Nuskmata

Three Indigenous delegates talk COP26 and what’s missing in Canada’s climate efforts

Indigenous Peoples bear the brunt of environmental inaction — and sometimes action. The Narwhal speaks to three women on what they hope to address at the UN climate change summit in Glasgow

Nuskmata wants to combat myths about mining in Canada.

This is one of her goals at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow.

Nuskmata, mining spokesperson for Nuxalk Nation, spoke to The Narwhal from her home in British Columbia prior to leaving for the summit, also known as the 26th annual meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

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She said she wants to centre solutions around Indigenous governance and emphasize how Indigenous Peoples are bearing the burden of climate policies, even well-intentioned ones like switching to electrification and renewable energy — that still requires mining precious metals, she said. 

“You can’t be sacrificing Indigenous Peoples and clean water in order to get solar panels,” she said.

“It’s not just swapping out oil and gas. It’s about changing the system so that it’s sustainable for everybody.”

Nuskmata is one of many Indigenous delegates at COP26 determined to pursue Indigenous solutions, along with debunking myths and adding context to Canada’s global commitments.

She said she also hopes to deliver a message that mining “is not a green solution” to the climate crisis.

At COP26, the more than 100 countries in attendance will update their 2015 Paris Agreement commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, intended to meet the urgent need to limit global warming to 1.5 C. This will require profound changes, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a sobering report in August which found Earth could exceed the 1.5 C warming limit by the early 2030s if we don’t curb emissions. To stay below 2 C warming, countries have to meet net-zero emissions around 2050, the report found.

Already in Scotland, nearly all countries have signed a deal committing to end deforestation by 2030, including Canada — though logging here is seen as renewable and therefore not affected by the deal. Delegates have pledged $1.7 billion in funding to Indigenous Peoples, recognizing the critical role they play in forest conservation.

On Monday Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to cap and then cut emissions from Canada’s oil and gas sector, repeating one of his 2021 campaign promises. But according to a new report from Environmental Defence Canada and Oil Change International, oil and gas producers only have vague commitments that rely on carbon-capture technology. 

Some critics say COP26 is excluding Indigenous leaders from key parts of the international discussions. Regional Chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations Terry Teegee said in a public statement “there is a noticeable failure to include First Nations while negotiating the collective future of our planet internationally and locally.”

In further critique, Indigenous people held a memorial at COP26 for 1,005 Indigenous land defenders killed since the Paris Agreement. Indigenous land defender Ita Mendoza, from the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, told The Guardian that COP is “a big business, a continuation of colonialism.”

Despite these concerns, Indigenous leaders are at COP26 pushing for Indigenous Peoples to be at decision-making tables to prevent climate catastrophe.

“We have to shift perspectives by sharing who we are, how we live, what our values are, and what our solutions are,” Nuskmata said.

She is one of three Indigenous women at COP26 who spoke to the Narwhal about what they hope to accomplish at the summit. 

Here is what they said.

‘I want to hear those love stories [with the land] from all around the world’

“My name, Nuskmata, is ancient. It’s older than our forests here,” Nuskmata said, explaining her name is an inheritance from her Nuxalk village and bloodline.

The ancestor and namesake Nuskmata cleared a path from the coast to the interior of what’s now known as British Columbia, Nuskmata said. It makes her think about her responsibility to clear a path in her own way as a spokesperson and advocate. 

At COP26, Nuskmata will speak to some of the climate solutions the Nuxaulk Nation wants to pursue, such as scaling down mining and clearcut logging. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

“We may or may not see all the benefits of the work that we’re doing, but we have to believe that we are clearing a path for future generations,” she said.

Nuskmata said she wants to hear about other people’s fights to protect their lands at COP26, so she can remember and be inspired by them after she returns home.

Taking care of their territory is Nuxalk’s “love story with the land,” Nuskmata said.

“I’m a Nuxalk woman with an ancient name. I still live in the place where my ancestors have been for thousands of years. That’s really powerful. That’s a beautiful thing. And that’s part of my love story.”

“I want to hear those love stories from all around the world.”

She will be sharing climate solutions the Nuxalk Nation wants to pursue, including scaling down mining and clearcut logging. In August, the nation issued an eviction notice to Vancouver-based mining company Juggernaut Exploration, which received two permits for exploration from the province without the nation’s consent. The nation has not consented to any of the mining on its territory. Many critics have denounced B.C.’s mining laws for being lax on regulation and not requiring Indigenous consent.

Juggernaut Exploration missed the eviction deadline.

Nuskmata, who is also Secwepemc, has seen first hand the potential dangers of mining, witnessing the 2014 Mount Polley mine disaster on Secwepemc territory, when the tailings pond spilled 24 million cubic metres of contaminated waste into Quesnel Lake. According to critics, B.C.’s mining regulations still fall short on preventing a similar disaster in the future. Nuskmata wants to build more public awareness.

“One of the things I learned from Mount Polley is you can never waste a disaster,” Nuskmata said. “Within that crisis there are cracks in the system.”

