By Liam McLoughlin 19/3/2016
The world has catapulted beyond the dangerous milestone of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming since pre-industrial levels. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are coming and we are charging headlong towards them.
The news has stirred feelings of terror and anger for some. New Matilda writer Ben Eltham has rightly raged at the Coalition’s treasonous climate policies. Our corrupted, morally bankrupted political system has betrayed us all.
The immense mental and physical burden of climate meltdown weighs heavily as we awaken to terrifying climate impacts in our lifetimes, not just those of our grandchildren.
The chances for our species appear slim.
Still, the latest Game of Thrones trailer has landed, so that’s a win. We can all look forward to another shitty Indian Jones sequel and did you see that guy pissing in the cereal?
For most Australians, the impacts of climate change remain abstract enough to suppress the terror, turn the fan up a bit, and enjoy the new season of House of Cards.
For Crystal Lameman, Canadian First Nations environmental activist, the effects are personal and resistance is constant.
Lameman is the Treaty Coordinator and Communications Manager for the Intergovernmental Affairs and Industry Relations Department for the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Alberta, Canada.
Alberta is home to the tar sands, the third biggest oil reserve in the world. Oil from the tar sands produces three to four times more carbon emissions than conventional oil and prominent climate scientist Professor James Hansen said it will be “game over” for the climate if the tar sands are fully exploited.
The violence continues for the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. The main perpetrators today are the oil and gas companies destroying their land and poisoning their people.
In 2013, a series of spills dumped millions of litres of oil onto Beaver Lake Cree lands, forming toxic bitumen ponds, killing wildlife and polluting lakes and forests. This is not some abstract environmental concern for Lameman and her community. This is about the basic rights for children to drink clean water and breathe clean air.
“It’s not okay that our little ones are being airlifted to the local university hospital for drinking contaminated water directly linked to industry.
“It’s not okay that we get an advisory from Health Canada saying you have to boil your water before you drink it… to see my 14-year-old niece have an asthma attack, [to see]my son get a bleeding nose, that’s not okay.
“And that’s the reality, that’s what we’re living every single day.”
Luckily for Lameman, former Canadian Natural Resources minister Joe Oliver has reassuring words.
“Tar sands land is uninhabitable by human beings, so you know no community is being disrupted.”
Or at least making the land uninhabitable is the official goal.
As if to emphasise capitalist violence inflicted on Indigenous Peoples and the natural world, the Royal Canadian Air Force set up the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range in what they described as the “inhospitable wilds of northern Alberta”, otherwise known as Lameman’s home.
Large sections of her homelands, where the bones of her ancestors lie, are closed off to her people and armed with tanks and simulated missile launching sites.
When visiting the area, climate activist Naomi Klein said, “Canadians should be shocked that our government is dropping test bombs in the same geographic area as massive tar sands operations. This is already the most dangerous form of fossil fuel extraction on the planet from an ecological perspective. Combining that mining with weapons testing… is so reckless it verges on the surreal.”
Capitalist violence rains down not only on Indigenous lands and communities in general, but Indigenous women in particular. Asked what needs to change at the recent All About Women Festival in Sydney, Lameman made this link.
“Men in our communities need to reclaim themselves, they need to reclaim their connection to the land, to go back to their original ways of knowing and being and thinking and doing.
“Until that colonised mind is changed and they de-feather themselves, the capitalist thinking will continue, which means their disconnect from our women and their responsibility to our women and children will continue.
“And that is a contributing factor to the over 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada with that number rising daily.”
Treaty and Resistance
The Beaver Lake Cree Nation is resisting capitalist violence. In 2008 they filed a lawsuit against the governments of Alberta and Canada. Their case made use of a treaty signed in 1876 in which they agreed to share land in exchange for a guarantee that “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow we can continue our traditional way of life”.
This included “traditional rights to hunt, fish, trap and gather for food and support”. They pointed to 19,000 violations of these inherent Treaty rights.
In 2013 the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the Beaver Lake Cree, and the community became the first to be given a trial on the cumulative impacts of industry on Treaty rights.
The case has huge implications. Speaking at the All About Women Festival, Lameman said:
“The Beaver Lake Cree Nation’s case represents a growing understanding that [using]Aboriginal title and inherent Treaty rights… is the strongest legally binding strategy to stop the expansion of tar sands at the source.”
A 2015 video from an organisation called Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs (RAVEN) outlines the case.
In the clip, Lameman appeals to Canadians to get behind the Beaver Lake Cree.
“The only thing that’s going to stop us from winning this lawsuit is money. And so here, the nation’s poorest people are carrying one of the most historically precedent setting litigations on their backs and it’s up to the nation to get behind our people and support that.”
