Indigenous communities along Atlantic coast at risk from rising sea levels

First Nations communities along the Atlantic coast may face grave challenges from climate change, a recent federal report says.

4 First Nations named in federal report as communities facing significant risks from climate change

Indian Island is one of four Indigenous communities named in the Regional Perspectives report that's dealing with threats from climate change. The small Mi'kmaw community in New Brunswick built a rock wall to limit the harms of storm surges. (Oscar Baker III/CBC)

First Nations communities along the Atlantic coast may face grave challenges from climate change, a recent federal report says.

The Regional Perspectives Report: Atlantic provinces said Esgenoôpetitj First Nation, about 130 kilometres north of Moncton, was already at risk for flooding but climate change and rising sea levels may intensify flood risks for the community, and intense storm surges have increased erosion.

"Just in my life, we lost quite a bit of land in front of my mother's," said Miiga'agan, a Mi'kmaw grandmother.

She's lived in the community since the late 1950s and said traditional foods have been destroyed or contaminated. Esgenoopetitj houses a wastewater treatment plant and Miiga'agan worries the plant discharge may harm local clam beds, blueberries, mussels and common periwinkles.

Miiga'agan, a Mi'kmaw grandmother in Esgenoôpetitj First Nation, says reclaiming the Mi'kmaw language will help her community combat climate change. (submitted by Miiga'agan)

She said she thinks because of colonization humanity has lost touch with its responsibility to the natural world, but Miiga'gan said she is hopeful things can change.

"Humanity is mature enough to know something has to change," she said.

Her solution to the changing climate is reclaiming the Mi'kmaw language. Miiga'agan said the language holds a spiritual and philosophical connection to the land and by reintroducing the language, a stronger bond will form with the land.

"Our identity comes from the land," she said.

Facing flooding and increased erosion

The federal report worked with provincial governments, academics and Indigenous organizations to explore the challenges the region is facing from climate change and to encourage adaptation to the increasing risks.

Esgenoopetitj, Ugpi'ganjig, Indian Island and Lennox Island First Nations were named specifically as communities facing significant challenges from climate change, but all coastal communities are at risk of flooding.

Indian Island and Ugpi'ganjig First Nations have already been hit with violent storm surges that caused flooding. In December 2010, Ugpi'ganjig experienced a storm that caused over $1.7 million in damages and responded by constructing a concrete seawall and other flood prevention measures. Indian Island First Nation also built a seawall and began elevating homes in the last five years.

Tom Johnson, the Geographic Information Systems co-ordinator at Mi'gmawe'l Tplu'taqnn Incorporated, was one of the writers on the report.

"Historically we're not looking at ways to dominate nature, we're looking at ways to live in nature," said Johnson, who is Wolastoqew.

He said historically Mi'kmaq moved seasonally and, if faced with increased flood risk, would have moved inland. But the reserve system forced them to stay put.

Johnson helped map out New Brunswick for the report. He said the loss of land from coastal erosion is minor for most communities but Ugpi'ganjig, a coastal community situated along the Eel River and the Bay of Chaleur, is at higher risk. A dam built in the 1960s caused changes in sediment distribution, destroying sandbars, and increased erosion led to the loss of 24 hectares of land, which in turn increased the community's flood risk.

The report said there are plans to increase flood preparedness in Indigenous communities like improving drainage systems, and raising and fixing flood damaged homes and other infrastructure.

Sabine Dietz is the co-lead author of the Regional Perspectives report and says Indigenous knowledge is vital in dealing with the effects of climate change (Submitted by Sabine Dietz)

Sabine Dietz, the co-lead author of the report, said western science tends to silo things while Indigenous science takes a holistic approach. Dietz said science may separate forestry from the river, while the Mi'kmaq see the relationship the two have. Building trust with Indigenous organizations was key for the collaboration on the report, she said.

"When it comes to adapting to climate change, western scientists have a lot to learn," said Dietz.

The P.E.I. Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action said it sent letters to First Nation chiefs about consultation on a climate adaptation strategy. The New Brunswick government said it has provided funding to First Nation communities facing climate change through the Environment Trust Fund and will continue to engage with them. Newfoundland and Labrador said it will continue to work with Indigenous communities impacted by climate change.

The province of Nova Scotia did not respond to a request for comment by time of publishing.