As it is our custom I would like to acknowledge the Indigenous Peoples from Anchorage.
Chairperson, ladies and gentlemen, fellow panelists, I want to thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.
I am very pleased to be here and I wish to acknowledge the Indigenous Peoples Summit for Climate Change for inviting me to participate in this timely gathering and to discuss the importance of climate change.
I am Kaska Dene from the northern region of Canada.
We are a resilient culture, and the Dene have managed to make a living in some of the most extreme climates on Earth – from the Arctic Circle of Alaska and the Yukon to the deserts of Mexico – our people have occupied the land and adapted to the climate to ensure our survival.
Much of my recent work has included two elected terms as a political executive of the British Columbia First Nations Summit. Earlier this year I decided not to run again for political office and took on my new role as CEO of the British Columbia First Nations Energy and Mining Council. I would like to begin my remarks by providing a synopsis of the political environments at the Provincial level in British Columbia, then move on to the National and International scene, and then tie this into the reason we are here today: to discuss climate change and how Indigenous Peoples can be involved in decision making.
Political Context in British Columbia and Canada
Recent court decisions and the establishment of political agreements have affirmed the central role of First Nations in decision-making and management related to the mining sector.
First Nations Relations
On March 17, 2005, the political Executives of the First Nations Summit, Union of BC Indian Chiefs and BC Assembly of First Nation (the “First Nations Leadership Council”) signed the Leadership Accord, committing to work together in unity to advance reconciliation of Aboriginal title and rights with the assertion of Crown sovereignty and to improve the socio-economic circumstances of First Nations peoples and communities in British Columbia.
First Nation-Crown Relations
Three political agreements in particular provide the framework through which collaboration is occurring between First Nations and the Crown:
New Relationship: In March 2005, BC First Nations and the Province of British Columbia entered into a New Relationship, agreeing to a new government-to-government relationship based on respect, recognition and accommodation of Aboriginal title and rights and reconciliation of co-existing titles and jurisdictions. Commitments in the New Relationship include: the development of processes and institutions for shared decision-making about the land and resources and for revenue and benefit sharing; and, working together to achieve strong governments, social justice, and economic self-sufficiency for First Nations.
A First Nations-Federal Crown Political Accord: On May 31, 2005, A First Nations-Federal Crown Political Accord on the Recognition and Implementation of First Nation Governments was signed between the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), on behalf of First Nations, and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) on behalf of the Government of Canada. It commits the parties to work jointly to promote meaningful processes for reconciliation and implementation of constitutionally recognized aboriginal rights with First Nation Governments to achieve an improved quality of life and to support policy transformation in other areas of common interest.
Transformative Change Accord: On November 25, 2005, at the conclusion of the First Ministers’ Meeting on Aboriginal Issues held in Kelowna, BC, the tripartite Transformative Change Accord was signed by the First Nations Leadership Council, the Government of Canada, and the Province of British Columbia. The Accord commits the parties to efforts to close the socio-economic gap between First Nations and other British Columbians over the next 10 years, reconcile Aboriginal title and rights with Crown title, and establish a new relationship based on mutual respect and recognition. Specific areas of focus under the Accord are: relationships; health; education; housing; and economic opportunities.
Taken together, these agreements signal a new era of unity and strength among First Nations and a greater willingness by governments to explore new ways of working together in recognition of Aboriginal title and rights and treaty rights, and of First Nations’ unique connections with their lands, resources and territories.
BC First Nations have been involved in, and have supported, international efforts for the respect and recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the right to self-determination. The United Nations General Assembly has adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes the following provisions relevant to decision-making:
Article 3: Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
Article 10: Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.
Article 18: Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.
Article 19: States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.
Article 26: Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories, and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.
Article 27: States shall establish and implement, in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned, a fair, independent, impartial, open and transparent process, giving due recognition to indigenous peoples’ laws, traditions, customs and land tenure systems, to recognize and adjudicate the rights of indigenous peoples pertaining to their lands, territories and resources, including those which were traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used. Indigenous peoples shall have the right to participate in this process.