Of course a Treaty is no guarantee that governments will do the right thing. The way provincial and federal governments in Canada have tried to avoid their obligations in the Beaver Lake case is a good example.
The federal government argued Alberta issued industrial licenses in the tar sands so it was their responsibility. Alberta argued treaty rights were a federal responsibility.
Yet their escape attempts have failed and the Beaver Lake Cree are still gathering evidence in preparation for the trial.
This case shows just how far behind we are in this country.
“Unfortunately the one difference that makes Canada and those 11 Treaty regions different than here is that we have those treaties that are enshrined in the Canadian constitution.
“We also have unceded territory in the province of British Columbia where Indigenous relatives are asserting their Aboriginal rights and title to their un-ceded territory, and are winning cases up at the Supreme Court level.”
The fact that through treaties the Indigenous Peoples of Canada have legal grounds for resistance to fossil fuel extraction offers yet another reason to push ahead with a Treaty campaign here in Australia.
Leadership and Solidarity
A fascinating recent article in Yes Magazine discussed how women-led social movements are redefining concepts of power and leadership.
“In the face of growing corporate power, land grabs, economic injustice, and climate change, women’s movements offer a paradigm shift. They have redefined leadership and development models, connected the dots between issues and oppression, prioritized collective power and movement-building, and critically examined how issues of gender, race, caste, class, sexuality, and ability disproportionately exclude and marginalize.”
The way women are redefining leadership was another theme taken up by Lameman at the recent festival. She spoke about her aunt, who is now the Chief of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation.
“My aunt is a very quiet, kind, humble, timid woman, not somebody you would necessarily see in the norm of a leadership role… [she’s] leading a nation of over 1,200 people and does it in a way where she’s kind and loving.
“She’s removed that idea of privilege and entitlement in a leadership role.”
Lameman thinks it’s vital to get away from the dominant form of leadership as being about “who’s going to have the biggest mouth” and towards leadership as listening and solidarity.
She remembers advice her grandmother once gave her.
“The creator gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason, to listen more than you talk, so that when you say and do something, it will be meaningful… so my role as a woman, as a human being, is to change my way of thinking and doing away with this need to be really loud.”
This alternate vision of leadership should be combined with a commitment to solidarity; a commitment to working together rather than working for. It’s a commitment she’d like to see from all of us.
“Your responsibility is to take what I have shared and be good allies; working hard to create a perfect solidarity puzzle that is inclusive of all humanity.”
Caring For Mother Earth
In her 2012 PowerShift speech, Lameman offered the audience hope.
“We have one thing that industry and government doesn’t have and will never have – and that’s the truth.”
Listening to this First Nations activist is a fascinating experience, partially because her truths, her forms of Indigenous knowledge, are so antithetical to the Western capitalist worldview: the view which says nature is there to be mastered and plundered.
Lameman talks a lot about Mother Earth, a richly beautiful idea dismissed as hippy dippy garbage by those too ideologically blinded by scientific rationalism to know better.
When she felt pity for herself as a woman without a mother, an elder counselled “as long as you have Mother Earth, you will always have a Mum. Love her, nurture her and take care of her, the same as she has done for you”.
“Our mother has provided every single thing that we need to survive outside of her, without having to be invasive of her.”
As an Indigenous woman, Lameman has inherited the wisdom of an ancient people. That wisdom emphasises caring for Mother Earth. We have ignored it at our great peril.
If as a matter of urgency we start listening to and acting on these fundamental truths, we may yet escape this terrifying climate mess and successfully build a safe and sustainable future.
“We must commit to consolidating our efforts in the collective control of our natural resources based on the principles of people’s participation, gender equality, environmental and social justice, self-reliant and sustainable management systems, while maintaining natural law and the systems rooted in that and not in capitalist development.
“[We must respect] Mother Earth and that includes viable solutions as opposed to false solutions to climate change. Viable solutions are necessary and they’re urgent. We don’t desire a low carbon economy; we need a low carbon economy, led by renewable energy, if we are to have any hope for the next seven generations….
“So in our communities we are demanding green economies, defined by us, that put a stop to the capitalism of Mother Earth. We are demanding systems that are founded on our right to self-determination, our permanent sovereignty over our traditional lands, territories, and resources, forests, water and everything that sustains life.”
Crystal Lameman lives on the frontlines of the climate fight. Reading the latest horrific climate news it’s clear that very soon we will all live on the frontlines.
We’d do well to learn from the wisdom of those who have gone before us.
“This is no longer just an Indigenous Peoples’ problem. If you breathe air and you drink water, this is about you.”