Climate colonialism and the wildfires in Canada

September 12, 2023
Canada fires
More than 21,000 people from 45 Indigenous communities have been forced from their homes so far this year.

Before the summer of 2023 is even over it has officially been the worst fire season on record in so-called Canada, with more than eight million hectares burned so far.

While these wildfires have deeply impacted many communities, they have most severely impacted Indigenous communities, many of whose territories are northern, rural, or wilderness.

Indigenous Services Canada reported that more than 21,000 people from 45 Indigenous communities have been forced from their homes so far this year. Indigenous people are more than 10 times more likely to die in a fire than non-Indigenous people.

The impacts are communal and threaten the very cultures of Indigenous communities. Often overlooked in colonial frameworks, the land scorched in wildfires sustains treaty rights, such as hunting and cultural practices, and Indigenous people warn that in the absence of serious transformations in relations with nature, the land and traditional ways of life are threatened.

Ecological grief, Indigenous grief

Amy Cardinal Christianson, an Indigenous fire specialist from Treaty 8 Metis territory, told CBC the impacts of wildfires leave a lasting form of “ecological grief”. This involves both the immediate trauma of the major fires, but also the long-term trauma of destruction of lands and the bases of community sustenance.

“When you’re trying to find yourself after returning after a fire evacuation, one of the things that really grounds you is being able to go out and participate in your cultural activities — but you can’t do that. It’s very difficult for people to cope.”

Returning home brings its own traumas, given the extreme damage caused by fires that are now more extensive and burn hotter. A recent study published in Nature showed that climate crises and the increased intensity of wildfires fundamentally change landscapes and alter what can survive in burned out areas in so-called Canada. In some areas, fires burned so hot that they incinerated mineral soil, removing the nutrients necessary to support regrowth.

Maurice Ratt, the emergency management coordinator for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, said: “We lose our traditional lands for things such as hunting and trapping. The animals are being chased away. There's scarce vegetation for smaller animals such as rabbits to forage for food.”

Discussions of just climate transitions and green economies often focus on industrial work and jobs, but overlook forms of work and livelihood of Indigenous communities. Many live directly off the land. “When we can’t get to our cabins to install sprinkler systems due to a lack of resources, we lose our livelihood there,” said Cardinal Christianson.

Indigenous advocates have been calling for cultural supports and mental health care in communities. Yet, like so many other necessities for Indigenous communities, these have not been forthcoming from the federal government.

Indigenous fire work, Indigenous sovereignty

Indigenous communities are economically deprived on a mass scale when it comes to addressing major fire emergencies. In so-called British Columbia (BC), most of which is unceded territory, only a small number of Indigenous fire services even have an emergency dispatch. When the 2021 heat dome fires razed Lytton, BC, to the ground, Chief Matt Pasco, who chairs the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council, told CBC it took hours for emergency authorities to answer his requests for help and coordination as residents evacuated.

Indigenous communities are fighting for greater control over firefighting capacities on their territories and resources to sustain them. They are impeded in these efforts, as part of the ongoing colonial approach to fire management by the state. In addition to lack and blockage of funds and equipment, they face inconsistent, overlapping, and piecemeal systems of federal and provincial authorities that often exclude Indigenous communities.

Indigenous sovereignty and land back would address issues of healthy care of territorial lands. For Indigenous communities this would mean moving from colonial fire management regimes and properly using fire on their territories. They rightly argue that the present-day wildfires, in addition to showing the horrors of capitalist climate crises, reveal the failures of fire suppression policies and other industrial approaches that see fire as a force hostile to wildlands. The current approach is rooted in colonial orientations to nature, which see human progress as requiring the subjugation of the natural world.

As Cardinal Christianson told Al Jazeera, “Settlers brought a vision of removing fire from the landscape to Canada. But when you take away fire, these landscapes become overgrown.” Dane de Souza, a former wildland firefighter, of Metis Nation, said: “Putting fire on the land is a very human thing to do. But we’ve replaced fires of choice with fires of chance.”

Indigenous fire workers suggest solutions such as cultural burns, using controlled fires to reduce tinder and contribute to healthier ecosystems. This can encourage biodiversity and thin out overgrown areas that might lead to larger fires. If this is a way forward it should be Indigenous people leading it. Yet Indigenous people have been excluded from many fire management plans.

De Souza calls Indigenous approaches to fire a “beautiful truth” and argues that it takes on pressing significance in the context of climate crises that imperil life on the planet. “When we talk about climate resilience and sustainability, that’s Indigenous knowledge. What is being Indigenous? It’s a connection to the land.”

Colonialism has at its core the breaking of those connections. Removing Indigenous people and communities from fire management is an ongoing expression of the state’s colonial motive. The resultant destruction of Indigenous lands and livelihoods through wildfires is an extension of that within a context of intensified climate emergencies.

Land defence against causes of climate crises

The expansive and frequent character of wildfires and heat domes are manifestations of a deeper underlying crisis — the existential threat of capitalism-caused climate change. Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of struggles against extractive capital and fossil fuel industries.

Wet’suwet’en land defenders and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have been engaged in powerful struggles over several years against the Coastal GasLink pipeline being built across their territories to connect shale gas sources with two liquefaction and export facilities (LNG Canada and Cedar LNG) in Kitimat on the northwest coast.

Gidimt’en is one of five clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. Gidimt'en checkpoint was established to control access to Cas Yikh House territory within the larger Gidimt’en clan territory on the Morice River. Allies carried out blockades across Canada in 2020 in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en.

Secwepemc land and water defenders have engaged in lengthy struggles to stop the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline across unceded Secwepemc territory. Their tactics include physically blocking access to pipeline construction by building 10 tiny houses along the 518 kilometre-long pipeline route. So far, they have built six houses on Secwepemc territory near Blue River and Moonbeam Creek. The tiny houses serve a dual purpose. In addition to providing a physical barrier or blockade, they provide community housing to Secwepemc families.

A challenge remains for working-class organisers, and rank-and-file workers, to build solidarity with Indigenous land and water defenders, as in the “Shut Down Canada” blockades in support of Wet’suwet’en land defenders recently. This is the orientation the working-class left must take.

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