"The future is hotter than my imaginary boyfriend."
“Clean up: It’s our future, not uranus.”
“Why go to school if we don’t have a future?”
The clever and creative signs featured at the Montreal Climate Strike focussed on protecting ‘our future.’ Even the #FridaysForFuture movement, started by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, is about striking now to survive later. This rhetoric, however, can be alienating, especially for Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour (BIPOC). For many individuals, the present day is hotter than any ‘imaginary boyfriend.’ For example: My family lives in Kuwait where it has already reached dangerous temperatures. This summer, the country reached 52.2 degrees Celsius, and 63 degrees Celsius under direct sunlight. Kuwait is one of the hottest places on Earth, and temperatures are only continuing to rise. In this way, many BIPOC are striking for today, not tomorrow.
Indigenous communities in Canada are the most affected by climate change. However, their voices are often left out of the conversation surrounding climate change activism. Although Thunberg’s work is tremendously valuable, she is not the first young activist to demand more of governments. Indigenous youth have been fighting for decades. Autumn Peltier from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory has been advocating for clean water rights since she was eight-years-old. Helena Gualinga from Sarayuku in the Amazon, Quannah Chasinghorse from the Han Gwich’in and Lakota Sioux Nations, and Ta'Kaiya Blaney , actor, musician, and activist from the Tla’amin Nation, are all youth activists who have not received the same accolades as Thunberg.
Since the age of 10, Blaney has been involved with land defence, front-line activism for climate justice, and land sovereignty. She grew up in the mid-2000s during the opposition movement to the Northern Gateway Pipeline , and decided that the survival of sacred areas required Indigenous activism.
Blaney was invited to the Montreal Climate Strike by Indigenous Climate Action as part of an Indigenous youth delegation, which had a section at the front of the march reserved for them. Following the march, Blaney used her Twitter account to call out the climate march for being “one of the most racist protest spaces [she’s] ever been in."
“There were a lot of white folks from various different climate activist groups like Extinction Rebellion, [...who] would very violently try to push past us like [the march] was a concert,” Blaney said. “I assumed [that] they were trying to get photos with Greta.”
Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a climate justice advocacy group that has been criticized for ignoring the class-related, social, and racial aspects of climate change. BIPOC activists have called out the group for focussing on receiving police attention that may endanger BIPOC, disregarding the concerns of working-class citizens, and making racist statements in protest guides; XR released an online prison guide, advising protestors who get arrested to “do yoga,” and stating that "most prison officers are black and do not wish to give you a hard time.”
Despite the Indigenous youth contingent’s reserved place at the front of the march, Blaney felt that many other protestors disrespected her and her team’s space.
“There was just very clear disregard for Indigenous bodies and respect to [our] space that we occupy, and also [our regalia],” Blaney said. “I looked behind me multiple times and people had my regalia in their hands [...] It was an interesting experience having to fight for space the entire time. Also, there were quite a few very violent racial remarks that were made, not just [to me] but [also to] other youth.”
Blaney reported feeling as though she had to protect the youth behind her from the numerous racist sentiments that she heard throughout the day.
“We heard people say, ‘It’s not just your land,’” Blaney said. “I had a bunch of Indigenous youth behind me, and we were all holding hands so I could get them to the front of the march, [but] so many folks would very violently push past us [....] One woman came, [and we told her] that this [space] was for Indigenous youth at the front, but she [said] ‘It’s the people’s space, it’s the people’s march, it’s not the Indigenous march.’”
When Blaney and fellow Indigenous activists decided to take the stage to speak, they had planned to sing the ‘Women’s Warrior,’ a prayer for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people (MMIWG2). However, march security and organizers initially barred them access to the stage.
“I grew up at protests and rallies in the front lines,” Blaney said. “I’ve never been somewhere where a request to share a prayer for MMIWG2 [was denied], and we were told that [our prayer] would break apart the organizing coalition, that it would somehow jeopardize or diminish the work that [organizers] did, [and that] a three-minute prayer would break apart the event somehow.”
Eventually, when an allied youth organizer confronted security, the group took the stage. In addition to the Women’s Warrior, they also shed light on the importance of Indigenous sovereignty by engaging the entire group in a “Land Back” chant. Blaney emphasized the importance of placing BIPOC issues at the forefront of climate activism.
“When you mobilize people around climate, [without acknowledging] intersections of racial justice, Indigenous sovereignty, and how climate change disproportionately and most profoundly impacts BIPOC communities [...] then [what organizers] have done is mobilize white supremacists,” Blaney said. “You mobilize people who aren’t willing to question colonialism or any of those structures that are actually responsible for climate change. It’s greenwashing of white supremacy.”
Greenwashing is a commonly used term in climate change rhetoric which refers to the act of parading small individual environmentalist activities which then distract from larger, systemic human rights issues. Haneen Eldiri, U4 Arts, is involved with Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR). Eldiri attended the climate march to hand out flyers for SPHR, which addressed reported greenwashing in Israel.
“I think the organizers did a spectacular job of making sure it was a respectful environment to the extent that they could,” Eldiri said. “[....] But, I was giving out flyers for SPHR, and people were really rude. One person crumbled it and threw it on the floor [....] like, can I have that back? It’s a waste of paper, it’s a climate march.”
