The following is a reflection of my experiences – as a 2-Spirit person of Nêhiyawak, Anihšināpē, Scottish, and Sicilian descent from occupied Treaty 4 territory – during December’s Tio’tia:ke – Mooniyang – (Montréal) Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), otherwise known as COP15. I was invited by the Arctic Youth Network to attend the fifteenth meeting of the once-in-a-decade United Nations-led opportunity to develop global action plans to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by the end of the current decade.
It was my first time attending a United Nations conference despite watching them from afar for years. While I have personally opted to support direct action for Indigenous Peoples’ reoccupation of our traditional territories, often in direct opposition to extractive industry and colonial violence, I also recognize the need for us as Indigenous Peoples to occupy central governing bodies like CBD as well.
Our actions in each field support the effectiveness of others. Universal frameworks, like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in conjunction with the power stemming from the resurgence of traditional Indigenous governance systems is what will deliver material transfers of power. We are beginning to see the results of these cohesive movements in the legal sector with, for example, the recent British Columbia Blueberry Treaty decision, where it was found the Province had infringed upon Blueberry River’s Treaty 8 rights due to the cumulative impacts of decades of industrial development.
From what I witnessed during COP15, there is both bad and good news for those of us defending our lands, waters, and air.
I must emphasize the critical importance I feel as a 2-Spirit person, as someone Indigenous that exists beyond colonial binaries of gender and sexuality, in leading a truly Just Transition and queering sovereignty for Indigenous Peoples.
I believe that we as 2-Spirit peoples, alongside all marginalized peoples, have inherent and learned wisdom that has been suppressed by the same colonialist and capitalist systems, whose violent leadership has led us to this time of crisis within our nations and all of creation.
Since contact with colonial society, systems of cis-sexism have been forced on our communities in order to subvert our sovereignty. Land Back not only requires the dismantling of all systems of oppression, but that we as 2-Spirit peoples resume our historical and future-dependent roles of leadership.
Opening Ceremony – Indigenous Resistance & Colonial Repression
It didn’t take long before I witnessed Black, Indigenous, and 2-Spirit youth take the lead during the opening ceremony of COP15. These youth made loud and clear to the world their condemnation of colonialism and the central role it plays in biodiversity loss with songs and a banner which read, “Indigenous Genocide = Ecocide – To save biodiversity, stop invading our lands – Colonialism can’t save you.” The packed plenary erupted immediately in cheers from delegates and guests gathered from around the world, only to witness the immediate physical removal of those youth.
As reported, Black, Indigenous, and 2-Spirit youth intervened in the Canadian Prime Minister’s opening speech with drumming and anti-colonial songs. He stood silently before quickly collecting himself and grinning with what I would describe as the smugness of second-generation Prime Ministerial privilege and entitlement. While waiting briefly for security personnel to quickly remove the voices of youth bearing their ancestral obligations to future generations, the Prime Minister ironically continued the opening remarks by commenting on the freedom of speech afforded to them.
The hypocrisy of highlighting free speech while simultaneously forcibly removing Indigenous peoples for speaking about colonialism seemed to be completely lost on the Canadian leader.
To add to the trauma inflicted on the 2-Spirit, Black, and Indigenous youth, UN security attempted to remove the conference badges of the youth in order to prevent their return. The youth found themselves having to flee from this disciplinary action, thereby forcing them out of the conference center and into the streets outside where the Montreal police were waiting, evidently to harass them.
This was where my first-hand account became second-hand because the youth were forced to leave so quickly that I could not keep up with them without running after, leaving the plenary. By all accounts, the police initially attempted to detain the youth while surrounding them with officers on horses before deciding to instead follow the youth to their hotel. Montreal police surrounded the hotel entrance where they continued to remain for some time. The youth had committed no crime besides daring to upset the colonial, capitalist social fabric and for that were treated as criminals.
Sii-am Hamilton, whose Stó:lō and Nuučaan̓uuɫɁatḥ traditional territories are currently occupied by British Columbia, was among the youth land defenders who documented the encounter over Instagram of the groups outside detainment.
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According to Future Cities Canada, Indigenous nations across Canada, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe Nations (the stewards of Tio’tia:ke – Mooniyang- Montréal), have asserted their sovereign jurisdictions over their lands since time immemorial and have not relinquished this jurisdiction to Canada, or to instruments of the settler government such as the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM).
