Wildfires: Wake-up call for climate change action, transformative reconciliation | Nick Leeson

By Nick Leeson

Law360 Canada (August 22, 2023, 10:04 AM EDT) --
Nick Leeson
Nick Leeson
The situation in Yellowknife, one of Canada’s largest sub-Arctic cities, is a nightmare unfolding. Authorities have evacuated the entire population, an unparalleled situation in its history.  As an Indigenous rights lawyer, the significance of this crisis for our legal system, environment and relationship with the land is not lost on me. As we endure another record-breaking wildfire season, we must face the devastation and recognize the urgency of unified action.

Turtle Island’s record-breaking battle with fire

Flames consume vast stretches of the Canadian landscape, threatening and besieging not only the capital city of the Northwest Territories but also causing evacuations in Dettah, N’dilo, Lytton, Adams Lake, West Kelowna and other surrounding areas. These ferocious fires symbolize the horrors that climate change can unleash. It’s not merely trees and structures in the path of destruction; it’s an entire way of life at risk.

As a former Yellowknifer, it’s painful to witness the agony of the land that once nourished and nurtured us. Temperatures soared this summer to an unimaginable 37.4 degrees Celsius near the Arctic Circle, shattering all previous records. And these evacuations, while necessary for safety, have transformed bustling communities into ghost towns. This is not some dystopian fantasy. This is our present and, without concerted actions and change, a frightening glimpse into our future.

Unprecedented climate change: Our new normal

Wildfires are nothing new for Canada; they are a natural cycle of boreal forests and beneficial for the ecosystem. But the recent horrors are something altogether different. The frequency and intensity — with over 5,000 raging this year from Yukon to Quebec — is uncharted, previewing what may become our new normal. The land is changing, and with it, our way of life. The escalating cycles of destruction are as clear as they are concerning.

We’re seeing higher average temperatures, drier vegetation, extended fire seasons and a deeply disturbed ecosystem crying out for attention. Climate change drives this escalation, according to the scientific community. And it’s an escalation that can no longer be ignored.

Less than two weeks ago, Lahaina, Maui, was hit with the deadliest wildfire in modern North American history, with over 100 dead and thousands missing.This is not merely a Canadian problem but a global emergency. Our response must be equally broad and decisive.

Shared legacy: Colonialism’s fire, Indigenous resilience

In the shadow of two catastrophic wildfire events, one in the far reaches of Canada and the other on the idyllic island of Maui, Hawaii, the threads of Indigenous identity, land rights and cultural preservation intertwine. These fires are not just environmental calamities; they are a searing indictment of the enduring consequences of colonialism on Indigenous peoples.

This wildfire season marks the most active and destructive in modern North American history. As smoke chokes the skies and flames devour the land, tens of thousands of people are displaced, wildlife is uprooted, and entire ecosystems stand on the brink of devastation. But the inferno reveals a deeper truth: it exposes a long-standing history of injustice and displacement.

In Canada, where most citizens reside within 100 miles of the U.S.A. border, insulated urban dwellers often remain removed from the fires’ immediate effects, while isolated Indigenous communities — with their minimal contribution to carbon emissions — bear the brunt of the catastrophe.

The recent wildfires in Hawaii reveal a similar disparity, with Native Hawaiians suffering most. Meanwhile, tourists continue to flock to the vibrant islands and opportunistic developers eye burned properties and seek to swoop in to profit in the face of tragedy. This only furthers displacement. In Canada, the disproportionate impact on Indigenous peoples (over 40 per cent of wildfire evacuees, though they are less than five per cent of the population), mirrors this pattern of inequality.

In both places, the disproportionate impact on Indigenous peoples reflects grave inequality, expected to rise with climate change.

Rediscovering Indigenous wisdom: The pathway to resilience

In both Canada and Hawaii, the cultural and environmental devastation wrought by wildfires is linked to a history of colonialism that has shaped the land and marginalized its original stewards. Colonial policies, such as outlawing controlled burns since 1874 in Canada, caused the loss of traditional practices essential for maintaining healthy forests.

Yet amidst the devastation, a beacon of wisdom and resilience shines — Indigenous communities. Their voices, rich with centuries of knowledge, offer not just a path back to harmony but a profound insight into sustainable land management and wildfire control.

