It was November 2015, and Justin Trudeau, freshly minted as Canada’s 23rd prime minister, stormed into the halls of the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris, declaring that “Canada is back” as a global leader.
For both Pacific Islanders and Indigenous peoples, it was a pronouncement we heard with trepidation. The list of world leaders who make bold declarations and fall short is long. But, as long as that list is, the list of leaders from the world’s top per capita greenhouse-gas-emitting nations who proclaim themselves allies to Indigenous peoples and Pacific Islanders is short. So, while we looked on from different sides of the Pacific Ocean, some of us saw a glimmer of hope when Canada appeared to make a 180-degree turn from the climate denial policies pushed by former prime minister Stephen Harper over the past decade.
At first, that hope bore fruit. During the Paris climate talks Canada took bold stances in support of the Pacific Islander–led push for a 1.5 C target and championed the inclusion of language supporting Indigenous rights in the text of the Paris Agreement.
But, before long, that hope started to fade. A few months after the ink had dried on the Paris climate agreement, Trudeau’s government started backing off from their climate promises and their commitments to Indigenous peoples’ rights. They approved a massive natural gas plant, the Pacific Northwest LNG facility, despite Indigenous opposition and red flags from dozens of climate scientists that the project could ruin any chance of Canada meeting its Paris climate commitments. They approved the Site C dam, and they bolstered their unwavering support for the Keystone XL pipeline, even after it was rejected by Barack Obama, then resurrected by Donald Trump, the world’s new climate-denier-in-chief.
Then, in November 2016, almost a year to the day from their triumphant declarations in Paris, they did the same thing with the Kinder Morgan tar sands pipeline — a project with the same climate impact as more than 40 new coal-fired power plants and a project opposed by Indigenous communities.
It’s a striking reminder that while words matter, actions matter more. It’s easy to declare oneself, or one’s government, on the side of those people most impacted by climate change and fossil fuel extraction. It’s another to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and act on those declarations.
For Indigenous peoples and Pacific Islanders, climate change and fossil fuel extraction happens in our backyards. Rising seas are threatening to erase our homes in a matter of weeks and months. Toxic pollution in the air and water threatens our families and friends here and now. Simply put, we can’t afford to wait any longer for the action to match the talk on climate change.
We know that any kind of meaningful action on climate change means keeping the majority of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground. And for us, meaningful action on climate change can mean the very survival of our communities and our homes. So when leaders such as Trudeau, head of a nation that championed our causes in Paris, tells a room of oil executives in Houston that his government has no plans to leave Alberta’s 173 billion barrels of tar sands oil in the ground, it’s pretty frustrating.
In the Pacific Islands there is a group called the Pacific Climate Warriors. They have a saying, “We are not drowning, we are fighting!” It’s a powerful declaration that’s reflected in the Indigenous-led resistance to massive fossil fuel projects such as the Kinder Morgan pipeline in Canada, a reminder that all around the world those people with the most to lose because of climate change are the same people putting the most on the line to fight it. But it’s also a reminder that we can’t win this fight alone.
We need political leaders like Justin Trudeau, and countries like Canada, standing with our communities in this fight. We need actions that match the words we heard in Paris. Yes, some parts of Canada have implemented a carbon price, but it’s been shown time and time again that a carbon price alone will not be enough. Real climate action, the kind that actually has a chance to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, means not building new fossil fuel infrastructure. Period.
Every time Canada approves a project like the Kinder Morgan pipeline, it’s clear the government is not fighting on the side of Pacific Islanders and Indigenous peoples. It’s a sign that they’re fighting for the fossil fuel industry. Frankly, we think this government can be better than that.
Back in Paris, the Liberals talked like a friend. Now, they’re acting like anything but.
Clayton Thomas-Muller is the stop-it-at-the-source campaigner with 350.org. Koreti Tiumalu works with the Pacific Climate Warriors and is the pacific region coordinator for 350.org. Both will be part of the Raise a Paddle tour bringing Pacific Islanders to Western Canada to meet with Indigenous peoples opposed to tar sands expansion from Alberta to the B.C. coast.