Article 27: Indigenous peoples have the right to redress, by means that can include restitution or, when this is not possible, just, fair and equitable compensation, for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent. Unless otherwise freely agreed upon by the peoples concerned, compensation shall take the form of lands, territories and resources equal in quality, size and legal status or of monetary compensation or other appropriate redress.
Article 30: Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands, territories and other resources. States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands, territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources. States shall provide effective mechanisms for just and fair redress for any such activities and appropriate measures shall be taken to mitigate adverse environmental, economic, social, cultural or spiritual impact.
The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has focused on many important issues, most recently in May 2007 the special theme of “Territories, Lands and Natural Resources”.
Now in a very short period of time industrial society has put us at risk. Not only are Indigenous Peoples at risk but all of human-kind.
Our leadership has been involved in the struggle with indigenous peoples around the world for recognition of our rights by the international community. As just mentioned, the United Nations recently adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – and in my view this summit is a real opportunity for that Declaration to begin delivering results.
It is also my hope, that, even though the Canadian government sadly, chose to be among only four nations who voted against the Declaration (now three as the Australian government has just recently made amends with the Indigenous Peoples there), it will now demonstrate political will and leadership and work with Canada’s Aboriginal leaders to respect and implement the principles and intent of the Declaration.
In my region of Canada, First Nation communities are already on the front lines of the devastation being caused by climate change. It is our view that the talks here in Anchorage and side meetings such as this one provide an important opportunity to share our experience and ideas with delegations from around the world, to learn from others, and to establish ourselves clearly as participants in the world wide battle to respond to climate change.
As in many parts of the world, development pressures on our lands and natural resources, air and waters continues to increase at a dizzying pace. Feeding the world’s insatiable appetite for energy supplies is but one in a host of major reasons.
We need to go into rehab to heal our addiction to fossil fuels. We have not used our human ingenuity to find alternative sources that are affordable to the populace. Now there is no choice – either we find viable alternatives or suffer irreversible consequences.
And although we share with amazement and excitement at the technological advancements of society we also share profound concerns about our lands and the environment. The late Carrier Sekani Tribal Chief Harry Pierre often proclaimed “protect the land and the land will protect you”. He was a visionary and in the modern context, a warrior Chief, who was not inhibited to speak out about the impacts of climate change.
As the original people of our lands we carry the sacred responsibility to protect the health and well-being of our nations, our peoples, our communities, our cultures and languages, and our land, waters, air and resources.
These days, the elders, delivering the same message as the scientists, tell us that the land, the water and the air on which life depends is in real danger.
Evidence of global warming is everywhere and our communities are feeling the effects first hand such as the warming of the oceans, rivers, and creeks, which in turn threaten invaluable salmon stocks, particularly our subsistence fishery.
But nowhere is there more concern on the part of our people than with the devastation of the great forests of our region by the climate- induced infestation of the mountain pine beetle. The area of dead trees in British Columbia, Canada is the size of Portugal or South Korea. The economic value of these trees exceeds $65 billion (US). This epidemic rivals the destruction of the Amazon and Indonesian rainforests.
The pine beetle infestation is already so entrenched that there is no hope of reversing the damage in the short-term. For now, the priorities are the adaptation and survival of more than 100 First Nations in British Columbia, Canada.
This insect is the size of a grain of rice and stories describe their annual flight consisting of trillions of these insects, falling from the sky, like a monsoon rain.
Millions of hectares of pine are gone – at last count there were 15 million hectares of dead pine amounting to approximately 1 billion cubic meters of wood. It is a climate change induced disaster that dwarfs any other insect epidemic ever seen before in Canada. The interior of British Columbia is now filled with immense regions of dead and dying forests, creating a massive tinderbox just waiting for a spark to literally set it ablaze. Left unchecked, this devastation could spread throughout Canada’s boreal forests from coast to coast, a distance of 8000 kilometers.
The socio-economic and environmental dimensions of this disaster are huge. We know that Canada’s boreal forests are important and they have been described as “climate-change fighters”. Well, if we do not take action now we will not only lose our army but we will lose the war.
