What does environmental justice mean to Indigenous Peoples? How can it be achieved? These are two foundational questions being addressed by the Indigenous Environmental Justice (IEJ) project, a research initiative since 2015 by Osgoode and EUC Professor Deborah McGregor funded by the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program as well as by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
So what is environmental justice? By definition, it refers to the inequitable distribution of the costs and benefits of environmental degradation, such that people of colour, the marginalized and the poor tend to bear a significantly greater portion of the costs, while receiving relatively little in terms of any benefits. In Canada, environmental (in)justice is a constant undercurrent for most (if not all) environmental challenges that Indigenous peoples face. The field of environmental justice studies, therefore, forms a critical theoretical and applied framework for addressing key environmental issues of concern to Indigenous peoples in Canada.
“I highlight the emergence of the Anishinaabe philosophy of mino-mnaamodzawin (“living well” or “the good life”), common to several Indigenous epistemologies, that considers the critical importance of mutually respectful and beneficial relationships among all our relations," says McGregor. “Mino-mnaamodzawin is a foundational contributor to a new ethical standard of conduct that is required if society is to begin engaging in appropriate relationships with all of Creation, thereby establishing a sustainable and just world,” she adds.
The IEJ project is bolstered by a collective of York faculty and students — Dayna Scott from York’s Osgoode Hall Law School and Martha Stiegman from EUC; graduate students Susan Chiblow, Jayce Chiblow, Max Klein, Leora Gansworth, Rachel Arsenault, Dali Carmichael, David Bazargan, Meagan Dellavilla, Dale Hamilton, and Nasreen Hussain; undergraduate students Emilia Khalil, Jesse Abell, Lauren King, Mika MacKinnon, Ethan Persaud-Quiroz, Kim Tran, William Dandie, Abdeali Saherwala, Amna Masood, Peter Mangely, Salisha Purushatham, and Monica Shafik; as well as collaborators from other universities, non-governmental and Indigenous community organizations.
“We hope that the project website will be a key resource for community members, students, activists and scholars,” McGregor explains. The project offers support to communities currently fighting an environmental injustice, provides resources to teachers or schools interested in educating students about environmental justice, and creates a place for inclusive dialogue on how to move toward greater justice.
The first IEJ Knowledge Sharing Symposium was held in May 2016 at York University that brought together activists, youth, women, artists, Elders, scholars, environmental practitioners, advocates and community members in a dialogue to advance the theory and practice of environmental justice scholarship. Nearly 100 people attended in person, with an additional 339 people from 10 countries who attended through livestream option. This was followed in November 2019 with an IEJ Research Symposium wherein contributors to the project met to discuss and present key strategies to foster collaborations between Indigenous peoples and the York community. A critical focus was devoted to the impact of climate change and the importance of integrating Indigenous knowledge and practice as key elements of sustainability. During the first segment of the IEJ Speaker Series of 2020, a continuation in collaboration with Water Allies, took place as a winter talk series to further explore insights on decolonizing water-governance and perspectives of Indigenous community-based research.
Public engagement and outreach activities were further carried out in 2020 (See IEJ Progress Report). More recent project activities in 2021 included a talk by McGregor on Decolonizing the Dialogue on Climate Change: Indigenous Knowledge, Law and Ethics. Further in honour of International Mother Language Day on February 21, the IEJ hosted a discussion on Intergenerational Anishinabemowin transmission in the modern age. Other recent events were a conversation with Anishinaabe water protector and land defender Beze Gray and a discussion on "Art Against Settler Colonialism" with Mikinaak (Crystal) Migwans, a member of Wiikemikoong Unceded Territory and Professor of Indigenous Contemporary Art in Canada at the University of Toronto. In the spirit of social justice, most of the IEJ events are live streamed for wider dissemination and knowledge mobilization.
Indeed, the project provides a variety of opportunities for dialogue, learning and exchange and organizes special events and symposia creating a forum to share ideas, knowledge, and experiences to help people understand what environmental justice means. Activities for 2021 continue to be posted via the project’s social media channels on Facebook and Twitter.
For further info on the project and their activities, visit their website at https://iejproject.info.yorku.ca/ and follow them on Twitter: @theIEJproject.