The Current

Lack of control over land leaves Indigenous communities exposed to pollution, says activist

Clayton Thomas-Müller says Indigenous communities don’t get the same chance to live in a healthy environment, and part of the reason is a lack of control over the land they live on.

Polluting industries built close to Indigenous communities: Clayton Thomas-Müller

Clayton Thomas-Müller says Indigenous communities don’t get the same chance to live in a healthy environment, and part of the reason is a lack of control over the land they live on. (provided)

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Environmental activist Clayton Thomas-Müller says Indigenous communities are too often left exposed to toxic pollution, particularly when they don't have power over the land they live on.

"Take a map of all of the most toxic, destructive polluting industries, the biggest climate changing industries, the most toxic industries," said Thomas-Müller, who is a senior campaign specialist with the advocacy group 350.org, and a member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in Manitoba.

"If you lay that map out and you [overlay] a map of all the Métis hamlets, all in Inuit settlements, all the 600 plus First Nations, you see that every one of those facilities is, for the most part, directly adjacent to one of our communities," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Thomas-Müller gave the example of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, which is just south of Sarnia, Ont. 

The community borders on the largest concentration of petrochemical plants and refineries in the country known as "Chemical Valley." For years, pollutants released into the air and chemical leaks from there have had significant impacts on air quality, waterways and soil in Aamjiwnaang

Aamjiwnaang First Nation and the fight for cleaner air

8 months ago
1:27
Janelle Nahmabin, the current chair of Aamjiwnaang's Environment Committee, shares a story about life in the First Nation. 1:27

The community believes poor air quality has contributed to asthma and cancer among its residents. That's backed up by a 2019 visit from a United Nations special rapporteur, which found that Aamjiwnaang First Nation, as well as other Indigenous and racialized communities in Canada, are disproportionately affected by toxic waste.

"There exists a pattern in Canada where marginalized groups, and Indigenous peoples in particular, find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subject to conditions that would not be acceptable elsewhere in Canada," wrote UN Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak.

Environmental justice is a theme of Thomas-Müller's new memoir, Life in the City of Dirty Water: A Memoir of Healing, which is also a short documentary. It details his experiences growing up in Winnipeg — surviving abuse, discrimination, juvenile detention and gangs, and turning that into a lifelong pursuit to protect the environment and Indigenous rights.

Material gains over symbolic gestures

Thomas-Müller said the solution is to give power back to Indigenous communities. He said that means concrete action, not just apologies or symbolic gestures like the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

"We have to talk about reconciliation and to Native people, that means land back," he said, adding that Indigenous peoples in Canada have a very small percentage of the country's landmass under their control.

"If Indigenous peoples had access to the land, water and resources, then there would be no poverty and things would be very different in this country."

A demonstrator wears a bandana with the words 'Land Back' at a 2020 anti-pipeline protest in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Land Back is an Indigenous-led movement that aims to reclaim stewardship over traditional lands, something Riley Yesno supports. She's a writer and Indigenous rights advocate.

"The Land Back movement holds so much potential to see a different, sort of more equitable future for Indigenous people in this country," she told The Current in a recent interview.

"It's become this really robust policy stance, actually, which ... prioritises those material gains as opposed to symbolic gestures."

She explained that some aspects of reclaiming land might involved Indigenous communities receiving rent from people or organizations who use it. It might also mean having a say in things like hunting or harvesting wildlife, and ensuring that's conducted "in accordance with their values, as opposed to the federal government or provincial government standards."

"It's basically about Indigenous people asserting their sovereignty and jurisdiction," she said.

Thomas-Müller said more control would allow Indigenous communities to decide what industries operate on the land, and limit pollution accordingly.

Some communities may want industries nearby, for the jobs and prosperity they offer, but the choice would be up to the community, he said.

Thomas-Müller has spent a lot of time fighting for his people as an activist. He said that as an Indigenous person, he doesn't have a choice but to be political.

"If you're native, life is political no matter what ... Indigenous peoples, we face a lot of systemic challenges that other people benefit from who are not Indigenous," said Thomas-Müller. 

"We've got a long way to go to try and break that polarity and create some equity."


Written by Philip Drost, with files from CBC News. Produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin. 

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