Part A: Stewards of Land
While there is no monolithic Indigenous culture in Canada, some overreaching values are common to most Indigenous communities. This connection is particularly evident in relation to the environment and humanity’s role within it.
Indigenous peoples living in Canada possess a deep and spiritual connection to the land. The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is a national advocacy group representing the interests of First Nations citizens in Canada. The AFN’s Environmental Stewardship Unit explained the First Nations’ perspective on the environment:
The term ‘environment’ from a traditional First Nations’ perspective does not distinguish between humanity and everything else. Humans are part of the environment as much as are the fish, wildlife, air, and trees. Traditionally, First Nations’ use of the land recognized the impact on other species around us and we were respectful of the impact we imposed. We do not view people as the masters of the earth, but merely a part of the delicate balance of the earth’s cycle of life. We are aware that our lives depend on observing and honouring this balance.
(Assembly of First Nations, Environmental Stewardship Unit “Overview of Environmental Issues facing First Nations: Context for Participation in Nuclear Fuel Waste Management Issues (Background Paper) March 31 2005 online: <https://www.nwmo.ca/en/~/media/Site/Files/PDFs/2015/11/04/17/30/406_11-AFN-10.ashx> at 1).
This perspective extends beyond First Nations’ communities, and beyond Canada’s borders. Article 25 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN General Assembly, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: resolution / adopted by the General Assembly 2 October 2007, A/RES/61/295, online: <http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf> [accessed October 25, 2017] [UNDRIP]) enshrines and protects this profound connection to the land for the world’s Indigenous communities:
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.
This connection brings with it a solemn obligation to honour and respect the earth and sustain it for future generations. This responsibility was explained by Shannon MacPhail, an Indigenous community leader, who said “[w]hen you come into this world, you receive a full basket, and it is your obligation to pass a full basket on to the next generation” (Shannon MacPhail, as quoted within Canada, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Building Common Ground: A New Vision for Impact Assessment in Canada, The Final Report of the Expert Panel for the Review of Environmental Assessment Processes (Ottawa: Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, as Represented by the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, 2017) online: < https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/themes/environment/conservation/environmental-reviews/building-common-ground/building-common-ground.pdf> [EA Expert Panel] at 10).
This stewardship obligation must interact with the varied polycentric needs of modern Indigenous communities, and with the reality of resource development. Sustaining the environment does not mean Indigenous people oppose development. Most Indigenous communities seek to be partners in development, while ensuring that methods and projects undertaken respect their connection and obligation to the air, land, and water (MacDonald-Laurier Institute, Protectors of the Land: Towards an EA Process that Works for Aboriginal Communities and Developers, by Bram Noble and Aniekan Udofia (Ottawa: MacDonald-Laurier Institute, October 2015) online: <https://www.macdonaldlaurier.ca/files/pdf/Noble-EAs-Final.pdf> [Protectors of the Land] at 14).