Green New Deal legislation must be Indigenous-led, says Julian Brave NoiseCat

The Green New Deal has roots in Indigenous communities — and Julian Brave NoiseCat has been there since before it was a sweeping resolution aimed at tackling climate change and wealth inequality.
Julian Brave NoiseCat says the Green New Deal should start with Indigenous people.

The Green New Deal has roots in Indigenous communities — and Julian Brave NoiseCat has been there since before it was a sweeping resolution aimed at tackling climate change and wealth inequality.

NoiseCat, who is Tsq'escen and originally from the Canim Lake Band in British Columbia, helped draft the Green New Deal with U.S. elected officials like New York member of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who co-sponsored the legislation.

Often billed as the face of the Green New Deal, Ocasio-Cortez has cited her experience as a volunteer organizer at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation's fight against the Dakota Access pipeline as a sort of tipping point for her decision to move into politics. 

It's an example of the energy that Indigenous communities provide to movements to protect the environment, NoiseCat said.

"The Indigenous movement both in the United States and in Canada really has played a significant underlying role that people haven't fully appreciated in producing the Green New Deal," NoiseCat said. 

"First Nations have often been some of the loudest voices, putting their very bodies on the line in front of pipelines and projects that are going to damage the environment and public health."

The Green New Deal resolution is, in essence, a total departure from many of the industries that drive Canada's economy, NoiseCat said. 

It pushes industry to decarbonize, invests in other green technologies and industries and relies on the government to create thousands of jobs while funding complete transformations of infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions. 

The resolution originated in the U.S., but has since migrated to other countries in various forms, including Canada. The New Democratic Party adopted the need for a Green New Deal before the last federal election.

But progress on sweeping change has stalled in a few countries. The NDP didn't gain enough seats in Canada's House of Commons, NoiseCat said, and Republicans in the U.S. have all but stopped much of the work that was laid prior. 

"I think that for many people, climate change feels like a big and distant phenomenon," NoiseCat said. 

He believes this is true, he said, because even he didn't take it seriously until a few years ago.

Direct Impact

The 2017 wildfires in British Columbia hit close to home for NoiseCat. One of them was close to his home, Canim Lake. 

"That was really the first time that I felt the impacts of climate change were impacting my life and the people I loved in a very tangible way," NoiseCat said. 

"I imagined, amidst those wildfires, my grandma's house burning down and what that would mean and the pain that would inflict upon our family."

In his policy work for Data For Progress, NoiseCat consistently finds commonalities in the communities often most affected by increasingly frequent natural disasters. 

"One of the great injustices of climate change is that the people who often contributed the least to pollution emissions and global warming — communities of colour who do not have the kind of money to spend on luxuries … often live in the most polluted parts of society," he said. 

Countries like the Maldives or the Marshall Islands, which have miniscule carbon footprints, will be outright flooded due to rising sea levels, he said.

In countries like the U.S. and Canada, more remote areas like reserves — many of which are already near industry that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and harmful toxins into water supplies — will also be prone to forest fires and flooding without help close by.

Even if communities of colour are proportionately negatively affected compared to the rest of the population, because of their general lower socioeconomic status, it often takes them much longer to recover — and some, NoiseCat said, don't recover at all.

It's why communities of colour and Indigenous people need to be at the forefront of climate policy, NoiseCat said. It affects them disproportionately, but it's also not the first time Indigenous people have faced a dire situation.

"First Nations know what it means to live through the apocalypse. We lived through the apocalypse of colonization, we lived through the apocalypse of our children being taken away to residential schools in Canada and boarding schools in the United States," NoiseCat said.

"Indigenous people in Canada ... actually have perspectives and experiences to lend to those sets of issues."