Autumn Peltier, a young Indigenous climate activist, was 13 years old when she first spoke to world leaders at the United Nations on March 22, 2018. Her speech focused on the need for water protection.
This is probably the first time you have read her name. In contrast, you have certainly heard about Greta Thunberg’s address to the United Nations on Sep. 23, 2019. Why this gap in media representation between these two young activists, both of whom do remarkable work?
- Autumn Peltier to world leaders: we can't eat money or drink oil
- Greta Thunberg to world leaders: change is coming whether your like it or not
What does it say about the prevalence of racist structures in society and how the visibility of the most impacted is key to tackling climate change correctly? Let’s explore.
Front line women remain in media background
Today in Canada, Indigenous peoples are still struggling for the basic right, given freely to other Canadian citizens, of access to safe drinking water. For example, the Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario has been under boil water advisories for more than 20 years. At the same time, Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of the fight against shale gas extraction. Of course we recall the historic battle of Elsipogtog in New Brunswick on this question. Five years ago this mobilization was marked by the violence of police repression against the Indigenous community and the hostility of public discourse toward those protesting.
More recently, this summer, we saw the demands of the Indigenous peoples of Brazil silenced in the media coverage of the fires that have decimated the Amazon.
There are two commonalities when it comes to Indigenous peoples’ mobilization on climate issues: first, these mobilizations are (at best) made invisible in the public space, and second, these issues have a greater impact on the women of these communities (to the extent that women everywhere are the most affected by crises, whether economic, climate, or political).
The fight against global warming is not happening in a vacuum. It is imbued with the sexist and racist views of our Western societies.
By way of illustration, research has shown that 95 per cent of the $60 billion (US) in U.S. foundation funding allocated annually to charities goes to organizations run by white people, and 70 to 80 per cent of this funding goes directly to charities run by men. This leaves a very small percentage for organizations run by racialized women, yet they are the ones on the front lines, feeling the impacts of climate change.
Climate change is a feminist and anti-racist issue
This invisibilization does not come from nowhere.
Two-thirds of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada. They directly contribute to the catastrophic destruction of the environment, to the detriment of Indigenous populations and to the benefit of the most privileged in our economy (these companies are financed, for example, by your pension funds).
Further, in the evolution of environmental discourses, the invisibilization of the most impacted has the effect, ultimately, of guaranteeing the concentration of privilege within already privileged populations: since the early 2000s, the discourse on the need to adopt “everyday environmentally friendly actions” has enabled companies to improve their image through “greenwashing.”
Today, we are still trying to protect the economic interests of the most privileged by allowing large companies to continue to adopt the same modes of production (to the detriment, again, of Indigenous peoples).
Naomi Klein, in an interview with Democracy Now, showed that Western countries were already adapting to the consequences of climate change, but not in the right way. Measures are already in place to close the borders to climate refugees. Instead of responding to climate injustice, states are instead choosing to reinforce it.
If the voices of the populations most affected by climate change had been centred and listened to from the outset, we would have moved much more quickly on the climate emergency. As proof, it has been several decades since Indigenous peoples first spoke of the need to change our means of production, but it is only today, through Greta Thunberg, that this discourse is brought to the highest levels of government.
Fortunately, Greta Thunberg is aware of this issue and announced that she would open Friday’s march in Montreal alongside young Indigenous women.
Pauline Ou-halima works in communications for the Fédération des femmes du Québec.