From this experience, I was reminded of the forced relocation of Indigenous peoples to reservations in an occupation of land and destabilization of local governing systems to allow for unfettered resource extraction, war profiteering and military actions. The historical role of policing institutions like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in my own region of Treaty 4 in Saskatchewan, and similarly with colonial policing institutions around the world, has been to violently remove and relocate Indigenous peoples from our territories. I’m convinced that this ongoing violence is done in order for capital owners and colonial governments to be able to exploit resources and labour unabated.
This experience would prove to be a prescient metaphor for the lack of support afforded to Indigenous-led solutions to biodiversity loss and climate action.
The Prime Minister of Canada announced on the same day of the youth’s demonstration that the federal government will spend up to $800 million over seven years to support four major Indigenous-led conservation projects. Compare that federal spending over seven years with the budget of Montreal’s police for one year, and Canada’s commitment begins to pale in comparison. Meanwhile, SPVM’s budget of $787 million in 2023 is significantly more than that of Indigenous-led solutions to the climate crisis. Alternatively, a more revealing comparison is Canada’s total military expenditures, which are forecast to increase from $36.3 billion in 2022-23 to $51.0 billion in 2026-27.
Canada’s contribution to the most effective solution to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, that being Land Back in the care of traditional Indigenous governance systems, is a petty display of vast wealth stolen from the abundance created by Indigenous peoples prior to colonization.
The fact that an entire nation’s commitment to one of the greatest threats to our existence is comparable to the budget of one police force would be laughable if the need for effective action was not so dire.
The policing of the youth and Canada’s announcement were combined with the intermittent closure of the conference center to participants during the day by the Montreal police due to, what I suspect, was their fears that the coalition of anti-capitalist and ecological activists gathered outside might enter the conference center. The way SVPM conducted themselves made it abundantly clear that the historical role of policing, as a way to bolster the systems of stolen wealth & labourF established by elites and capital owners, was intended to be maintained.
Okay, remember when I said there is good news? We’ll get to that, but first we must understand the bad news.
What’s Imperialism got to do with it?
The role of settler colonial nation-states in biodiversity loss cannot be ignored. Through military invasion, policing and a policy of starvation the usurping of Indigenous sovereignty was instigated. Settler activities resulted in the near extinction of bison in my own ancestral territories. The decimating effects of these actions on biodiversity and Indigenous sovereignty persist to this day.
The annual crops and pump jacks that cover North American prairies are destroying grasslands essential for storing excess carbon in the atmosphere.
The carbon released with the destruction of grasslands and the consumption of oil is contributing significantly to the destabilization of the world’s climate regions like the Arctic.
The devastating effects of climate chaos and biodiversity loss being experienced by frontline Arctic, Coastal, and Island communities as well as the global south are being driven primarily by oil and gas industries. Enbridge’s Line 3 is an oil sands pipeline that now stretches across my homelands. It represents the expansion of the world’s most carbon-intensive large-scale crude oil operations.
The oil sands operations in northern Alberta is an ongoing war of colonialism. Established in the 1970’s under former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s administration, the Alberta oil sands were developed largely in part to secure an energy source for the US military. For the past two decades, Canada has been the primary resource of crude oil for the US and its military, which accounts for most of the US government’s fuel burned, and is the single largest institutional consumer of oil globally.
To achieve a truly biodiverse and just future, land, water, and air used for resource extraction, war profiteering and military destabilization in Canada and around the world must be radically reimagined.
Youth Social – Sharing Our Stories and Joy
The good news is that Black, Indigenous, 2-Spirit, and disabled peoples have and continue to lead the way forward. Youth were invited by the Kahnawá:ke Youth Climate Collective – Iakwatonhontsanonstats the night before the march for biodiversity. The contemporary community of Kahnawá:ke that has sustained itself on its rich cultural history extended a warm welcome to Indigenous youth who had come to COP15 all the way from the Arctic to the Amazon.
With our bellies full of corn soup and strawberry water we listened to traditional teachings from our hosts from Kahnawá:ke. In particular, a story stuck out about how we now find ourselves in disordered relationships with all of creation.
