Innu-aitun culture and identity at risk

On the eve of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), Amnesty International released 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 at risk. In the short term, all of Quebec and Canada will pay the price. However, the ancestral Aboriginal 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, hydroelectricity and resort industries, as well as colonialist policies.

We recently were in the Innu Nation’s territory to learn from their struggles to protect the environment and their culture. For the Pessamiulnuat, the close relationship with the land is an expression of Innu lifestyle and spirituality. When at risk, the essence of their identity, Innu-aitum, is also at risk. 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 achieved. And it is only in this way that there can 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, waters and coastal seas and other resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used, and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.”

Furthermore, in its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it clear that it is the most vulnerable populations, including the 476 million indigenous people around the world, who suffer the most from climate change, due to their very connection 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 interest of the Innu Nation of Pessamit in climate change goes back some twenty years, precisely because of the erosion of the banks. This phenomenon is accentuated by the increase in temperature, milder winters and the multiplication of freezing and thawing periods. Thinner ice reduces the protection of the shoreline against waves and winter storms. Erosion modifies the seabed where silt is deposited, 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, burned by the sun. These are worrying 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 Pessamit Innu Council has therefore set up a team to monitor changes in 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 riverbank erosion.

However, despite all these efforts, in the end, Pessamit has no decision-making power over the activities of the forestry, hydroelectric, mining and resort industries, which not only have an impact on the territory but also accentuate climate change.

Thirteen hydroelectric power plants and 16 Hydro-Quebec dams have been built on the Pessamit Nitassinan since the 1950’s without free, prior and informed consent, without even the appearance of consultation. History cannot be rewritten and this is not what the Pessamiulnuat are claiming, any more than they are claiming to live in the Stone Age. But the least we can do is to recognize that this has not been done, and that it has been highly prejudicial, and consequently pay the necessary compensations. 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 whole 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’s boreal forest, of which Canada is the primary steward, is critical to the fight against climate change because of its high potential to store carbon emissions. However, “each year, industrial logging in Canada clearcuts over a million acres of boreal forest, much of this in irreplaceable, uniquely carbon-rich primary forests,” according to Jennifer Skene of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

And every time new roads are created to serve the forest industry, non-native hunters and tourists take them over. Resorting on Nitassinan is a growing phenomenon, an additional threat to traditional Innu activities. The Quebec government and the MRCs respectively distribute permits for logging and tourism, without regard for the Innu.

We are consulted for the sake of form. We propose new ways of doing things but we are not listened to. We are not taken seriously.

Érik Kanapé

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 is still faced with a stubborn refusal: “We are consulted for the sake of 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 Pessamit First Nation 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 reached that suits both parties. Put another way: give the other party the power to say no. “We demand respect from all levels of government because we are being ignored,” says Chief Marielle Vachon.

Finally, let’s remember that the United Nations considers environmental degradation and unsustainable development as the greatest threats to the right to life of future generations.

Erika Guevara-Rosas is Americas director at Amnesty International. France-Isabelle Langlois is executive director at Amnesty International Canada Francophone