Protecting the planet includes protecting the most vulnerable

The Queen’s community discusses the connections between climate activism, capitalism, and anti-racism

Image by: Tessa Warburton
Student activists

This piece uses “Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC)” to refer to the experiences of racialized students. We acknowledge this term is not universal.

Shoshannah Bennett-Dwara, undergraduate student trustee, knows the fight for climate justice goes hand in hand with fighting racism.

“Environmental justice means not only are we advocating for the betterment of the planet, but we have to make sure that we’re advocating for Black lives and POC,” she said in an interview with The Journal. 

We’re in a climate crisis, and it’s going to impact BIPOC in vulnerable communities more harshly than it will privileged white Canadians. Whether it be here in Canada, where Indigenous ways of living are being threatened, or abroad, where a migrant crisis is brewing, it’s time for climate action to include environmental justice. 

Bennett-Dwara explained that, in addition to not having their needs considered in addressing the climate crisis, BIPOC can also be ignored in activist spaces. 

“There are a lot of Black environmentalists, but they are also, at the same time, advocating for their own existence, and it’s hard for them to make time for both things.”

Queen’s Backing Action on Climate Change (QBACC) executive member Jadyn Kuah described environmental justice as “taking an intersectional approach to environmentalism and its issues.”

Kuah recognized how climate activism has historically alienated BIPOC and low-income communities, using white veganism as an example. 

“While we all want to make more sustainable decisions in our own individual lives, we have to recognize that that’s not possible for everyone,” she said.

David McDonald, professor in Global Development Studies, said, “Environmental injustice is the maldistribution of environmental bads as well as access to environmental goods.”

According to McDonald, environmental goods—like clean air and peaceful spaces—are often distributed only to certain communities, while ‘bads’ may manifest themselves more in racialized and Indigenous communities. 

As much as McDonald focuses on environmental injustice, he also tries to focus on creating opportunities around environmental goods. For example, McDonald is camping this weekend, but acknowledges that activity as inaccessible to those outside of the white middle class. 

Karen Lawford, assistant professor in Gender Studies, said “[t]he contributions of Black, Brown, and POC are erased by whiteness, and by the white academy.”

BIPOC in climate activism can be subject to harsh criticism, alienation, and even violence. In 2019, a record number of environmentalists were executed globally. Indigenous people made up 40 per cent of the deaths, despite making up five per cent of the global population.

For Indigenous folks, the Climate Crisis is already here

Indigenous communities in Canada and abroad will be affected by the impending climate crisis in devastating ways—including, but not limited to, disruptions to the food sources of those dependant on hunting, deforestation driving Indigenous folks out of their own land, and glacial melts reducing long-term water supplies. 

“It’s impacting [Indigenous communities] already,” Sharon Clarke, associate director at the Office of Indigenous Initiatives, told The Journal.


“Inuit elders in the North tell us that [climate change] is changing food supply, changing the migration of Caribou. The melting sea ice and permafrost is changing the ability of Inuit to go on the ice.”

The hunting practices, culture, and economic viability of Inuit communities are already being threatened by rapidly melting ice sheets. 

McDonald also said that, in Indigenous communities, tens of thousands of people are still under boil water advisories. 

“It’s shocking that Canada cannot address something as simple as clean, affordable water.”

The reason for this imbalance, according to McDonald, may lie in the foundations of global capitalism. 

“The challenges around global inequality and how people are faced with these kinds of environmental injustices on a daily basis […] is a bigger structural problem around power relationships and big global capital, and who’s calling 

the shots.”

Eleanor MacDonald, department head of Political Studies, said that in the West, a dominant paradigm of property ownership allows people to presume they can take ownership of most things around us—including land and natural resources—which isn’t sustainable. 

“This use of the planet as if it was there for us to make profit from, and in a way that requires for our economy to continue that there be a constant expansion of the use of resources, is going to run up against the limits of the planet’s capacity,” she said.

MacDonald knows that short-term solutions like buying green or locally aren’t adequate in addressing the climate crisis. 

