The Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources helps Aboriginal communities in their uphill battle to become more environmentally responsible. Unfortunately, few Nation readers are familiar with their mission because the centre is located in Winnipeg.
CIER does have Cree connections: former Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come was a founding board member in 1994, while Shaunna Morgan, who grew up in Waskaganish, is Senior Manager in charge of climate change at CIER.
The Centre’s mission is to “assist First Nations with building the capacity to address the environmental issues they face.”
Lawyer Merrell-Ann Phare has been with the organization from the beginning, initially to help CIER register as a charitable organization. Since then she has moved into the hot seat as Executive Director in what she calls her “dream job.”
The organization is working on a number of initiatives to help First Nations communities across Canada become greener. These include small things like recycling and composting to larger ventures like their current 18-month plan, “Comprehensive Community Planning Training Program.”
The program was so popular that 40 communities applied, but they only had enough resources to accept six. CIER is working to mobilize these six communities with an integrated long-term plan for every environmental issue they face. They are currently looking for more money from the government to include more communities in future projects.
“In 1994, 10 chiefs were approached by the government to give advice on a couple of environmental initiatives and they realized that they had no technical capacity within their band or community to actually get into the real meat of some of these environmental problems, so they created this organization to deal with some of those capacity issues,” Phare told the Nation.
“We start from a perspective that is very First Nations’ rights oriented. The way you protect your rights is by implementing them. Environmental rights are the same as any other kind in that context. Protecting the environment is an Indigenous right.”
Early on, CIER helped to train community members in environmental issues at the university level. Many communities did not have a representative solely dedicated to the environment. That program lasted six years. Many of those have gone onto Masters degrees, jobs with the government, working for CIER, or have brought their knowledge back to their communities.
“Our current mission is to build capacity in First Nation communities to manage and deal with their environmental issues,” she said. “That ranges from climate change issues to protecting their lands and waters, conserving biodiversity and building sustainable communities.”
CIER is registered as a charity and does not receive any core funding from the government. They do seek grants for various programs from both levels of government and certain foundations. They are in need of a fulltime fundraiser, Phare said, but they have not hired anyone as of yet.
The Centre has implemented more than 100 projects, things like landfill planning, to more broad strokes such as what the First Nation considers their long-term environmental vision and how they are going to get there.
The board is made up entirely of Aboriginals. Phare said about three quarters of the 22-member staff are from First Nation communities.
Over the next five years, CIER will be working on suggestions they gained during a 2003-05 consultation of more than 200 communities. “We asked them about their environmental priorities,” Phare said. “We asked them if they could direct us to help them with what they want to do, what they would need.”
That maneuver helped to set their direction for the next five years on what they should be working on and who was interested in the projects.
CIER recently signed an agreement with the Canadian Boreal Institute to build an Aboriginal Leadership Institute to promote economic development in the boreal forest. They are reimbursing them for time spent on the project; ironically this is the first environmental organization that has given money to CIER since its inception.
Senior climate change manager Shaunna Morgan and her team are searching for seven Advisory Committee members in seven different regions of Canada to help work on climate change impacts and adaptation. She is also working on identifying priority areas for the federal government regarding adaptation for First Nations communities.
Morgan said First Nations communities could be more adversely affected by climate change because it is so closely tied to their way of life. “Because some First Nations still go out and do a lot of hunting, trapping and fishing, climate change in the colder months has had a big effect,” she said.
“I’ve heard stories of people going through the ice with their skidoos. Some people have died going through the ice on the winter roads. The shortening winter road season for those communities that rely on winter roads affect the costs of goods, the amount of time people have to go and purchase goods. It limits the amount of time you can visit family or other communities as well.”
A good way to fight global warming and to curb the use of harmful products that have devastating impacts on the environment would be to take a conscious approach to one’s everyday life.
“I think there are two things we can do,” said Morgan. “I want to focus in on where people use the most energy. The first is transportation.”
Morgan said she could remember when Waskaganish had hardly any cars. Now that has changed since the access road came in a few years ago and the number of cars has increased dramatically. People also walk less, are more obese and have other ailments, all because of the luxury of the automobile.
“When you go to sleep at night or you aren’t in the house, turn the thermostat down,” she suggested. “One problem is when it gets cold, people crank the heat right up, then it gets too hot, so they turn it down and open the window. That’s not good. The elders say take what you need and that’s what it’s about, to take what you need.”
CIER is currently working with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada on a website that provides important information on renewable energy.
Some bands, said Morgan, would greatly benefit from the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
“If you are using diesel or coal, it might be a good alternative to help reduce your own First Nations’ emissions,” she said. “It could also be an economic opportunity if you are close to the transmission grid, you can sell your electricity to a power provider. It’s two-fold. Even if you are in a remote community, the cost of diesel is going to keep rising. So getting off diesel for those communities is an important climate change adaptation.”
Climate change is becoming more and more prevalent within Native circles and it affects the poorest communities and individuals to a much greater degree.
“When you are living below the poverty line you cannot afford to run out and purchase an air conditioner on a very hot day. Longer, hotter summers are predicted for the years to come and with it comes a bigger stress on the really young and the elderly.”
For more information or to find out how the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources can help you and your community, go to www.cier.ca.