“As long as the environment becomes an issue,” said Kanesatake activist Ellen Gabriel, “people will become slowly educated into understanding that if the land is being attacked, we are being attacked as Indigenous people – because our identity is tied to the land.”
Gabriel was participating in a press event ahead of the Montreal screening of Avi Lewis’ documentary This Changes Everything, about Naomi Klein’s book of the same name, at Concordia University’s Cinema Politica. The event served as an opportunity to promote the Leap Manifesto, a document calling for a more progressive Canada that Lewis and Klein were instrumental in organizing. The Leap Manifesto demands a variety of changes in the way Canada behaves economically, ecologically and socially – particularly with regard to its Indigenous nations.
In May, Gabriel and other Indigenous leaders, activists and thinkers were invited to join labour activists and other left-wing organizers in a series of discussions that led to the Manifesto. That document calls, in part, for full implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, priority public funding for clean-energy projects in Indigenous communities, the scrapping of existing free-trade deals and a minimum income for all Canadians.
Gabriel was among the first to sign the document, which has since been signed by thousands of people, including Cree Mrs. Universe Ashley Callingbull, authors Thomas King and Joseph Boyden, Lubicon activist Melina Laboucan-Massimo, and Idle No More organizer Clayton Thomas-Muller – along with huge non-Indigenous names like Pamela Anderson, Leonard Cohen, David Suzuki, Alanis Morissette and members of Arcade Fire.
“It was a mixture of Indigenous people and civil society organizations, and we talked about how we could support one another,” Gabriel said of the talks. “It’s interesting that they’ve put forward the promotion of Indigenous people’s collective human rights and self-determination, and acknowledged us as constantly being on the frontlines. There needs to be a time in Canadian history when respect and justice for Indigenous peoples happens. Maybe this is the movement that will start it, or maybe it’ll be the genesis of other movements that will also come together and support a planet where we are no longer a plague on Mother Earth.”
Klein noted that many of the Indigenous thinkers invited to participate in the discussion – such as Russ Diabo, Arthur Manuel and Crystal Lameman – were those who had risen to prominence fighting pipelines and fossil-fuel extraction, and that the causes of Indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice are closely linked.
“Caretaking of the land and one another was the theme that came out most strongly,” Klein said of the Manifesto. “That’s the framework of the document, the idea that it begins with respecting the original caretakers of this land, the water, the air – that’s the foundation from which everything else flows. I think that’s a big reason why the document is resonating with people.”
For too long, she underlined, progressive activists only became interested in Indigenous nations when they served as their foot soldiers in environmental battles, and too often ignored Indigenous needs as soon as the war was finished – leaving those on the frontlines feeling abandoned.
Klein recalls visiting Phillip Whiteman, Jr. at his home in the Northern Cheyenne reservation of Lame Deer, Montana, which sits on top of one of the largest un-mined beds of coal left in the world. Whiteman and his family and community have been fighting attempts to mine that coal for decades.
“By the time I first went there in 2010 Whiteman said, ‘I just can’t keep asking my people to suffer with me,’” she said. “It’s really about that – the problem of only saying no [to extraction] and not having support for giving Indigenous communities resources to have something to say yes to.”