“We’re not [going to] save the world by shopping. We’re [going to] have to actually take a serious look at our own value system and at the longevity of capitalism given the likelihood that it is running into its limits.”

Creating climate solutions may have to involve addressing the structures which are preventing the preservation of communities who will be most impacted by the climate crisis. That will require a significant shift in mindset.

Clarke also said that, to address the climate crisis in a way that will protect all communities, and not just non-Indigenous ones, “we need to refocus and transform our thinking to one of stewardship.” 

“When we think about the environment, we should be thinking seven generations ahead, and I think that’s what people are missing. They’re just thinking about now and taking as much oil or gas or diamonds as they can out of the earth without thinking of what’s [going to] be there seven generations down.”


Climate activism needs to acknowledge racism exists

In 2014, Greenpeace issued an official apology to Inuit for their seal campaigns, which painted the hunting of seals as an inherently evil practice without considering the role and sustainability of seal hunting in the lives of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. 

“I think climate activism needs to acknowledge racism exists. That’s part of the work,” MacDonald said. “We are not all in this together. Yes, all of us are affected by planetary damage […] but we know who is more affected, who is more vulnerable.”

Nick Lorraway, QBACC president, recognizes the presence of racism in Canadian activism, particularly with the tokenization of Indigenous folks, pointing to the common practice of Canadian climate activists using Indigenous rights as a “third point to helping support their arguments.” 

Lorraway saw this during protests against the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, a project which many Indigenous communities across Canada supported. 

Arguments made about pipelines built on Indigenous lands are varied. Projects may bring a loss of sovereignty for Indigenous folks, but they may also bring short-term economic prospects, causing some to believe that the fossil fuel industry is a key part of reconciliation. 

The issue is more complex than that and, for MacDonald, it appears that “Indigenous peoples are being encouraged [by the fossil fuel industry] to begin to look at their land as resources to be exploited and as ways of advancing themselves economically.”

When multinational companies want to build pipelines, they often do so on Indigenous land. Clarke said this practice, which may take advantage of low-income people, threatens Indigenous sovereignty.

“The destruction of lands results in a loss of our ability to steward the land […] The system has been working to tie our hands in many ways, to devalue our contributions, to disconnect us from the land.”

Clarke feels that we should all be wary of how oil and gas companies are actually treating the communities where they carry out their work. 

“When a company comes by and waves money in their faces […] what usually happens is we get the lower-level jobs and the impact on the community is on our health. If there’s going to be [economic] development, we have to do it in a different way.”

Lorraway acknowledged that, on campus, QBACC hasn’t done enough to amplify Indigenous voices or address the needs of Indigenous communities already feeling the impacts of the climate crisis.

“We definitely had a bit of a tunnel vision on divestment. […] We should’ve done more consultation and we should’ve had more BIPOC voices involved in our activism,” he said.

READ MORE: Activists celebrate passage of new climate measures

In an effort to change that, he consulted with Bennett-Dwara early this summer to reform QBACC’s mandate. Those interactions resulted in the creation of the Diversity Advocacy Coalition—a collection of equity-seeking student groups at Queen’s. 

“[T]he purpose of undertaking the creation of the advocacy coalition was to […] lobby and advocate for the changes in policy that best reflect the interests of the QTBIPOC community at Queen’s,” Bennett-Dwara said.

QBACC will act as a facilitator for the group, offering up guidance. Lorraway would like to apply how QBACC operates in other areas of policy to where it may benefit BIPOC-focused initiatives. 

How the Global South pays for western consumerism

North Americans are driving the climate crisis, but that doesn’t mean only vulnerable North American communities will be devastated by it. In the Global South, a term encapsulating developing nations located mostly near the tropics, rising sea levels are leading to deadly floods, famine, and storms—all of which are driving a migrant crisis.

“It’s obviously forced people to move—drought, loss of biodiversity, loss of access to food sources, and incomes,” McDonald said. “Environmental change has altered people’s ability to make a living and produce and reproduce themselves. It’s been a major driver of forced migration.”