The story teaches us how we forgot about our ways of being in relationship with the rest of life after our ways were destroyed and stolen from us. We have also been distracted by shiny things. A parallel was drawn between this teaching and what was occurring during COP15. This institution welcomes the leaders of government and industry that are the most responsible for biodiversity loss, ecocide and Indigenous genocide, while those of us on the frontlines manifesting our relationships with the world have to fight for our voices to be heard.
The night continued with our hosts sharing traditional songs and dances. Delegations of Indigenous youth from Arctic, Coastal, Island, Prairie and South American communities shared our gratitude to our hosts and traditional songs and dances from our own Nations. The songs, dances and stories shared were a reminder of the gifts left to us by our ancestors’ relationships with our lands, air, waters, and the web of life. With this, we strengthened our bonds and filled one another’s hearts with joy.
March for Biodiversity & Human Rights – Indigenous Leadership in Action
The next day, in spite of the freezing weather, thousands of people came together to march for the protection of global biodiversity and human rights. The sun greeted us fully as we packed our shoes, gloves and every pocket we had with medicines for protection and hand warmers. Yet, what kept us warm that day more than anything, was the fire burning in our hearts yearning for a liberated future, and the warmth of many kind eyes.
The anti-capitalist and environmental groups that had been marching earlier in the week joined as Indigenous peoples led the march through the streets of occupied Tio’tia:ke – Mooniyang – (Montréal). A delegation of Indigenous youth of the Tla’amin, Xwemalhkwu, Xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Huu-ay-at, Gitxsan, and Dakelh Nations, whose lands are currently occupied by western Canada, guided us as the sounds of their drums filled the air between cold concrete buildings. They were joined by Kichwa Sarayaku women whose dancing led us in joy.
Behind them, Indigenous peoples, from local Haudensaunee and Anishnaabe to Papuans from across the world, moved together behind one banner as we 2-Spirit peoples lead us forward with our songs and fiery chants. Our leadership that day and every other day has and will be essential in protecting global biodiversity and human rights.
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Closing – The Bonds We Make Will Save Us
The COP 15 concluding Kunming-Montreal agreement officially recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ work, knowledge, innovations and practices as the most effective tool for biodiversity protection. We now have the long-term work ahead of us, required of all people, in living and supporting our practices. While Indigenous peoples have maintained 80% of the remaining biodiversity in spite of historic and ongoing genocide, we cannot be the world’s saviours.
We need our allies and accomplices to work towards removing the violent forces in the way of traditional Indigenous governance.
We require the full and immediate dismantling of systems of policing that criminalize us for protecting our territories as well as the military-industrial complex, which is a leading contributor of carbon emissions, particularly the militaries of G20 Nations. This campaign must also include pressuring nation-states like Canada that shelter three quarters of the world’s mining companies from litigation domestically and internationally.
The failure to meet the past decade’s goals for biodiversity protection should come as no surprise as in that time we’ve only seen the increase of fossil fuel subsidies, police and military budgets by capitalist governments. This destruction has only been accelerated by the rise of right-wing political movements that naturally have no interest in effectively addressing the climate crisis and biodiversity protection. Said movements are financed largely by private interests and extractive industries in order to remove legal protections, regulations and labour laws, and do not recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples in impactful ways.
It should also come as no surprise that the next COP to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 28) will be hosted by the United Arab Emirates. This country, made wealthy by its role as a global driver of oil & gas exports and notorious for human rights abuses, will join a history of host countries prepared to suppress resistance to the status quo. In its place we must establish our vision for collective liberation.
As I saw first-hand, the bonds between Indigenous peoples continue to strengthen. These are bonds between those of us whose traditional territories are occupied in North America, the Amazon and the circumpolar Arctic where many extractive companies operate.
It’s important that those of us in the populated regions of the global north share the voices of those impacted by these companies that find shelter from facing their crimes in the global south and across the Arctic.
May our bonds be their end. May the bonds between all peoples marginalized by colonization, imperialism, white supremacy and capitalism be the end of all systems of oppression. May our bonds move us towards a just transition led by Black, Indigenous, 2-Spirit, Trans, Disabled, poor, women, youth and all otherwise marginalized peoples.