Threats to water and other environmental issues were the main focus of an Idle No More event that took place on Sunday at the John M. Cuelenaere Public Library.
© Herald photo by Matt Gardner
University of Saskatchewan PhD student Mylan Tootoosis speaks at the John M. Cuelenaere Public Library on Sunday during an event organized by Idle No More supporters to draw attention to water contamination and other environmental issues.
The afternoon gathering brought together elders who shared “prophecies” on the future of treaties and land with a presentation by a doctoral student that put current threats to water and resources in the context of colonialism and colonization.
“That was just to connect current events of how the water’s being contaminated, how the destruction of our lands are (taking place) within Canada,” Idle No More supporter Kurtis McAdam said.
“These teachings were always here and many young people today are just having difficulty making those connections, and this gentlemen talking about this today, this presentation makes that connection.”
Following the elders’ prophecies -- which consisted of sharing their knowledge of teachings foretelling the future -- University of Saskatchewan PhD student Mylan Tootoosis began his own presentation relating awareness of pending water issues in indigenous knowledge systems to contemporary scientific viewpoints.
Currently pursuing his doctorate in native studies, Tootoosis drew parallels between the historical oppression of Canada’s indigenous peoples with modern struggles for water, land and treaty rights.
Just as colonial laws such as the Indian Act, the pass system and residential schools were designed to disempower and weaken native people, Tootoosis said, in modern-day Canada “a lot of the policies, a lot of the media coverage, a lot of the issues we see in the news are designed and are there to disempower us, to make us look a certain way -- because if we look that certain way to all Canadians, the reality is that they can still carry forward this paternalistic agenda where they need to tell us what to do.”
Tootoosis identified four specific effects of colonization that had served to make indigenous communities more vulnerable to environmental threats and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change.
They included disorientation caused by the lack of self-government, disempowerment due to coercive enforcement of colonial laws, discord resulting from the inability to fulfill traditional social, cultural and spiritual obligations and disease caused by inferior nutrition and sedentary lifestyles.
“When it comes to organizing and mobilizing, it’s very challenging to do because a lot of our people are disempowered,” he said.
Regarding the inability of governments to deal with threats to water systems, Tootoosis noted the complexity of the issue as water systems tend to travel through different provinces and traditional territories, affecting different industries.
I think a lot of what indigenous people are promoting is the actual tangible relationship with water and the need for clean water and the need for clean land, and that does essentially clash against a lot of ... capitalist development. Mylan Tootoosis
While the effects of climate change create added uncertainty for dealing with the problem, the divergence between traditional indigenous knowledge and what Tootoosis referred to as the “bureaucratic politican” viewpoint has a tendency to create conflict between natives and non-natives.
“The reality is First Nations and non-First Nations governments are having a very hard time even thinking about water problems because this all comes into effect … and for First Nations governments … the reality is we’re coming out of colonization where Canada and non-natives imposed a lot of those harsh policies and harsh systems onto our people,” he said.
Calling for new and radical ways of dealing with such problems, Tootoosis pointed to the need for native communities to re-orient and co-operate, to learn to survive through self-reliance based on traditional land-based knowledge, to pay attention to policy and plan ahead while learning to “expect the unexpected.”
He offered numerous examples of indigenous movements in Central and South America such as the Quetche Maya in Belize and the Zapatistas in Mexico as offering potential lessons going forward in the fight for decolonization.
“I think a lot of what indigenous people are promoting is the actual tangible relationship with water and the need for clean water and the need for clean land, and that does essentially clash against a lot of western development -- a lot of, I guess, capitalist development you could call it,” Tootoosis said.
“So there is a need to actually organize and make known a collective approach to healthy land and water supply, and to maintain that also.”
At the same time, Tootoosis stressed the importance of alliances between natives and non-natives in order to deal with pressing environmental issues, promoting communication with government and drawing from both scientific and traditional knowledge.
“I think the call is for everybody, no matter if they’re native or non-native, no matter what their political agenda is, to actually look at the practical, tangible life systems that we all depend on … that there are changes occurring and that will continue to occur because of some developments taking place … that (are) highly contradictory to a healthy future and a viable future.”