Indigenous communities being left behind in Canada's 'green revolution': expert

It's critical Indigenous communities be at the forefront of Canada's shift into a green economy, and it needs to be done as a 'just transition', says a clean-energy expert.

Challenges in Indigenous communities a barrier to shift to green economies, says Heather Milton-Lightening

A solar array in Colville Lake in the Northwest Territories. It's critical Indigenous communities and workers get a say in how the country transitions to a green economy, says a clean-energy expert. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

It's critical Indigenous communities be at the forefront of Canada's shift into a green economy, and it needs to be done as a "just transition," says a clean energy expert.

Heather Milton-Lightening says Indigenous communities are seeing a slower transition to green energy, economies and initiatives compared with mainstream society due to other challenges Indigenous communities face.

"I don't think 'just transition' is really happening," she told the crowd at the 2017 Alberta Climate Summit in Calgary Thursday. "I think we're trying to figure out what it is. I feel like our communities are always playing catch up. Some people don't even understand what climate change is.

"On top of that, a lot of places live in abject poverty, so are you really going to care about climate change when you have to feed your kids? It's a catch-22 thing."

"Just transition" is a policy approach that hopes "to minimize the impact of environmental policies on workers in affected industries and communities," and involve workers in those policies, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Milton-Lightening is from Pasqua First Nation in Saskatchewan and is helping spearhead clean-energy alternatives in Indigenous nations through her work with Indigenous Climate Action. She was part of a panel about incorporating Indigenous perspectives into the green economy transition Thursday.

During the panel discussion, she said the transitioning debate needs to be reframed.

"Our people talk about self-determination, sovereignty and all these other things — and I think the concept of 'just transition' is really beautiful — but if we're not actually talking about that [sovereignty] in terms of the policies or even the way that we are starting to look at things, research things — because it's not just about green jobs, renewable energy, but actually livelihoods that respect culture and tradition."

Worldwide precedent

Moderator Ed Whittingham of the Pembina Institute, Heather Milton-Lightening of Indigenous Climate Action, Andres Filella of the Métis Nation of Alberta and Samantha Smith of the Just Transition Centre at Thursday's summit. (Brandi Morin/CBC)

The director of the Just Transition Centre in Belgium said during the panel discussion it is working to develop a precedent on "just transitions," specifically with the Maori tribes in New Zealand, in hopes other nations can adopt the process and ensure "nobody gets left behind.

"Our New Zealand unions are incorporating the Maori values and culture into this concept of 'just transition,'" said Samantha Smith.

The organization — an initiative of the  International Trade Union Confederation that aims to bring together unions, companies and communities to develop zero-carbon policies — foresees a future where the entire global workforce becomes green.

"If we're going to do something meaningful about climate change, it's all jobs, every job bringing us to zero emissions," Smith said.

"It's moving from the systems we have today, including the extraction of fossil fuels, and we should be looking to bring more people into decent work and into sharing the benefits of the new jobs and activities."

MP vows to fight for just transition

The topic of a fair and "just transition" as Canada strives to meet its lower greenhouse gas emission goals isn't talked about in Parliament, said Edmonton-Strathcona NDP MP Linda Duncan.

Duncan, who spoke to CBC after attending the summit, said her top priority is making sure all communities, including Indigenous ones, have their voices heard in environmental decision-making.

"In Alberta, most of the resource extraction activities are happening in Indigenous communities and they're not really getting a say into how things are developed," she said. 

Indigenous peoples have been left behind when it comes to development, Duncan added.

"It's absolutely critical at the outset there be a voice [given] to communities, including Indigenous communities and workers into how we're going to move forward in the just transition.

"No more of this, 'Well, we'll set aside a certain percentage of our jobs for Indigenous people and maybe they can come clean the trailers.'"


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.