Reena Kukreja, assistant professor in Global Development Studies, has been studying the migrant patterns of Bangladeshi men and women. Many in this region of the world are being displaced from their homes as land becomes 

increasingly unlivable. 

“Displacement happens at multiple levels—displacement happens from their land that’s historically belonged to them, displacement happens from livelihood resources, but it also happens from their culture. […] That’s a sense of loss which is irreparable,” she said.

Migrant workers moving within the Global South, as well as to Europe, are more vulnerable to having their labour exploited. Many are undocumented and, as a result, likely to work in subpar conditions. 

Many of the Bangladeshi men Kukreja has spoken to leave their homes due to increased flooding, salination of soil, or unsustainable agriculture, stating that they “wouldn’t have left [their] homes if [their] land were able to sustain [them].” 

Women and girls are uniquely impacted, especially those who are married off after having to leave their communities. Kukreja recounted meeting a marriage broker who specifically sought out women and girls from families impacted by cyclones.  

“People were able to prey on these women and their families and compromise them into accepting such marriages, which displace them totally from their community and support structures.” 

Despite making up only eight per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, the Global South has been pressured to adapt to the effects of climate change through means like changing their agricultural practices or moving away from their native regions. Kukreja would like to see North Americans take more responsibility. 

“Resilience and adaptation are always asked of people who are the most impacted but have the least resources. Why can’t we adapt ourselves here instead?” 

McDonald said the consumption model in the West would benefit from such adaptation. 

“We are massive consumers internationally of things where we’ve put production offshore. We think we don’t produce much pollution through industry but, in fact, we’ve just relocated that industrial pollution.”

Moving forward

“I’m sorry that this is your role at all,” Lawford said, addressing the young people engaging in climate activism. 

“I hope as professors we’re trusting and encouraging the youth enough to do the work that they want to do so when they say ‘this system’s crap’ we go […] ‘Okay, how can we, with our power and knowledge, assist you and work together?’”

Students at Queen’s looking to engage in climate activism have a daunting task in front of them. From here onward, true environmental justice will have to incorporate anti-racism, stewardship, and anti-colonialism. 

Before educating, Lorraway said it’s important for students to understand their own positionality—their status and privilege in relation to the systems around them—before they can advocate solutions that help everyone. 

“It’s easy to get really defensive in this sort of area, because it feels very accusatory a lot of time, but it’s about understanding that it’s about moving forward and making it better for tomorrow.”  

Bennett-Dwara suggested students start with learning about the connections between racism, environmental justice, and climate change.  She recommended first taking a look at the intersectional environmentalist pledge. 

Kuah added there are plenty of available courses on campus—like Introduction to Indigenous Studies, for example—that clarify the context of environmental justice. 

Lawford emphasized this is an effective way to not only get educated but support Black and Indigenous academics. 

“Don’t expect individual people to sit with you and teach you. Pay them, honour their work, and take their courses.”

MacDonald encouraged doing as much self-study as possible, whether it be through reading, attending speaker series, or volunteering. As a starting point, she recommended reading the works of environmentalists such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Val Plumwood, and Leanna Betasamosake Simpson. 

She warned, however, that this shouldn’t keep students from placing high value on the lived experiences of BIPOC. 

“If you are a white student and you are fortunate enough to have been exposed to the powerful and important words of people like James Baldwin or Angela Davis or Martin Luther King Jr., that doesn’t make you the expert on racism. Somebody who’s a racialized person who hasn’t had the benefit of your education doesn’t need you to become the expert on their lives.”

For students looking to educate themselves on anti-colonialism, and practices like thinking ahead seven generations, Clarke recommended looking at the contributions of Indigenous people, rather than just how they’ve been impacted by settlers. 

“Recognize and acknowledge them for showing the way. Despite all the barriers that face Indigenous people, they are stepping forward.”   


climate racism, Colonialism, Indigenous

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