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Indigenous environmental justice works to turn long-standing stewardship into recognized governance

A growing number of academics and legal professionals are finding ways for Indigenous communities to have their long-standing laws recognized in a broader context.
Participants in a 2013 Idle No More march in Regina.
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A growing number of academics and legal professionals are finding ways for Indigenous communities to have their long-standing laws recognized in a broader context.

Indigenous environmental justice is "an emerging concept, partly in recognition that the conventional concepts of environmental justice don't always align with the world view and ontology of Indigenous peoples," said Deborah McGregor, an associate professor at York University's environmental studies program and Osgoode Hall law school in Toronto.

Environmental justice usually refers to the effort to ensure all communities have an equal say in the use of land and resources, rather than some communities facing the brunt of any negative consequences that result from how the natural environment is used.
Deborah McGregor is an associate professor at York University's environmental studies program and Osgoode Hall law school in Toronto. She is the information and education program manager for the Tribal Natural Resources Department with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation. (Submitted by Deborah McGregor)

Still, in this view, "there's a separation between human and nature," said McGregor, who is Anishinaabe from Whitefish River First Nation, Birch Island, Ont.

"Indigenous ideas of environment are not like that ... we don't see ourselves as separate necessarily from the environment or from nature."

McGregor said this includes understanding the autonomy of non-human species and entities, including water.

For McGregor, that means codifying Indigenous laws within the colonial legal system in ways that are empowering to Indigenous communities and are true to long-standing stewardship of and relationship to the environment.

McGregor said there should be room on federal level "to recognize Indigenous legal order and Indigenous knowledge systems."

Based on her work in Indigenous communities, including her home community, McGregor said, "the question is how do you make [Indigenous law] part of our governance reality. So, how do we go about documenting and codifying them so they become part of these processes and the basis of how we go about making decisions?"

McGregor is one of the academics wading into this topic, working with her community to build the answers.

"What would environmental justice look like if we based it on our laws? And how can these laws start finding expression… in these broader frameworks?"

It's a process necessary, she said, "so we can influence other people who are making decisions in our territories."

McGregor said the benefits of Indigenous environmental law extend beyond the immediate community.

"I've also heard elders say … that other people basically need our help" in order to build a sustainable future.

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