In February, the federal government released a comprehensive study on how climate change is impacting the health of Canadians, which was the first of its kind since 2008. The report, “Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate,” is in many ways similar to its predecessor, but with one significant update: an entire chapter on climate change and the health of Indigenous peoples. Written by the National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health (NCCIH) at the University of Northern British Columbia, the chapter was more than two years in the making.
“It was really about making sure that our voices were heard and that we created space for the particular reality of Indigenous people in this country,” said Margo Greenwood, the academic leader of the NCCIH and one of the chapter’s authors, who is of Cree ancestry. That reality, for many Indigenous peoples, is a harsh one. First Nations, Inuit and Metis people experience a heavier burden of ill health compared to non-Indigenous people and face systemic inequities including overcrowded housing, poverty, food and water insecurity, and poor access to health care. Climate change exacerbates these inequities, as do past and current colonial policies and practices, disproportionately impacting the health of Indigenous peoples.
However, for Dr. Greenwood, who is also a professor at UNBC, the mental health of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people may suffer most because of climate change. “The mental health impacts are long-reaching, and they are far-reaching going forward. When we talk about stress, trauma, and anxiety, sadly those are all too familiar for families and communities,” she said, and this is especially true in instances where families need to be evacuated because of natural disasters like flooding or wildfires. “If people have to be relocated… those are very jarring memories for families, intergenerationally.”
Another critical element is the close relationship that many First Nations, Inuit and Métis people have to the land, waters, animals, plants, and natural resources, which they depend on not only for their sustenance and livelihoods, but for their cultures and identities. Most Indigenous knowledge systems are based on relationality, said Dr. Greenwood, and many Indigenous cultures and languages are interconnected with the land and the ecosystems they support. Rapid changes to the environment can therefore cause deep-seated grief. “It’s not just human grief – it’s human with land, it’s human with animals, and it’s human with all living things,” she said.
Indigenous knowledge use in climate change adaptation
There are huge knowledge gaps regarding climate change and First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples’ health, and the report calls for focused and sustained research to ensure Indigenous peoples’ knowledge and experience are centered within the climate change discussion.
“We need to actively create space for Indigenous voices to talk about these important topics – we’re talking about the very essence of our being when we’re talking about the land,” said Dr. Greenwood. “What we do to the land, we do to ourselves.” The chapter also emphasizes the importance of incorporating Indigenous knowledge systems into climate change research, policy and adaptation strategies as well as in informing climate change policy and research. On the first front, there has been some progress. One example is a federal government program launched in 2017 that supports climate change adaptation projects in First Nations communities, working closely with community members to integrate Indigenous knowledge on climate indicators and future climate projections. Dr. Greenwood said that such programs are positive because they integrate knowledge on how the land acts and changes, which has been passed down through generations by Elders and Knowledge Keepers. “I think that becomes really valuable when you are trying to design adaptations that are locally specific.”