Indigenous elders at national gathering warn of dire need to react to environmental disasters

Some Indigenous elders who live traditional lifestyles which include hunting, fishing and trapping, say they have noticed a rapid shift in the environment over the last several decades that they attribute to climate change.

'We want to practise our traditions but our medicines, the animals, the environment is affected,' says elder

Smoke and flames from a fire near Wasagamack First Nation in Manitoba seen from the air on Aug. 30. Elders from across Canada came together in Edmonton this week to discuss contentious topics, including rapid shifts in the environment over the last several decades which some attribute to climate change. (Province of Manitoba)

Some Indigenous elders who live traditional lifestyles that include hunting, fishing and trapping on lands and waters long utilized by their ancestors say they have noticed a rapid shift in the environment over the last several decades — a shift some attribute to climate change.

Elders from Indigenous communities across Canada came together in Edmonton at the National Gathering of Elders this week to discuss contentious topics, one of them being the threat of climate change.

"It affects people in so many different ways, not only physically and the earth, but spiritually," said elder Rita Monias, 64, who travelled to Edmonton from Cross Lake, Man., to attend the gathering.

"For our people, it changes our way of life, our way of thinking — it's not our way of life. Our way of life has been taken by man-made developments. We want to practise our traditions but our medicines, the animals, the environment is affected," Monias said.

Her husband, Tommy Monias — who attended alongside her — agrees. He believes all of humanity is to blame for climate change and it's time for society to take responsibility and make lasting lifestyle changes.

He said climate change was prophesied by elders over the last hundred years, but not many thought they would live to see it play out.

"We are very much seeing climate change," said Tommy Monias.

"Yes, this is our fault. Now, Creator decided to clean up our mess because we haven't done it ourselves. So we're going to have to live with that.… We live in this place [and time] because destruction's occurred and we didn't do anything about it."

Assembly of First Nations Manitoba Regional Chief Kevin Hart says elders have told him environmental disasters are signalling a dire need to react to what's happening to Mother Earth.

"The elders are telling us that the land is changing," Hart said while speaking about climate change to a few hundred elders at the gathering on Wednesday.

"Elders can inform us of the changes in the land because they have used the land throughout their lives and can offer insight into how to find solutions."

Social disasters triggered by earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, and hurricanes are rapidly increasing, he said, pointing to the recent evacuation of thousands of First Nations from Northern Manitoba due to wildfires as an example.

"For Indigenous people, we contribute the least to climate change, yet feel the full effects of it," he said.

"Our people are dying from cancer, diabetes — these are directly affected by the air we breathe and the water we drink that is comprised from development."

Indigenous communities are losing their connections to the land and water, and it plays a big role in being disconnected from the threats of climate change, Hart said. He also said governments don't provide adequate support to deal with its consequences.

Tommy Monias believes climate change is also a renewing of the Earth and if humanity can adapt to the changes while cleaning up their act, there's hope for a better future.

Going back to a simpler, traditional way of living and weaning off fossil fuels is a good start, he said, and relying on politicians to solve the crisis won't help the process.  

About the Author

Brandi Morin

Brandi Morin, Métis, born and raised in Alberta, possesses a passion for telling Indigenous stories. Based outside Edmonton, Morin has lent her talents to several news organizations, including Indian Country Today Media Network and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network National News. She is now hard at work striving to tell the stories of Canada's Indigenous peoples to a broader audience.