#07, February 2021
What if we were to forge new connections?
Raccords posed five questions to Melissa Mollen Dupuis, an Innue activist, director, and columnist who is the spokesperson for the Forest Campaign at the David Suzuki Foundation, and Rachel Plotkin, head of the Boreal Campaign at the David Suzuki Foundation.
Both women—one of them Innue, the other non-Indigenous—work to protect the boreal forest. They spoke to us about colonial and Indigenous visions of nature, the transformative power of stories, and our capacity to reinvent our relationships with both nature and Indigenous Peoples.
Land acknowledgment – The Maison de l’innovation sociale acknowledges that our place of work is located in Tiohtiá:ke, an unceded territory. We further acknowledge that the Kanien’keha:ka nation is custodian of the lands and waters of Tiohtiá:ke. Such a gesture is one among many others to recognize Indigenous rights and uplift the leadership that is theirs.
Raccords: Indigenous peoples have an interdependent relationship with nature. Non-Indigenous, colonialist society has a more transactional and domineering one. What do you think accounts for this difference?
Melissa Mollen Dupuis: Indigenous or not, we all have the same level of interdependency with nature. We all breathe the same air! What differentiates Indigenous culture from others is its lack of distance from this notion of interdependency. A person can use a fork to distance themselves from the food on their plate and, like a child, be oblivious to how it’s sourced. They can use high tepees to block their view of the forest above, which brings air into the community. But doing such things weakens their sense of connection to the land. For instance, I live in Montreal, but I like to say I have a 1000-kilometre-long umbilical cord that ties me to Ekuanitshit, where I come from. I have been taught that my territory, my land, is my Mother. It created me; it is part of my DNA. If it needs me, the umbilical cord tying me to it will call me, and I will be there for it. Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and understanding of human interdependency with nature is within everyone’s reach. We can all shorten the distance that we choose to create between our way of life and nature.
Rachel Plotkin: What strikes me is how Western science has compelling evidence regarding interconnectivity. It has evidence, for example, that the interdependent parts of ecosystems function as a whole and that different species communicate and collaborate together. Yet its framing is essentially reductionist! It is built upon the principle of taking something out of its environment and looking at it under a microscope from a human perspective that emphasizes “otherness”. For instance, scientists have suggested that a chimpanzee is as smart as a four-year-old child, but they’ve paid little attention to the chimpanzee’s capacity to communicate in ways that we probably can’t fathom. The Western lens on nature is likewise one of ownership. It presupposes that humans have the right to own and use nature’s resources at will, in ways that we are not accountable for. We have lost our sense of responsibility for the natural ecosystems that sustain us, and it’s through this lens of ownership and superiority that we’ve come to trample the planet and to continue trampling the planet.
Raccords: Melissa, we’ve heard you talk about how storytelling has shaped both colonial and Indigenous attitudes towards nature. How might storytelling also begin to liberate us from our colonial mindset?
Melissa: I like to compare our different perspectives by calling on our respective stories of creation. The Eurocentric story claims that God created earth and gave it to man so that he could prosper, whereas Indigenous stories say that living beings belong to the land. This “ownership” stance, which is now integrated into legal texts and treaties, contributed to this shift. Our knowledge evolves over time and is transmitted orally through generations. We cannot forget our stories, because we integrate them into our daily lives. Our language and our people are custodians of this knowledge, whereas in Western civilization, books are the repository of knowledge. But it is much easier to forget a book that you’ve read than a story that you hold dear to your heart. Storytelling is a powerful tool for transmitting knowledge—for connecting us to our past and our traditions, and establishing a relationship with our land. A story forces us to remember. We need that connection to carry on and share our stewardship of our land. In essence, our relationship to nature is one of guardianship, not ownership. Storytelling affects everything, including how we manage climate change. I feel that colonialism has hindered interconnectivity because it competes with other narratives and forms of knowledge. It asks, “Who has the best values? Who has the best research? The best text? Who is right?” It is more about power than interconnectivity and openness.
Rachel: I think Melissa is right. Relationships to nature come down to stories. Western society’s story of nature is one that is rooted in fear. When settlers arrived, they embraced the frontier mentality, which called upon them to tame and conquer all that wilderness. This narrative has become so pervasive that it has colonized our relationship to nature. To counter it, many conservation organizations have tried to encourage people to build their own relationship to nature. The good news is that there is no claim on relationships. We all have the ability and agency to invest in the relationships that we want to see prosper, including our relationship with nature.
Raccords: You have both worked to promote the leadership of Indigenous nations in protecting and sustaining biodiversity. What are the biggest obstacles you face in this effort?