Traditional Indigenous practices, such as controlled burns and an intimate relationship with the land, are not mere tactics; they are philosophies and ways of life that can guide us back to equilibrium. Once recognized, partnerships with Indigenous communities can pave the way to more sustainable solutions.

Banning cultural burning practices in the late 19th century symbolizes the suppression of this essential wisdom. As the world grapples with the climate crisis, we must understand that recovery from these wildfires means more than combating climate change; it must recognize the legal rights of Indigenous peoples, elevate Indigenous leadership and restore control of cherished lands to those who hold them most dear.

Climate solutions with justice at the core

The wildfire crises unmask a shared global problem and illuminate the need to address not just the environmental consequences but also the broader social, legal and cultural implications behind them. The devastation shines a spotlight on our collective failures in caring for the Earth and respecting the rights of its original stewards.

The wildfires show how sidelining Indigenous practices can have long-lasting effects on culture and environment. Indigenous communities, with their deep connection to the land and centuries of wisdom, offer pathways to healing. Traditional Indigenous methods, such as controlled burns, are critical to restoring the land. Collaborative efforts involving Indigenous communities in policy-making, recognizing traditional practices and focusing on sustainable development are vital. By embracing Indigenous leadership, we can address not just the wildfires but the underlying malaise that fuels them.

Plea for unity and action: A path forward

These flames can be seen from space. They have scorched enough of our lands to cover the entire nation of Bulgaria or Nicaragua. There will be scars beyond physical devastation. But in the wake of this nightmare, we must hear the cry for urgency, unity and transformative reconciliation. Calls for Indigenous involvement are growing louder, recognizing that restoration of cultural burning practices and Indigenous Guardians could be part of the solution.

Our current situation forces us to confront the fact that climate change isn’t something happening in distant lands. We are experiencing it here, in the global North. We are becoming climate refugees in our own land.

For families like mine, who have deep connections to places like Denendeh, the pain goes beyond material loss. It’s about losing a part of our identity and a place we call home. Yet, we must use this pain to inspire action. Together, we must heed this call, for the path forward starts with justice at its core.

The time for reflection has passed; the time for action is now. Now, more than ever, Canada must embrace the wisdom of its Indigenous peoples.

If you feel inspired to act, please do. Below are some ways to join the fight for a better, fairer future:

  • Climate policy alignment: Push for a stronger commitment to the Paris Agreement, reduce emissions and respect our people and lands. Vote for policies and politicians who take these issues seriously.
  • Indigenous collaboration: Engage with Indigenous communities in co-creating solutions. Their voices are armed with the wisdom of the ages and the urgency of the moment. They remind us that the land and its people are unified.

Federal ministers, scientists, environmentalists and above all, Indigenous leaders must unite. The terrifying reflection of a world out of balance must be the catalyst that ignites our collective action, guided by wisdom, collaboration and profound respect for the land that sustains us.

Donate, volunteer, respect: These are immediate needs. Respect the evacuation orders. Support those displaced and follow the guidance of our brave firefighters. Give, if you can.

But don’t stop there. Tomorrow and into the future, your action means voting, educating yourself and others, and supporting a shift in how we approach our world. Embrace a philosophy that recognizes the sacred interconnectedness of all life. Be a part of a movement that doesn’t merely react to disasters but works proactively to nurture our Earth and our relationships with one another.

The year 2023 might be a tipping point for climate change and our response. If it is, let it be the year we rise to the challenge, leaning on Indigenous wisdom, contemporary research and legal and moral imperatives to find a path forward.

Author’s note: My thoughts are with all those affected by the wildfires, especially the residents of the N.W.T. where my family lived for a decade and the birthplace of all three of my young children. The strength and resilience of our community will see us through this crisis. #LiferKnifer #NWTStrong.
Nick Leeson is a senior counsel with Woodward & Company LLP, a law firm located in Victoria, B.C. and Whitehorse, Yukon. His practice is based out of British Columbia, from where he represents Indigenous clients and interests from coast-to-coast-to-coast.  

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, LexisNexis Canada, Law360 Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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