But it is the human dimension of this crisis in our forests that I want to impress upon you today. More than 100 First Nations communities are directly impacted. If the epidemic eats its way across Canada the impacted communities could be in the thousands.
The frightening prospects of looming fire seasons will not only put the environment at risk but the lives of our people. One only has to recall the devastation from wild fires in Greece and California to imagine what could happen on a much larger scale.
We understand conservation biology and have practiced it for thousands of years. Conservation was critical to our survival, and such a lesson is seldom lost. Since the beginning of time we have relied on the gifts of the land, the animals, plants and medicines for our very existence. We still do. The mountain pine beetle epidemic is causing severe cultural disruption. The existence of entire communities is at stake. It is imperative that we begin to find solutions.
In British Columbia part of our solution has included entering into an agreement with the Province based upon a new government-to government relationship founded on respect, recognition and accommodation of Aboriginal title and rights and the reconciliation of coexisting jurisdictions.
One of the key elements of our relationship with the Provincial government is to ensure that lands and resources are managed in accordance with First Nation laws, knowledge and values. We have embarked on a series of processes to create new institutions to support the First Nations in British Columbia.
In the spirit of the New Relationship, in April of 2007 more that 200 Chiefs and First Nation leaders from throughout BC gathered in Vancouver to discuss the urgent need to address energy and the environment. We hosted provincial, federal, industry and NGO representatives to share their perspectives, because we know this is a collective crisis and that only by working together will we succeed in turning things around.
The resulting document, the “BC First Nations Energy Action Plan” is our collective blueprint on energy development and climate change that will guide our actions into the future.
In the fall of 2009 the Chiefs met again and developed the “BC First Nations Mineral Exploration and Mining Action Plan”, and together these two action plans form the mandate of the BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council. My role as the CEO is to work with the 203 First Nations communities in British Columbia to implement these plans.
The Northern Boreal Forests spans the globe in Canada, Russia, Alaska, and Scandinavia. This Boreal Forest holds approximately 50% of the World’s remaining original forests and it is the planets largest land reservoir of carbon. The boreal forest stores 22% of the total carbon on the Earth’s land surface and almost twice as much carbon per unit area as tropical forests. This is largely because in Boreal climates, the cold temperature reduces decomposition rates resulting in deep organic soils that can be hundreds of years old.
In this respect, and as an example, I believe that there are opportunities for Nation states to work with Indigenous Peoples to conserve large areas of the northern Boreal which remain intact, securing vital habitat for forest-dwelling species and storing carbon for the long-term.
As an incentive, the carbon credits created by preserving or managing these forests in a sustainable manner should be directed to our people. As I understand it, carbon credits accrue to the land owner. In British Columbia we own the land. This fact was reinforced two weeks ago when the Courts ruled that one of our Nations has proved that they continue to have Aboriginal title to more than 50% of their territory. You have to consider that this decision only affects only one of our 203 First Nations. The extrapolation of this historic decision would mean that BC First Nations would effectively have Aboriginal title to 500 000 square kilometers of British Columbia.
Our message is clear. Stewardship of our lands and resources and the acceptance of resource development in our territories will be based on the prior and informed consent of our people.
Our message is also one of cooperation. First Nations are eager to engage with British Columbians and all Canadians in demanding that Canada, with its bounty of land and natural resources and annual surpluses in the billions of dollars, must exercise its responsibility to provide global leadership with respect to the protection of the environment including the reduction of greenhouse gases.
In closing, I want to address the strengthening of relations between First Nations and the environmental/conservation community and the need to continue working together. This road has not always been a smooth trail but I believe we are learning and beginning to understand and respect each other goals and aspirations while finding common ground. We should continue and enhance those efforts here and into the future.
Let us mark this time in Anchorage as the moment that we decide to organize a world-wide coalition of global citizens who share one commitment – that is to share climate change. We have before us the opportunity to build a political force that no government on this planet will be able to withstand.
Today we are faced with our greatest threat ever and it is up to us to stand up and inform Nation states to take action. We will be watching closely as our survival is at stake.