Rachel: One of the biggest barriers is that our systems are not built to include Indigenous people. There is systemic racism, especially in our decision-making about land uses. Indigenous Peoples are not included at decision-making tables. And that’s a problem that we are trying to change. One of the obstacles to this work—which is also the beauty of this work—is that it has to be built on relationships. This requires capacity. You can’t build relationships by sending an email. You have to show up and enter into these relationships in a reflective way. Each entity has to lend capacity to the other; hear the other out; and ask what the community needs. At the same time, the conservation- community members from various NGOs have to recognize that they come from positions of privilege. There is a bit of a dance about how we can serve as true allies to Indigenous leadership, as well as how we can contribute our own leadership to the greater fight. It can be challenging! Not to mention the fact that a lot of communities are remote. It’s very expensive and difficult to get to them while simultaneously reducing one’s carbon footprint. In essence, we have to ask ourselves, “How do we build relationships that are meaningful, and how do we maintain them?”
Raccords: Conversely, what advances have been made in recent years to make more space for Indigenous knowledge? How can we build on them?
Melissa: The recognition of one’s privilege is indeed essential. When government or NGO officials come into contact with Indigenous communities, they’re engaging with people who have multiple intertwined issues at stake. I see it as a Venn diagram. Take my position as spokesperson for the David Suzuki Foundation in Quebec, for example. My employer understands that as an Indigenous person, I campaign for the protection of the forest and caribou because they are at once my land, my tradition and my livelihood. The Foundation understands that these issues connect to a broader spectrum of issues affecting Indigenous Peoples, and that I am waging many battles that go beyond the environmental mission. Language, systemic racism, missing and murdered Indigenous women: All of these issues are tied to my campaign for the protection of forests and caribou. By acknowledging and respecting this, my employer is building a trustworthy relationship and supporting Indigenous leadership. Building true allyship is a winning condition for systemic transformation.
Rachel: I like Melissa’s metaphor of the Venn diagram because I think that most of our work is built on a synergy of shared objectives. My people don’t depend on caribou, but as a conservationist, I want caribou to survive. With that shared vision, we work together. I think what Melissa said rings true: The Foundation helps build allyship by—for example—committing itself to broader objectives and not working in silos, and by redressing Indigenous rights and including Indigenous people at decision-making tables. I have developed some truly strong and authentic relationships. There is very little of which I’m prouder.
Melissa: The most important change I have seen in the past twenty years is the willingness of conservationists to support communities and their traditional ways. It used to be that the Eurocentric way of protecting biodiversity and the land was to exclude human beings from it. But the Indigenous way of protecting the land is to rely on the presence of humans and their strong sense of responsibility. In fact, a major 2019 study, backed by the United Nations, recognized that nature on Indigenous land was doing much better than it was elsewhere. Perhaps this realization that Indigenous Peoples know how to take care of the land is making headway. Dialogue is starting to happen; it’s a work in progress. For example, Parks Canada is now working on reconciliation-support initiatives to allow Indigenous people to carry out their traditional practices on the land.
Rachel: I agree. Today there is no conservation organization in Canada that would even dream of establishing a protected area without the support of local First Nations. What’s more, for many of us, our conversation work is built upon supporting Indigenous-led initiatives. We work on common aspirations and try to find the sweet spots where social- justice work and conservation work meet. For example, how do you come up with creative campaigns that tackle both the social and ecological crises? How do you build new systems that honour Indigenous rights while advancing conservation objectives? A few years ago, I participated in a project that illustrates this approach. We worked with the Doig River First Nation (DRFN) in British Columbia on a madziih (boreal Caribou) traditional knowledge and restoration study. The objective was to prioritize conservation areas that would be beneficial to the caribou’s recovery. We conducted interviews and focus groups with DRFN knowledge-holders and used traditional knowledge to identify calving grounds originally favoured by caribou. This approach allowed the DRFN community to assert its leadership in attempts to restore the declining caribou population.
Raccords: What can non-Indigenous people do to educate themselves—without appropriating Indigenous knowledge—in order to accelerate social and ecological change?
Rachel: I think the first thing that non-indigenous people can do is educate themselves about both the history and framework of Indigenous rights in Canada. We need to share our knowledge with other non-Indigenous people instead of always burdening our Indigenous colleagues with telling us their story. This is particularly important in light of how traumatic some of those stories are, such as the ones related to residential schools. We need to ask our Indigenous colleagues what we can do to support them as their allies. Finally, I think we need to create space for Indigenous Peoples at decision-making tables and invest in building strong, trustworthy relationships. It is up to those who have power and privilege to ensure that space is made for Indigenous Peoples.
Melissa: I have to say that the weight of educating non-Indigenous people can be heavy on Indigenous Peoples’ shoulders. I myself feel lucky to do this work because I like to talk a lot—though I have to admit that it took me years to have the audacity to do so! But my Nation is tired, as are others. We cannot build a relationship by forcing it. Indigenous Peoples also feel like they don’t have their space. They have been told for so long that they don’t belong. Voicing their concerns has become a risky business for them. So the best thing you can do is this: If you don’t see us, then ask yourself, “Where are they?” Then perhaps you will find Indigenous artists and authors and poets. And perhaps you will open doors and show up, and call out systemic racism, and contribute to building true allyship.