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Dustin McKenzie-Hubbard was busy managing life with a new baby and starting his appliance repair business. Then he heard the call on the radio for Indigenous youth to write a climate action plan for Yukon First Nations.
“I’d never really been very concerned with climate change,” he says.
“But now — this is my entire life,” McKenzie-Hubbard, who is from the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, says. “I’ve got two young girls, and I firmly believe in leaving the world a better place for them. Because we don’t own this land, we’re just here to take care of it.”
McKenzie-Hubbard is one of 13 fellows who answered the call to write a climate vision and action plan. Over months of Zoom calls, in-person meetings and sessions on the land, they worked together to come up with an urgently needed vision for how to face climate change locally.
Temperatures are increasing at a faster rate in Yukon than Canada as a whole. Thawing permafrost is causing damage to infrastructure and has created the conditions for a spruce bark beetle outbreak that is killing trees. Habitat, access to food, and migration patterns for animals like caribou, moose and muskrat are being affected, and the dramatic swings from forest fires to deeper snows are making feeding more difficult for some species, according to a 2022 report from Yukon University.
The Assembly of First Nations Yukon Region and the Council of Yukon First Nations — who advocate for all 14 First Nations in the territory — co-developed the fellowship at the direction of the 14 Yukon First Nations chiefs. They handed the reins to people under 30 years old to decide how the nations will take climate action in coming decades.
After about two years of work, their plan, Reconnection Vision, was ratified by Yukon First Nations leadership on March 17, 2023 and released publicly on June 30.
The fellows say, despite all having very different lives, they realized they had a lot in common, and the idea of reconnection emerged quickly. The plan is centred on the idea that climate action means being in a good relationship with oneself, each other and the land. It lays out a vision to shift approaches to health, housing, food, energy and extraction, as well as economics, governance structures and education.
To the fellows, it is significant their work will guide individual First Nations’ climate adaptation plans.
“It just means that we’re being heard … having them follow our direction, and really taking what we say into consideration and truly believing us and hearing our experiences, and not invalidating those experiences,” one of the fellows, Mats’ä̀säna Mą Primozic of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, says.
“We’re working alongside our leadership to help change and shape the future for our next generation so we still have land and a place to go to heal.”
The fellows call themselves the Children of Tomorrow, a reference to the work of Yukon First Nations leaders who, decades ago, demanded modern-day treaties with the federal government. In 1973, a delegation went to Ottawa to meet with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, holding a document called Together Today For Our Children Tomorrow, which outlined their grievances and demands for a settlement. They launched a negotiation process, setting the foundation for First Nations in the territory to begin reaching self-government agreements.
The fellows see their role as a continuation of that work — creating a climate plan to protect land for the children of tomorrow, as past leaders did for them.
The plan gets into specific climate actions, such as integrating traditional medicine and land-based healing into the health care system; building homes from local materials; growing trades training in all communities; bringing in incentives to do away with lawns and promote natural ecosystems; growing community and backyard greenhouses; and decommodifying food. But the central message of the plan is much broader and deeper.
The current approach to climate action addresses the symptoms of climate change, not the cause, the fellows write. Reducing carbon emissions alone is not enough, they argue, calling it “carbon tunnel vision.”
“We believe quick fixes that respond to these symptoms that are rooted in consumption, such as electric vehicles and solar panels, don’t go deep enough. We want to treat the root cause of climate change: disconnection,” the plan reads.
“If we continue to focus on climate actions built from the same worldview that created the climate crisis, we cannot expect society to change.”
They say this comes from being connected to the four parts of the medicine wheel — spiritual, emotional, mental and physical — in relation to ourselves, each other and the land.
“It’s meant for everybody, every Yukoner and even beyond Yukon,” Yekhunashîn Khatuku (Jewel Davies) of Carcross/Tagish First Nation, says. “We’re all supposed to share healthy connections with the world, we’re all supposed to share healthy connections with each other, with the land and with all four parts of ourselves. Everybody as a human, not just First Nations people. As First Nations people, it’s our job to lead the way in that.”
The plan identifies barriers and teachings, and outlines steps to bigger visions, like decolonizing education — all based on the concept of reconnection.
Many of the fellows emphasized the importance of recognizing the hardships they confronted in their lives, and how that is tied to their reconnection to the land and their cultures — and eventually writing this plan. McKenzie-Hubbard says a point made by educator Lee Brown in a session really stuck with him: healthy people create a healthy community, which creates a healthier world.
“That struck home with me. Here, in the Yukon, there’s a lot of hurt. There’s a lot of loss, there’s a lot of drinking, drugs, everything like that. We all seem to be losing people without any real break. Like by the time we’re done grieving, if we even get that far, it’s on to the next one,” he says.
“How are people supposed to care about the land they’re living on, about the world, if everyone’s hurting?”
McKenzie-Hubbard says he internalized racism he experienced growing up, to the point he did not want to be seen as First Nations. He had a traditional childhood, but as he got older, he distanced himself from his community. He said all that changed when he had his daughter.
“It pushed me back to accepting myself and wanting to come back and be a part of the community, and be chosen for this fellowship. It’s changed my entire life. My values are entirely different now that I’m part of the community,” he says. “And being able to share that with my children especially, teaching them to be prideful and never be ashamed of who we are or what we’ve gone through.”
Nagodigá (Robby Dick) grew up in Ross River, in a tight-knit community. He agrees a major challenge in his experience as a fellow is the constant grief of losing community members.
