The Grass is Greener on the Other Side: How Canada has Failed the International Community and Indigenous Peoples

Shannon Brooks

An old Apache Proverb states,

“It is better to have less thunder in the mouth and more lightning in the hand.”

This “all talk, no action” adage explains Canada’s failure on numerous environmental commitments, an especially salient issue in light of the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference. The media’s focus has been on the new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, for inviting the Premiers to the meetings in Paris. However, Canadians should instead focus on the shame that Canada will feel for its failed environmental policies. The politicization of the climate summit has averted Canadian attention away from the the fact that Canada’s humanitarian glow is dimming on the world stage. Not only this, but it is distracting Canadians from the goals that the new Liberal majority government must achieve in order to steer Canada into greener pastures. Furthermore, Canadians should not only understand the failure that it has been internationally, but that this failure has been most pronounced for Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.

As a response to our international failure, Trudeau’s government has set forth a platform to invest in sustainable infrastructure and work towards creating an environmentally friendly Canada. The Liberals promise that this will occur through investments in local water and wastewater facilities, clean energy, climate resilient infrastructure– including flood mitigation systems–and foundations to protect against changing weather. The platform states, “We will boost investment in green infrastructure by nearly $6 billion over the next four years, and almost $20 billion over ten years.”

These are promising steps forward, but will the Liberal government honour the climate treaties that our country has signed on to? Will these aforementioned policies slow the growing divide between Canada and the rest of the international community? Much of Canada’s economy is based upon the extraction of its natural resources. In 2013, the Washington-based Centre for Global Development ranked Canada last on environmental protections out of 27 wealthy nations. Canada has allowed for private industries to lead the country in its reliance upon the use and overuse of natural resources, and we are still far behind the rest of the world in greenhouse gas reductions. In addition, the failed protection of our natural resources has led to adversarial relations with many of our country’s Indigenous communities.

With this in mind, the path that Canada has tread is evidently not working. So one must ask: who are the actors that could align with the Liberals to restore Canada’s environmental standing? I propose that with the proposed environmental changes that the Liberal government has based their platform upon, it must be Indigenous Peoples who lead the way in the policy making process.Thankfully, the Liberals have also promised to work in full partnership with the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people to review laws, policies and operational practices in recognition of the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the land.

 The UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples includes the right to self-determination and “the right to determine their political status.” With the growing inequalities facing Indigenous Peoples, involvement is paramount for the protection of their ways of life. Currently, environmental activists and indigenous leaders have formed an alliance to block a liquefied natural gas project in northwestern British Colombia. The damage from this project would be irreversible for the Flora Bank and Lelu Island, as well as the salmon that are in the Skeena River. This land is under the traditional territory of the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation. This situation highlights the role that Indigenous Peoples could play as key environmental actors in the policy making process. And if they take their opportunity to self-determine, it would provide a needed balance to preserve the lands we so sorely need to protect, but are unable to due to institutional setbacks. Indeed, the setbacks found in the Canadian context come from a system where Indigenous involvement has not been sought or promoted.

As an example of Indigenous policy-making done right, New Zealand’s parliament passed legislation amending their electoral law, guarantying Maori seats within the House of Representatives. Despite the need for further policy involvement in their system, the current political structure still ensures a type of representation that Canada does not have. New Zealand’s Indigenous Peoples, the Maori, have greater representation assured, but are similar in the extent of the role they play. And yet, more than just elected representation is needed. Formal governing committees and even policy consulting positions should be created for Indigenous Peoples to put forth stronger environmental protections and ideas into decision-making.

Throughout Canadian history, government has created treaties as a way to induce Indigenous Peoples to surrender their lands and exploit them for economic development, promising access to employment but with no delivery on those promises. Indigenous People were unable to vote until recently, hindering their voices in the political sphere and public opinion. Institutions have been created to exclude Indigenous Peoples from the policy process, with influence limited to demographic weight, causing the continuance of colonial legacies. This environmental damage has not only been devastating, but has violated treaty rights to economic and social protection. These protections and involvement must now be given to Indigenous Peoples as a way of empowering and restoring the lack of involvement they have historically held. Even in researching this topic and searching policy structures, it was evident the lack of contributions of Indigenous voices into the process.

How will these actions result in real and lasting change? What will that role look like? In part, it is a waiting game. Canadians will need to wait and see the government’s steps following the Paris Conference, but more importantly, we will need to hold the government accountable to act upon the promises set before us. This is a prime opportunity to open the doors for Indigenous governance to play a more vital and impactful role, due to its spiritual connection to- and deep understanding of- the land. History proves that the culprits in environmental degradation have often been private corporations, making decisions at the expense of Indigenous ways of life. It is time for a new chapter. With policy change at the forefront, it is time to see the role of new actors in all areas of the policy process. This involvement will be formative to taking steps forward not only for Canada, but for the involvement of self-governing Indigenous Peoples in Canada. In the meantime, we will have to see what comes from the UN Climate Talks in Paris and the plan that Trudeau and the Premiers decide upon in the wake of Canada’s shameful international standing.



Shannon Brooks is a current MPP candidate at the University of Toronto, Class of 2017. Some of her policy interests consist of immigration and refugee policy, social policy, housing, and environmental policy. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Honours from Carleton University with a double major in Law and Human Rights. She is passionate about social justice, and aspires to work within the international community. 

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