested but unable to travel for various reasons could still participate. Videos of these events are posted on the website.
Project provides fulsome range of resources
To augment the videos and photographs from various events, the website also offers a reading list and hyperlinked research resources, including:
- General, including the Assembly of Nations, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Hopi Message to the United Nations;
- Energy justice, shining a spotlight on a joint statement to US President Obama produced by Honor the Earth, the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, the International Indian Treaty Council and the Indigenous Environmental Network;
- Climate change justice; and
- Water justice, including materials related to First Nations and Inuit Health drinking water and wastewater.
To learn more about McGregor, visit her faculty profile. For more information about the Indigenous Environmental Justice Project and upcoming events for 2018, visit the website, follow the project on Twitter: @theIEJproject and watch the videos.
By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, firstname.lastname@example.org