‘The climate crisis is very real, and it’s impacting Indigenous peoples in a very real way’
With the first words of UVic’s new Climate and Sustainability Action Plan (CSAP 2030) going to Songhees Nation Elder Dr. Skip Dick, environmental discussions appear to be shifting in an inclusive and reconciliatory direction.
“Fifty years ago, we couldn’t have this conversation about climate change within the university,” Dick’s opening message reads. “Unfortunately, colonialism just goes one way and upholds the status quo.”
UVic, which stands on the lək̓ʷəŋən peoples’ traditional territory, published its first Sustainability Action Plan (SAP) in 2009 to help the university achieve operational sustainability through measurable goals and actions. Although SAP was in place until 2021 and designed to be inclusive, words like “Indigenous” or “First Nations” weren’t mentioned.
CSAP 2030, which UVic calls “the first sustainability plan to reach every corner of campus,” builds upon its longstanding vision of guiding students, staff, faculty, and community members toward on-campus climate action by including a formerly underrepresented and seemingly undervalued voice.
“It really started with UVic saying, ‘We want Indigenous Knowledge to be embedded throughout this document,'” said Jeff Ganohalidoh Corntassel, a UVic Indigenous studies professor from the Cherokee Nation. However, he says the framework was already in place when the university first approached him and others.
“Look, we need Indigenous Knowledge Systems throughout this document,” Corntassel recalls saying during early discussions with UVic. “But we also need a place where Indigenous Knowledge is focussed on and prioritized so that it sends a clear signal that this document is not just the status quo.”
Thus, an Indigenous task force was born, named Sacred Earth after the lək̓ʷəŋən words x̣éʔx̣ə tə́ŋəxw and the SENĆOŦEN words XAXE TEṈEW. Corntassel says the partnership acknowledges a recognized need from the university for cultural diversity in its sustainability planning.
“It was … ultimately an agreement that UVic didn’t want to do the same old thing, that there’s a desire to really have Indigenous Knowledge featured prominently in this document.”
Corntassel says the sudden inclusion of First Nations in climate talks is “an interesting convergence.” He attributes it to the 2015 TRC Calls to Action, which addresses the experiences and impacts of the residential school system, and the Declaration Act, passed by the B.C. government in 2019, as a framework for reconciliation in the province.
“I think that sort of shift has also led to a shift in the way that the university is thinking about climate action and climate justice,” said Corntassel.
As Earth’s welfare plunges into a downward spiral, environmental changemakers are starting to recognize Indigenous peoples for their resilience, connections to the land and, in turn, ways they can teach others about climate reconciliation.
“Indigenous peoples have 10 000 plus years of experience with shifts in the environment,” said Corntassel. “So that knowledge is really key to the future health and well-being of not only Indigenous peoples but everyone.“
However, this isn’t a one-way street. To sincerely include Indigenous peoples in climate discussions, the onus is on UVic as a community to ensure everyone feels safe — a sentiment echoed in one of Sacred Earth’s CSAP strategies: “Provide appropriate cultural safety training and learning opportunities to decolonize and create an inclusive campus culture.”
To accomplish that objective, Corntassel believes the university’s optimal course of action is to ensure Indigenous students and staff feel protected regardless of which discipline or faculty they enter.
“Ideally, these values, especially around cultural humility and cultural safety, will be embedded throughout the campus in not just courses but in programs so that Indigenous peoples … feel that they’re culturally safe in these spaces.”
Outside, Sacred Earth is helping to remediate natural habitats so Indigenous peoples from communities beyond the university can collect food staples like Kwetlal (camas), a starchy bulb decimated over time by urbanization. Revitalization efforts are currently taking place in a fenced-off area of UVic’s Garry Oak meadow by Finnerty Gardens.
“Part of the restoration work is so that [Indigenous peoples] can come here and gather camas,” said Corntassel. “They can come here and do what’s needed for their own health and well-being and the things that they’ve been doing for thousands of years.”
Sacred Earth also hopes to establish new opportunities for land-based learning, such as pit cooking. Corntassel says the traditional food preparation practice, which involves fire, already happens at UVic. But it’s a cumbersome approval process, something he hopes will change.
“It’s always going through several permits and all sorts of things … What we’d like to see is a kind of regularized or normalized process, so it’s not as bureaucratically heavy.“
Indigenous peoples’ core ethics of respecting and nurturing the land correlate to how they hunt, fish, and forage for food, allowing them to remain resilient and promote generosity and abundance.
“The basic protocols that Indigenous peoples have been following in this territory and elsewhere for years is, ‘never take more than you need,’” said Corntassel.
There’s much to accomplish within CSAP’s proposed timeline. And while overcommitting to goals can often be a downfall, UVic as a community should take the risk if it means protecting those impacted most by Earth’s environmental state.
“The university should be challenging themselves to take on maybe more than they think they can because the climate crisis is very real, and it’s impacting Indigenous peoples in a very real way,” said Corntassel.
Indigenous peoples are taking the brunt of climate change. From difficulties growing food to the welfare of sacred plants and animals, the sudden weather and temperature shifts directly interfere with their livelihoods.
“I would argue that Indigenous peoples feel the effects first because of their intimate relations with the natural world,” said Corntassel.
Although there’s plenty to worry about presently, the goal is to look beyond CSAP’s 2030 marker toward UVic’s climate future, which another Sacred Earth initiative hopes to do. Dubbed The Seedling Project and headed by Carey Newman, Impact Chair in Indigenous Art Practices, the goal is to plant and nurture a cedar sapling on campus with a commitment to carving it into a totem pole once it’s fully grown in 600 – 1 000 years.
“What will be here a thousand years from now?” said Corntassel. “We have to start thinking about what kind of protections are in place to keep this seedling going to maturity.“
How will UVic look in 3022? Some may picture a hi-tech educational mecca where everything’s electric, and the instructors are holograms beamed into lecture halls. Corntassel’s dream is one in which the land reverts to how it was before colonialism.
“I’d like to see this place overrun by camas. That would be a start of something that would directly benefit First Nations of this area.“
For now, Corntassel hopes UVic’s campus community will consider the land on which we learn, work, and teach and ask ourselves this question:
“What are my relational responsibilities to this place as a guest? And what does that look like in terms of my everyday actions?”