Nuskmata also plans to hold B.C. and Canada accountable for their commitments to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Both levels of government have introduced legislation to adopt UNDRIP. But even though the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Canada to halt the Coastal GasLink pipeline, the Trans Mountain pipeline and the Site C dam until obtaining free, prior and informed consent — a central principle of UNDRIP — construction carries on while land defenders continue to fight the projects.

“One of the things I learned from Mount Polley is you can never waste a disaster. Within that crisis there are cracks in the system.”

Nuskmata

“They don’t follow their own laws, they adopt stuff and don’t implement it,” Nuskmata said. “Meanwhile, money keeps flowing out of our territories in the form of trees, minerals, foods and medicines while they keep our communities in stable poverty with their colonial institutions.”

Her biggest goal for COP26 is to expand her nation’s network to share solutions grounded in the principle of reciprocity.

“This is a global event, I doubt I will be in any way centre stage. But that’s not my goal, it’s not about me. It’s about sharing the work.”

‘It’s young people that are going to change the world’

Kukpi7 Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith Indian Band tried to hail a cab in Vancouver between meetings as we did our interview over the phone, calling her crammed schedule a “typical” day. 

The prominent Indigenous rights advocate, and secretary-treasurer for the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, celebrated her 60th birthday in October. She has been in politics her whole life, and attended her first United Nations conference sometime in her 40s, though she can’t remember what year. For Wilson, advocating for Indigenous Peoples isn’t an option.

“As an Indigenous person, especially being a woman, we’re born into this,” she said, standing in the rain with an umbrella as sirens wailed in the background.

Indigenous people hold value systems in which “everybody is taken care of,” and those values are essential to address global issues of hunger, poverty and climate change, she said.

In her experiences attending international events, Wilson noticed Indigenous people have to “carve out their own space” since these events still prioritize state governments. Like Nuskmata, she wants to see more room for Indigenous people to provide solutions. 

She also wants to bring more international awareness of ongoing Indigenous Rights issues in Canada and their intersections with climate change.

“There’s a lot happening in our own country with Trans Mountain, Fairy Creek, Site C dam, with Wet’suwet’en,” Wilson said. “The real issue is climate change and global warming, but [the government] tries to reduce them to other issues, and our people are criminalized.”

She wants to spend more time mentoring young people to pick up the fight.

“We need to instill climate leadership. I see young people like Autumn Peltier and Greta Thunberg, and I’m so inspired by them,” she said.

“That’s the climate leadership that we need, and I’m not seeing it anywhere else right now … It’s young people that are going to change the world.”

Another one of Wilson’s priorities at COP26 is to emphasize cumulative effects. Hunting, harvesting, fishing and collecting medicines is becoming harder in her territory. Less fish are returning in the rivers. This summer, during an extreme heatwave, some Neskonlith families were under an evacuation alert or order due to the White Rock Lake wildfire that burned about 833 square kilometres — an area nearly the size of the City of Calgary.

“[Decision-makers] are trying to make it look like there are substantive changes, when it’s not enough to reduce emissions to address global warming,” she said. “We need to act now.”

“We have to ensure that these changes are made for the survival of all of our people.”

‘The ice is so unpredictable’

In October, Crystal Martin-Lapenskie was in her home near Ottawa Facetiming with her sister in Sanirajak, Nunavut. She asked her how the weather was.

To Martin-Lapenskie’s shock, her friend stepped outside to show her it was raining.

“It shouldn’t be raining. It should be snowing,” Martin-Lapenskie told The Narwhal on a video call from Glasgow.

“As a child, around August there would be snow on the ground. Twenty years later, we’re seeing less and less snow. There was no snow in August. You used to be lucky if there’s snow in September. Now you’re lucky if you see snow in October.”

“It’s really frightening in a short 20-year span that our climate has changed so drastically.”

Martin-Lapenskie is a former president of the National Inuit Youth Council and a consultant with the Inuit Circumpolar Council. This is her second time at the UN climate summit. She described climate change as a spider web: a series of interwoven issues, and together “it captures all of the necessities in life that you need to survive.”

Climate change is an urgent issue for Inuit. Their home in the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Country foods are harder to hunt and harvest. Inuit have even fallen through ice and died when ice typically would have been thick, Martin-Lapenskie said. She also pointed to Nuugaatsiaq, Greenland, which was hit by a tsunami in 2017 caused by a landslide. Residents still aren’t able to return home because the area is unstable. Tsunamis are one of the extreme weather events that scientists say will be made more common by climate change.

Martin-Lapenskie wants to bring more of these human-centred stories from the Arctic to policy-making at COP26. She wants to amplify Inuit knowledge through the two events the Inuit Circumpolar Council is hosting  — one about marine governance and the other about youth and infrastructure. 

The council is also celebrating International Inuit Day on Nov. 7 in Glasgow with film screenings, Inuit panels and Inuit drum-dancing and throat-singing.

Her primary goal is to get Inuit at decision-making tables.

“This week is all about amplifying the need to ensure any policies or decisions that are taking place in the Arctic are being conducted with Inuit,” she said.

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