Thunder Bay·First Person

How my trip to Egypt for COP27 brought me a deeper connection to my land, my culture and myself

Clifford Mushquash jumped at the chance to attend this fall's United Nations COP27 Climate Change Conference, but questioned his place in the conference and what he had to contribute. Now he's returned, and he's gained a deeper appreciation for what he had to offer and a deeper connection to his land back home.

I wasn't sure COP27 was for me, until key experiences showed me I belonged

Tia Kennedy, one of the Indigenous delegates to COP27 in Egypt, assists in facilitating the KAIROS Canada blanket exercise. (KAIROS Canada/Submitted by Clifford Mushquash)

This First Person article reflects the experience of Clifford Mushquash, who is Anishinaabe from Pawgwasheeng (Pays Plat First Nation) and was a delegate at COP27. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

You can listen to Clifford read this piece here 

I have never been good at saying no.

So when I heard of an opportunity to attend this fall's UN COP27 climate summit, I jumped at the opportunity, even though I questioned my place in the conference and what I had to contribute. Now that I've come home to Thunder Bay, Ont., I've gained a deeper appreciation for the complexity and nuance of the climate crisis.

But COP27 also allowed me to deepen my cultural understanding, and brought me closer to the land in a way I have never felt. 

Throughout my journey, I have come to understand that I am part of a reclamation generation. Travelling to Egypt brought me closer to my land and helped me better understand myself. 

Imposter syndrome 

Despite everything I have gone through to be in Egypt, when I arrived, I was unsure of what I could bring to COP27 and whether I was the right person for this role. 

My work isn't focused on environmental issues and I have never considered myself an environmentalist. I take a very broad approach to health, which includes the environment and ecology.

As Anishinaabe, we see ourselves as part of the land and water. We're not separated from these elements. When we take care of the land and water, we also take care of our physical, mental, and spiritual health. This is knowledge I have been given by elders and knowledge keepers, but is it my place to share this?  

For too long, Indigenous people have been excluded from academic spaces, and I still don't see many other students like me in my program at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. I share what little I know, but I ask myself: "Am I the right person to be delivering this?"  

Clifford Mushquash leads the debrief following the blanket exercise at COP27. The exercise has helped him deepen his cultural understanding and brought him closer to the land. (KAIROS Canada/Submitted by Clifford Mushquash)

I was never raised deeply in my culture. My dad left home at an early age, and my mom is not Indigenous. 

The first time I ever attended a powwow was as an undergraduate student at Lakehead. I haven't engaged with the land-based activities of my people. I fish like a tourist, and while I eat traditional meats, I don't hunt. 

I know things because elders and knowledge keepers have passed it on, as our people have always done. I know things from reading, because of the time I have spent in the academy. I have always learned from doing. Still, I'd ask myself, is this enough? 

Finding my voice 

As part of my work in Egypt, I was responsible for leading a blanket exercise, which tells the story of colonization on Turtle Island, and the effects this system has had and continues to have on its people and relationships. It uses blankets as a metaphor for land, and participants represent Indigenous people. During the workshop, they are walked through more than 500 years of history, engaging in an emotional and intellectual journey through truth toward reconciliation. 

I have been leading the blanket exercise since 2018 and it challenges me to more deeply understand the history of this land and the people of Turtle Island. As a student, I have come to better understand my history, and actively work to understand my Indigenous self. I do this to be able to give myself more fully to the work of the blanket exercise, which has brought me deeper toward my culture and the land. 

This is the gift the blanket exercise has given me.  

About 20 people participated in the blanket exercise framed around climate change I led in Egypt. We ended with a sharing circle, where participants are able to reflect on how they are feeling and discuss what this means for them.

People from around the world who were at COP27 participated in the blanket exercise. A question Mushquash asked the group at the end helped spark his feeling he had something to offer the broader conversation around climate change. (KAIROS Canada/Submitted by Clifford Mushquash)

Many were not from Canada; they came from all parts of the world, including Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. They spoke about their lived experiences with colonization, their connections to land and how it affects their climate action efforts. It was a rich and engaging dialogue. 

I ended the circle at COP27 with my usual challenge to participants: "Now that you have heard parts of the truth, what will you do going forward?" Another thought came to me, and I offered it to the circle: "Can you come to understand yourselves as being part of the land like the Anishinaabe do? What would happen if we all could do this?"

At that moment, I had found something to offer to the broader conversation. That feeling was strengthened by an encounter in Egypt with Susan Chiblow, an Anishinaabekwe from Garden River First Nation and a professor at the University of Guelph.

During her panel, she shared many Anishinaabe teachings about water. She talked about how Anishinaabe have always known that water has energy, and that Western science has only recently learned to harness that energy. But our people have always known. 

When we receive teachings, she said, it then becomes our job to defend and honour these teachings, and to share those teachings with others.  

It became clear this is what I had to do at COP27. It's what was needed and what continues to be needed. This was my role. Indeed, I was enough.

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Clifford Mushquash is Anishinaabe from Pawgwasheeng (Pays Plat First Nation) and was a delegate at COP27. He has been a KAIROS blanket exercise facilitator since 2018 and is completing a masters in public health specialization at Lakehead University.