As part of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), Amnesty International published a report on the impact of climate change on the human rights of eight communities around the world. One of these eight case studies was carried out with the Innu community of Pessamit, Quebec. The results are unequivocal: the Innu way of life and culture are in danger. Ultimately, in a very short time, all of Quebec and Canada will pay the price. However, ancestral indigenous know-how is a key tool in the fight against climate change. Maybe we should listen and learn.
The research carried out by Amnesty International Canada Francophone, in collaboration with the Pessamiulnuat, focuses on the human rights violations of the Innu nation of Pessamit, which result from the combined effects of climate change and the forestry, hydroelectricity and resorts, as well as colonialist policies.
We were on the territory of the Innu nation recently in order to understand its struggles for the protection of its environment and its culture. For the Pessamiulnuat, the close relationship with the land is an expression of the Innu way of life and spirituality. When the land is in danger, the essence of their identity, the Innu-aitun, is also in danger. Coastal erosion undermines part of the territory, and it also threatens the practice of certain cultural activities.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes that Indigenous peoples “have suffered historical injustices, through, among other things, colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources”. Injustices that will continue as long as justice and reparation do not take place. And it is only in this way that there can be reconciliation. Article 25 of the Declaration states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to retain and strengthen their special spiritual ties with the lands, territories, waters and coastal sea areas and other resources which they have traditionally owned or occupied and used, and to assume their responsibilities in this regard with regard to future generations”.
In addition, in its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly expresses that it is the most vulnerable populations, including the 476 million indigenous people around the world, who are suffering the plus climate change, precisely because of their connection between cultural identity and territory.
Rights and climate are linked
For the Pessamiulnuat, the close relationship with the territory and its animals, particularly the caribou, is an expression of the Innu way of life and spirituality. When it is in danger, so is the Innu-aitum. However, coastal erosion threatens the practice of certain cultural activities at the same time as it leads to the loss of part of the territory.
The Innu Nation of Pessamit’s interest in climate change dates back some twenty years, precisely because of shoreline erosion. A phenomenon accentuated by the rise in temperatures, the milder winters and the multiplication of periods of freezing and thawing. Thinner ice decreases shoreline protection from waves and winter storms. Erosion modifies the seabed, where silt is deposited that interferes with fish spawning. Added to this are increasingly hot summers. The fauna and flora change, the trees turn yellow in the middle of summer due to the lack of water, burnt by the sun. Disturbing findings.
However, the IPCC recognizes that when the territorial rights of indigenous peoples are respected, the climate, the territory and its biodiversity are better off. What the Pessamiulnuat are aware of. The Innu Council of Pessamit has therefore set up a team responsible for monitoring the changes undergone by Nitassinan, the claimed and unceded ancestral territory, as well as a salmon restoration project in the Betsiamites River. The nation is also calling for the creation of a protected area for woodland caribou and has established partnerships with universities to understand shoreline erosion and find solutions.
However, despite all these steps, in the end, Pessamit has no decision-making power over the activities of the forest, hydroelectric, mining and resort industries, which not only have an impact on the territory, but also accentuate the changes climatic.
Thirteen hydroelectric power stations and 16 Hydro-Québec dams have been built on the Nitassinan de Pessamit since the 1950s, without prior, free and informed consent, without even the appearance of consultation. We cannot rewrite history and that is not what the Pessamiulnuat claim, any more than they claim to live in the Stone Age. But the least we can do is acknowledge that it was not done, and that it was highly damaging. We can also do things differently today. Not “by consulting as much as possible”, but by making sure to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of the entire community.
A nation-to-nation relationship
This also applies to all industries, and it is the responsibility of the provincial government to ensure this. The northern hemisphere boreal forest, of which Canada is the principal guardian, is essential to the fight against climate change because of its high potential for storing carbon emissions. However, “every year, industrial logging in Canada clears more than a million acres of boreal forest, much of it irreplaceable and particularly carbon-rich primary forest,” according to Jennifer Skene of Natural Resources. Defense Council.
And each time new roads are created to serve the forest industry, hunters and non-Native tourists take them over. Vacationing on the Nitassinan is a growing phenomenon, an additional threat to traditional Innu activities. The government of Quebec and the regional county municipalities distribute permits for both logging and tourism, without regard for the Innu.
Admittedly, the federal government has made efforts in recent years to include the nation and its vision in the management of the territory. However, on the side of the provincial, the community always comes up against a stubborn refusal: “We are consulted for the form. We propose new ways of doing things, but we are not listened to. We are not taken seriously,” said Éric Kanapé, biologist and environmental advisor. Chef Marielle Vachon adds: “We demand respect for all government orders, because we are ignored. We are not on the map of Canada. »
Finally, we cannot ignore the impact of colonialist policies for nearly 150 years. And the ways of governments and industries are a corollary of this entrenched colonialism.
The First Nation of Pessamit wishes a nation-to-nation relationship with the levels of government in order to be able to determine its own development on its territory, i.e. negotiate until an agreement is reached that suits both parties. In other words: give the other party the power to say no.
Finally, let us recall that the United Nations considers the degradation of the environment and unsustainable development as the greatest threats to the right to life of future generations.