“You can’t even grieve because we lose so many people. Right now, we have a missing person here in Ross [River]. We have no idea what happened,” he says. “Her name’s Ramona Peter, and she’s been gone for two months now … That’s one of the main barriers in small communities. It’s hard to focus on things going on outside of life, like the fellowship, when you think about that in terms of grieving.”
Dick grew up learning to harvest moose, caribou and sheep. He experienced his own disconnection when he struggled with drinking, he says. His grandma told him “it was no good to drink,” two months before she passed.
“I really took that to heart … I always remembered what she said,” he says. But it took a couple more years of struggle until one day, he decided to quit and asked his dad to go into the bush.
“We got the truck ready, we hit the road, and went into the mountains,” he says. “That was my beginning to reconnect again. Just the fact that my dad listened to me … the fact that I was in the mountains with my dad and brothers … was really, really great.”
Now, Dick has served on the Ross River Dena Council, and has become an advocate for Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and land guardians.
Other youth shared similar stories of struggles overcome. Ryan Kyikavichik of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation says he has been on a journey of reconnection and healing. He is from Old Crow, Yukon’s northernmost and only fly-in community. When he left Old Crow as a teen, things started “going downhill.” He wanted different things from life.
“It starts off with a very human story. And, you know, it’s unfortunate that it’s not a very happy one,” he says.
“I kind of forced myself to change, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t have the right tools … Then, I ended up in the fellowship. I got asked to [join]. I said, I don’t know if this group is going to actually help me. How is [addressing] climate change going to help me make real effects to my life and the things around me?”
“But as I went along, I slowly started shifting. … I started getting introduced to these new spaces that I really never experienced before. It really did give me the time and space to practice healing, to practice my sobriety. I really became a student of life after that. And I became passionate about climate.”
Other fellows told similar stories of being disconnected in some way, and finding their way home.
Yekhunashîn Khatuku says it’s important “to mention all the loss and hard times that each of us have gone through throughout the whole fellowship.” She says it kept her driven in creating a climate action plan to address the “broken, colonial systems that are imposing all of this hurt on us.”
“It’s definitely extremely encouraging to have this work that feels really deeply meaningful, and can actually spur transformation.”
Kadrienne Hummel from the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun says small northern communities are highly impacted by climate change, facing the risks of “forest fires, and having food transported through one highway and the heavy, really cold winters.”
“Snow is not coming when it’s supposed to, or coming earlier than it’s supposed to, and that’s messing up our patterns with harvesting,” Primozic says.
Kyikavichik said salmon returns in Old Crow have plummeted. By June of this year, Vuntut Gwitchin reported river beds drying up and killing thousands of salmon fry and unhatched eggs.
“I’m afraid that our Mother Earth just can’t rejuvenate itself fast enough to keep up to certain demands,” he says.
Pauline Frost, Chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, told the CBC that only 349 Chinook returned up the Porcupine River last year, and this year’s forecasts look bleak.
“Things are really bad for salmon right now … We could be looking at extinction within, you know, 20 years — it’s bad,” she told the CBC.
Däk’älämą (Jocelyn Joe-Strack) Indigenous Knowledge research chair at Yukon University, was part of the steering committee that supported the fellows. The fellowship informed her own reconnection journey — she sang in public for the first time when she sang for the fellows.
“I was super nervous to do it in front of people,” she says. “I have sung in public now a few more times and feel more confident with it. That’s part of the story — a real sacred story.”
Joe-Strack, a citizen of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, says they are planning a reconnection program based on the vision document.
“The vision is to bring in more youth every year, and just build this community of people that are working on transformation and their healing and able to go into our nations and bring that,” she says.
Elder Mark Wedge from Carcross/Tagish First Nation was one of the four guiding Elders to the fellows. He wants to see the climate plan taught in schools, to educate young people on how to become leaders.
“Look at all the sacred teachings and religions of the world, what’s the common theme? Reinforce the virtues to be honest, to be gracious, generous, sharing — all of these things are sacred teachings. And that’s as basic as they are,” he says.
Wedge hopes to see the document impact how land tenureship and resource extraction are done, and how ownership is perceived.
“When the salmon are running, they own that river, leave it alone. When the sheep are lambing, they own that mountain, leave it alone. Ownership in that context looks different,” he says.
Kluane Adamek, Yukon Regional Chief to the Assembly of First Nations, says northerners and young people need to be leading these changes because of the climate change risks they face.
“This is a plan that needs to be showcased to the world,” Adamek says. She compared it to experiencing burnout from work and not investigating the root cause, but the plan invites you to look at the cause.
“It’s like taking a minute to pause to say, am I in balance, so that everything else in my life is in balance?” she says. “I know that might seem super fluffy, but when we break down the cause of climate change, how do we get people to lower their emissions and use? How do we look at breaking all these really huge international issues down if people aren’t actually changing the way they see the world?”
The fellows hope the document will guide policy-making, be used in education and provoke discussion.
“The more we make room for these conversations, these discussions, these nuances, the further we’re gonna get,” Geehaadastee (Shauna Yeomans-Lindstrom) of the Taku River Tlingit Council, says.
“It’s so easy to get bogged down in all of the stuff that still needs to be done, but it’s a really, really exciting time to be an Indigenous youth. It’s also a really, really heavy time,” she says. “We’re trying to figure out how to deal with that and navigate and push through these challenging times. But also celebrate that we’re finally being represented.”
For all of them, a fire has been lit.
“My biggest motivations are my children,” McKenzie-Hubbard says. “The school system I grew up in and everything that I’ve lived through, I don’t want that for them. I want to — I am going to — make it better.”
“We are going to make it better.”
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