On the eve of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), Amnesty International has published a report on the impact of climate change on the human rights of eight communities around the world. One of these eight case studies was conducted with the Innu community of Pessamit in Quebec. The results are unequivocal: the Innu way of life and culture are in danger. In the short term, all of Quebec and Canada will pay the price. However, indigenous ancestral know-how is a key tool in the fight against climate change. We have a duty to listen and learn.
The research conducted by Amnesty International Canada Francophone (AICF), in collaboration with the Pessamiulnuat, focuses on the human rights violations of the Innu Nation of Pessamit, resulting from the combined effects of climate change and the forestry, hydroelectric and resort industries, as well as than colonialist policies.
We were recently on Innu Nation territory to learn about their struggles to protect the environment and their culture. For the Pessamiulnuat, the close relationship with the land is an expression of the Innu way of life and spirituality. When they are in danger, the essence of their identity, Innu-aitum, is also in danger. Coastal erosion threatens the practice of certain cultural activities at the same time as it leads to the loss of part of the territory.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes that Indigenous peoples “have suffered historical injustices, including colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources. Injustices that will continue until justice and redress are served. And only thus can there be reconciliation. Article 25 of the Declaration states that “indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with the lands, territories, coastal waters and seas and other resources which they have traditionally owned or occupied and used. in another way, and to assume their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.
Moreover, in its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly indicates that it is the most vulnerable populations, including the 476 million indigenous people in the world, who suffer the most from the climate change, due to their strong link between cultural identity and territory.
Indigenous peoples have suffered historical injustices, including colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The Innu Nation of Pessamit’s interest in climate change dates back some twenty years, precisely because of shoreline erosion. This phenomenon is accentuated by the increase in temperatures, milder winters and the multiplication of periods of freezing and thawing. Thinner ice reduces shoreline protection from waves and winter storms. Erosion changes the seabed where the silt settles, making it difficult for fish to spawn. In addition, summers are getting hotter and hotter. The fauna and flora change, the trees turn yellow in the middle of summer because of the lack of water, burnt by the sun. These are disturbing facts.
However, the IPCC recognizes that when the territorial rights of indigenous peoples are respected, the climate, the territory and its biodiversity are better off. The Pessamiulnuat are aware of this. The Innu Council of Pessamit has therefore set up a team to monitor the evolution of Nitassinan, the claimed and unceded ancestral territory, as well as a salmon restoration project in the Betsiamites River. The Nation is also calling for the creation of a protected area for woodland caribou and has created partnerships with universities to understand and find solutions to shoreline erosion.
However, the IPCC recognizes that when the territorial rights of indigenous peoples are respected, the climate, the territory and its biodiversity are better off. The Pessamiulnuat are aware of this. The Innu Council of Pessamit has therefore set up a team to monitor the evolution of Nitassinan, the claimed and unceded ancestral territory, as well as a salmon restoration project in the Betsiamites River. The nation is also calling for the creation of a protected area for woodland caribou and has partnered with universities to understand and find solutions to shoreline erosion.
However, despite all these efforts, Pessamit ultimately has no decision-making power over the activities of the forest, hydroelectric, mining and resort industries, which not only have an impact on the territory but also accentuate climate change.
Thirteen hydroelectric power stations and 16 Hydro-Québec dams have been built on the Pessamit Nitassinan since the 1950s without free, prior and informed consent, without even the appearance of consultation. History cannot be rewritten and that is not what the Pessamiulnuat claim, nor do they claim to live in the Stone Age. But the least that can be done is to recognize that it was not done, and that it was very harmful, and therefore to pay the necessary compensation. We can also do things differently today. Not by “consulting as much as possible”, but by ensuring that the free, prior and informed consent of the entire community is obtained.
This is true for all industries and it is the responsibility of the provincial government and regional county municipalities (RCMs) to ensure this. The northern hemisphere boreal forest, of which Canada is the primary steward, is critical to the fight against climate change because of its high potential for storing carbon emissions. However, “every year, industrial logging in Canada clears more than a million acres of boreal forest, much of it in irreplaceable, carbon-rich primary forest,” according to Jennifer Skene of the Natural Resources Defense. Council (NRDC).
And each time new roads are created to serve the forest industry, hunters and non-Aboriginal tourists seize them. The use of Nitassinan is a growing phenomenon, an additional threat to traditional Innu activities. The Government of Quebec and the MRCs respectively distribute logging and tourism permits, without regard for the Innu.
We are consulted for the form. We propose new ways of doing things but we are not listened to. We are not taken seriously.
Certainly, the federal government has made efforts in recent years to include the Nation and its vision in the management of the territory. However, on the provincial side, the community still faces a stubborn refusal: “We are consulted for form. We propose new ways of doing things but we are not listened to. We are not taken seriously,” testified Éric Kanapé, biologist and environmental consultant.
Finally, we cannot ignore the impact of colonialist policies for nearly 150 years. And the ways of governments and industries are a corollary of this entrenched colonialism.
The First Nation of Pessamit wants a nation-to-nation relationship with the levels of government in order to be able to determine its own development on its territory, that is to say, to negotiate until an agreement is acceptable to both parties. In other words: give the other party the power to say no. “We demand respect from all levels of government because we are being ignored,” says chef Marielle Vachon.
Finally, let us recall that the United Nations considers the degradation of the environment and unsustainable development as the greatest threats to the right to life of future generations.
Erika Guevara-Rosas is Director of the Americas at Amnesty International. France-Isabelle Langlois is Executive Director of Amnesty International Canada Francophone