Israel has one of the largest per-capita ecological footprints, ranking in the top 20 per cent worldwide in 2016, and its policies have led to environmental degradation, such as the destruction of olive trees by settlers, industries creating air pollution , and massive weapons exporting. Maia Salameh, U3 Arts, is also a member of SPHR, and was handing out the same flyers.
“Most of us walked out after a couple of hours,” Salameh said. “[The march] wasn’t the type of climate that we necessarily felt we were welcome in."
Eldiri worried that protestors would leave with a false sense of accomplishment. She pointed out that, for many privileged people, it is easy to support a climate strike with over 500,000 in attendance. For smaller, grassroots causes where more work has to be done, such as anti-pipeline protests or police brutality, allies are less likely to turn out.
“I walked away with the ugly feeling that many people who went will [pride themselves] for having engaged in climate justice,” Eldiri said. “Climate change is part of a much bigger system and until there’s [the same turnout] to protests for the rights of marginalized peoples, including Palestinian rights and Indigenous rights, climate justice isn’t going to happen.”
Dona* is a spoken-word artist, facilitator, and National Program Coordinator for a youth organization that builds people's capacity to work accross difference. She has been community organizing for years, specifically for BIPOC who identify as women and-or femmes. Dona also attended the climate march. While she appreciated the turnout, creativity, and energy of the protestors, she felt that the march still had a long way to go before being intersectional.
“Black, Indigenous, and racialized youth have been standing at the front lines and speaking out about [climate change] for a really long time, and have not received similar accolades [as Thunberg],” Dona said. “Whether they’re youth or not, the activists, land and water protectors, that stand up for the land often are BIPOC at the front lines [...and] often [silenced, ignored] killed or murdered for [speaking up.]”
Canadian activists cannot single out climate issues from each other, choosing the ones that fit their own personal interests and ignoring others. For instance, activists often focus on consumerism-related topics. Instead, activists should educate themselves on the international realities of climate change.
“The United States military is [one of] the biggest polluters in the world right now,” Salameh said. “Military occupation of places like Kashmir and Palestine, where countries literally dump their waste in the West Bank and Gaza [....] Our societies, especially the United States where the military spends [over 600 billion] dollars every year, this exacerbates already existing climate [issues] when they bomb areas like Yemen, Somalia, East Africa, and the Middle East.”
The United States military are one of the largest polluters in history. Military plane exhaust, fuel costs, waste from bombs, the weapons-manufacturing industry’s pollution, and the rapid exhaustion of natural resources each factor into the climate crisis and humanitarian crises all around the world.
Growing up in Kuwait, much of the pollution I witnessed was a result of war. Visiting my family in Syria, Egypt, or Lebanon, I witnessed the environmental consequences of drone strikes, foreign intervention, and warfare. I remember growing up going to parks in Damascus that have been completely wiped out; I witnessed the Kuwaiti government issuing a camping warning, since much of the desert has not been cleared of mines yet; I would go swimming at Messilah beach, and step out of the water covered in oil residue from a spill.
If climate march protesters move to better understand and include BIPOC voices and activists, climate activism will take a necessary step forward. Although groups like XR have been criticized in the past, other organizations, such as on-campus groups like Climate Justice Action McGill (C-JAM), have been trying to collaborate with human rights groups like SPHR in order to adopt a more intersectional and multi-faceted approach to climate justice. Salameh feels as though CJAM and SPHR’s collaboration is a good example of inclusive climate activism.
“Historically at McGill, climate groups have been rather [exclusive] and focused very specifically on climate issues, and SPHR is trying to be more active in forming alliances with CJAM, especially this year,” Salameh said. “CJAM has done a good job of reaching out to other groups for [involvement and participation].”
Salameh believes that mainstream climate activism should abandon future-focused rhetoric and instead address current climate change issues facing BIPOC.
“Mainstream climate activism tends to focus on the future in a lot of ways,” Salameh said. “But, I don’t believe that, for [BIPOC] and the ‘third world’ climate disasters are already [apparent….For example], in Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of people have already been displaced due to floods that happened in July [...] in Iran, there’s been climate refugees coming into Tehran due to [high heat] and unlivable situations [...] in the West, it’s been all about this movement towards our future threat. But, the present threat isn’t [addressed].”
In order for climate justice activists to take a more inclusive approach, activists must educate themselves on international Indigenous issues and continue to prioritize Indigenous voices.
“[It starts by] educating oneself on the climate issues around the world, not just here in Canada,” Salameh said. “A lot of the leaders we see during the climate march were non-Indigenous, and that’s a mistake, and that’s a violent [disregard] for all the work that’s been done by Indigenous people.”
For Eldiri, it is important that climate justice activists address systemic issues.
“The environmental crisis is a symptom of so much more,” Eldiri said. “If you’re only trying to solve the symptom without getting to the root causes, what are you really accomplishing?”
Indigenous activists have been putting in the work for generations and therefore should be at the core of the movement.
“As someone who has grown up around grassroots Indigenous organizing, the rallies I grew up around had my aunties there, [and] it would be Indigenous-led,” Blaney said. “Because when you talk about the future of lands, you have to talk about Indigenous peoples, because these are Indigenous lands [....] Climate change is a colonialism problem.”
*Surname has been omitted to protect the privacy of the source and her organization.