New Brunswick

Indigenous communities in N.B. say climate change is threatening their way of life

Cecelia Brooks remembers a time when the deep forest of New Brunswick was so cold, snow could still be found in its depths in August. That rarely happens anymore.

From sacred medicines to sweat lodge ceremonies, climate change is taking a toll on traditions

Cecelia Brooks of St. Mary's First Nation says climate change is threatening traditional plants and medicines. The orange ribbons above Brooks are tied to a willow tree to honour the memory of schoolchildren whose unmarked graves were found on former residential school grounds. (Oscar Baker)

Cecelia Brooks remembers a time when the deep forest of New Brunswick was so cold, snow could still be found in its depths in August. 

That rarely happens anymore, says Brooks, a traditional knowledge keeper with Wolastoqey, Mi'kmaw, Mohawk and Korean bloodlines who has been foraging and harvesting foods and medicines all of her life.

These days, Brooks says, plants like the mayflower will come up, "you'll see the buds … then all of a sudden they get hit by that heat and it shrivels." 

Brooks, who lives on St. Mary's First Nation in Fredericton, is one of many Indigenous people in the Wabanaki region who say climate change is threatening traditional plants and medicines.

Those changes, Brooks says, could alter their way of life.

Rising temperatures, flooding and coastal erosion

In the past 30 years, the province has seen an increase to the mean annual temperature of 1.1 C, prompting rising sea levels, increased flooding, increased coastal erosion risks and extreme weather events, according to the New Brunswick government.

The province has implemented a climate action plan, and the Department of Environment and Local Government is in discussions with First Nations organizations about climate change. 

But in the meantime, the changes are taking a toll.

Sophia Sidarous, a 19-year-old from Metepenagiag Mi'kmaq Nation, about 30 kilometres west of Miramichi, sees the effect of those changes all around her.

Sophia Sidarous of Metepenagiag Mi'kmaq Nation is part of a lawsuit against the federal government accusing it of inaction on climate change. (Oscar Baker)

Sidarous is a traditional harvester whose work takes her deep into the woods to collect medicines and foods.

"We see ourselves as part of the land, we are interconnected with the land," she says. "It's where we're from and it's who we are."

Sidarous says the threat that climate change poses to the health of the Mi'kmaq, the planet and the sacred plants that inhabit it — particularly the four sacred medicines of cedar, sage, tobacco and sweetgrass — concerns her. 

She is particularly worried about sweetgrass, a tall, grassy herb that represents "the hair of Mother Earth." 

"Sweetgrass is going to become very rare," Sidarous says.

"If our marshes are flooded, we won't be able to pick sweetgrass. It'll erode the banks."

Cedar is one of four sacred medicines. Sophia Sidarous worries that the increase in temperatures could be putting the tree at risk. (Oscar Baker)

Cedar will also be affected.

Already, Sidarous says, there's been a noticeable browning of cedar trees that are close to roads radiating heat from rising temperatures.

She fears that rising temperatures will also jeopardize cultural activities such as sweat lodge ceremonies and powwows, which will become harder to hold safely without risking heat exhaustion. 

"If we want a healing sweat and we want cedar, we can't go collect cedar along the road," she says. "That concrete will fry the cedar and [other] trees along the road."

Pollution, clearcutting are also concerns

Industry practices are also changing how the forest cares for itself, Sidarous says.

She and her uncle have sometimes travelled more than 60 kilometres from home just to ensure the sweetgrass they pick isn't absorbing pollutants from the water. 

"If our medicine isn't clean, we can't clean ourselves," she says.

Brooks, who also holds a bachelor of science degree, agrees. 

Practises such as clearcutting are destroying the protective canopy that old growth forests provide for delicate plants below, she says.

A stand of birch trees, which are common in many Mi'kmaw practises. Cecelia Brooks and Sophia Sidarous say the forest ecosystem is heating up from industry practices. (Oscar Baker)

A responsibility to protect nature's rights

For Mi'kmaw Elder Albert Marshall, 82, these are all signs that humans have forgotten their role in the ecosystem.

"In our beliefs we're constantly reminded — nature has rights, humans have a responsibility," he says.

As an elder adviser for Nova Scotia's Unama'ki Institute of Natural Resources, Marshall has spent more than 20 years helping the institute blend western science with Mi'kmaw knowledge, a merger he calls Etuaptmumk, or "two-eyed seeing." 

He thinks that if more people adopted Mi'kmaw ways of knowing and began to see soil, air and water as essential elements of life — and even better, protected them by granting them legal protection — it would go a long way toward combating climate change.   

Getting industry to adopt this mindset will be a tough ask, Marshall concedes. 

But with enough public pressure, and enough hopefulness, he says, perhaps this too can change.

"As hard as things may be, we have to constantly inject hope," Marshall says. "Hope will be the mover and shaker in the future."

Cecelia Brooks holds weeping willow fronds. Brooks says willow is prized for its medicinal properties, as it contains a compound similar to salicylic acid, found in Aspirin. (Oscar Baker)

A legacy of resilience

As the simmering climate crisis rises to a boil, many things may be lost, Brooks says. But she knows that the history of the Wabanaki people is one of resilience.

"Whenever there is a gap in nature, something else comes and fills that role," she says.

She hopes that more people will adopt Indigenous knowledge and a holistic outlook, that they will see the need to "protect the family" of growing things rather than simply seeing them as "resources."

Sidarous, meanwhile, is taking a legal route. 

She is part of a youth-led lawsuit that seeks to force the federal government to develop a climate recovery plan, saying Ottawa's inaction is stripping youth of "the opportunity to learn our culture." 

The case, launched by 15 young Canadians in 2019, was dismissed by Federal Court in October 2020 when a judge ruled that the claims didn't have a reasonable cause of action or prospect of success.

The case is now before the Federal Court of Appeal.

This story was produced in partnership with the Journalists for Human Rights Indigenous Media Collaborative, a collection of Indigenous media members focusing on solutions journalism and human rights stories across the country.


Oscar Baker III is a Black and Mi’kmaw reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation. He is the Atlantic region reporter for CBC Indigenous. He is a proud father and you can follow his work @oggycane4lyfe