Indigenous leaders, activists in Paris for climate change talks

"I feel like we have a seat at the table," says Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde, who is part of Canada's official delegation to the Paris Climate Change Summit.

AFN national chief Bellegarde calls COP21 an opportunity to influence Canada, world leaders

National Chief Perry Bellegarde poses with U.S. President Barack Obama in a photo snapped by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Paris Climate Change Summit. (Perry Bellegarde)

Indigenous peoples have joined world leaders and environmental advocates at COP21, the global climate change summit under way just outside Paris.

"I feel like we have a seat at the table," says Assembly of First Nations national Chief Perry Bellegarde, who is part of Canada's official delegation to the summit.

The national chief also had a brief encounter with U.S. President Barack Obama, captured in a photograph taken by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Photo ops aside, Bellegarde is taking part in meetings of the summit's indigenous caucus, which includes indigenous leaders from around the world.

He's also had the opportunity to speak with Canadian premiers and federal officials who are in attendance.

Bellegarde said indigenous people could help shape Canada's environmental policies and guide society's move toward renewable energy and green technology, which are in tune with indigenous philosophies of caring for the earth.

"[Indigenous peoples] are a vital part of the solution, even though we have not been part of the problem," Bellegarde says. 

There's also a coterie of indigenous environmental activists in France for the summit, including Erica Violet Lee. The Cree student from University of Saskatchewan is part of a group called the Canadian Youth Delegation.

Lee created a bit of a stir when she posted a photograph on Twitter, showing her making a face with Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall in the background.

Lee defended the move on Facebook. 

"I don't have a chance in hell at taking on the power, privilege, and resources of governments and corporations," she wrote. "But because I am privileged enough to be here, I will fight not to be invisible, using the few pathways available to me."

Outside the summit, indigenous activists have already gathered and are trying to have their voices heard too. This could prove tricky, since there's actually a ban on protests in the wake of the Paris attacks. 

One of the largest and most organized groups, the Indigenous Environmental Network, has already held a sunrise ceremony on the streets of Paris and the group is planning more events and demonstrations during COP21.

The Paris talks officially kick off today and run until December 11. Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to work out a national climate change strategy with the Canadian premiers 90 days after the summit. 

"Now the work begins, after COP21, devising that strategy going forward," Bellegarde said, and "working with the federal government, provincial governments and indigenous leaders to do that in a comprehensive and collaborative basis." 

"I want to ensure that indigenous voices are at that table," Bellegarde said.

About the Author

Tim Fontaine is a Winnipeg-based writer who has worked for APTN National News and CBC Indigenous. You can follow him on Twitter: @anishinaboy.