Current Problems


World leaders must come out of their bubbles and hear other voices — especially Indigenous women — in climate-change debates

November 21, 2022

Indigenous people have unique relationships with their environment. If they listened, leaders would hear us urging a just transition away from fossil fuels.

By Madeleine Redfern, Lisa J. SmithContributors

Toronto Star: World leaders making decisions around climate change must consider ideas originating beyond their own bubbles — especially those proffered by Indigenous people — if the problem is to be tackled in any meaningful way.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) recently sent us — two Inuit — to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt where we were tasked with ensuring that Indigenous human rights were upheld in every negotiation. We think we had some success.

But there is an inclination for people, even at international meetings like COP, to interact with their own kind. Members of country delegations tend to talk amongst themselves instead of reaching out to hear what others have to say. That is not how climate change will be curbed. And it makes it much more difficult for Indigenous voices like ours to inject themselves into the international conversation at a state level.

That is a problem, because Indigenous people have a lot to offer.

Many of us live in places where the effects of global warming are already forcing shifts in our traditional ways of life. And many of us work in the resource industries that are a prime cause of those shifts.

It is a double vulnerability that should put Indigenous people at the centre of the climate-change debate. Too often, however, we are forced to sit on the sidelines while others in positions of authority make decisions about global warming without us, even though those decisions will profoundly affect our lives.

If they listened, world leaders would hear us urging a just transition away from fossil fuels. Indigenous people are not uniformly demanding an end to all oil and gas production. Some of us own the companies. Many more of us are employed in the sector. According to a 2021 report by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Indigenous people make up 6.3 per cent of the upstream industry’s workforce — nearly twice the Indigenous participation in the Canadian workforce at large.

Making the move away from oil and gas will not be easy on those people. It will require investment and it will require skills training. We, as Indigenous people, are best positioned to decide where that money should be spent and how that training is delivered. NWAC is currently running a massive apprenticeship program for Indigenous women and LGBTQ+ people in the Red Seal trades that is funded by Indigenous Services Canada. That is the kind of co-operation required for a just transition.

As for global warming, Indigenous people around the world have unique relationships with their environment based on intergenerational knowledge, skills and awareness. 

In the North, we have known from time immemorial that the climate is changing. Now we see it changing at an accelerated rate. We have the knowledge around climate change adaptation because we have been adapting through millennia. It is a citizen science where our hunters, our people, are effectively the eyes and ears on the ground.

There is also an academic bias that excludes Indigenous women from these conversations and this knowledge sharing. We too hunt, whether it’s caribou, seals, polar bears or deer. We are the berry pickers and the clam diggers. We are the ones who prepare game and fish, so we are the ones noticing the condition of the animals. This is valuable information that should not be discounted.

But the participation by Indigenous women — and in fact all women — at international climate change meetings is depressingly low. A BBC analysis says less than 34 per cent of the negotiators at this year’s COP were female.

On a positive note, COP27 had the largest Indigenous caucus in the history of the conference. Collectively, we issued a statement emphasizing that Indigenous rights, including those affecting the places we live, are inherent and internationally recognized. We will not allow the international community to diminish them by conflating us with other vulnerable groups like minorities and local communities.

But there has to be more than a simple acknowledgment of Indigenous rights in climate-change talks that are conducted among non-Indigenous men. Indigenous people, including Indigenous women, can inject a sense of grassroots reality to these discussions.

The members of the international community need to accept the value that we bring to the table. The world needs our voices in the climate-change debate.

Madeleine Redfern is president of the Nunavut Inuit Women’s Association. She is the CEO of CanArctic Inuit Networks and a past mayor of Iqaluit. Lisa Smith is an nonpracticing Inuk lawyer and is senior director, international relations for the Native Women’s Association of Canada.