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What is Climate Feminism — and Why Indigenous Women Should Lead the Solutions

a woman's hand holding up a cardboard sign that reads 'There is No Planet B'
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Picture walking through a birch forest in the full blaze of autumn, or walking through a meadow of chest-high wildflowers, or trekking through a jungle teeming with lush, tangled plants. Imagine the feeling of stress melting away when you feel grass on your bare feet.

Nature is sick. Like, really sick. Our environment is in turmoil.

The effects of climate change in Canada are varied: coastal erosion, heat waves, smog episodes, disease hotbeds, storm surges, landslides, snowstorms, hail, drought and floods. What I call ‘Revelations vibes.’

Canada remains one of the world’s biggest per capita carbon polluters, falling far short of meeting climate mitigation goals under the Paris Agreement. A 2021 report from the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices revealed that as many as 800,000 jobs are at risk if Canada fails to catch up to the rest of the world in shifting to a low-carbon global economy.

A recent study on gender and climate change from the European Journal of Political Economy has concluded that increasing female representation in parliament results in countries adopting more stringent and ambitious climate change policies.

Understanding that only 27 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons belong to women, 19.5 per cent of the board members for Canada’s top 500 companies are comprised of women, and just 8.5 per cent of the highest-paid positions in Canada’s top 100 listed companies are held by women, it would not be an exaggeration to say that an overhaul of the system to include more female representation would be a radical change.

To understand this issue in full, we break down eco-feminism, intersectional environmentalism and chat with Lynne Groulx, CEO of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), and member of Metis Nation Ontario.

See also: 10 young Indigenous women leading the way for the next generation.

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What is climate feminism?

Historically, dialogues around climate justice have excluded almost all narratives of the communities who are most impacted by environmental issues. Because social inequalities have the largest negative impact on vulnerable communities, climate injustice has been especially detrimental to women.

UN figures indicate 80 per cent of people displaced by climate change are women. It’s estimated that 60 per cent of chronically hungry people are women and girls. In the event of a natural disaster, women’s and children’s risk of death is said to be 14 times higher compared to men. In urban centres, and globally, women are more likely to experience PTSD, mental health disorders, poverty and are generally slower to recuperate from disasters due to their lower socio-economic status. Patriarchal societal structures mean women primarily carry the burden of domestic tasks, childcare and general discrimination (including objectification, sexualization and restricted access to resources and education).

Eco-feminism is a branch of feminism that examines this connection between women and nature. It combines feminism and environmentalism in an attempt to tackle oppression in tandem with climate injustice.

Eco-feminism is a branch of feminism that examines this connection between women and nature.

Intersectional environmentalism is a concept derived from the work of Black feminist lesbian organization the Combahee River Collective, and was progressed by Black legal scholar Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. It identifies the ways in which climate change impacts individuals and groups differently based on where they are situated within societal power structures, with gender, ethnicity, race, socio-economic status, sexual identity, age and location all being determining factors.

See also: 10 accidental microaggressions you might be making everyday.

Environmentalism through an intersectional lens calls for justice for the people as well as the planet, while eco-feminism demands justice for women who have been inordinately affected by climate change.

When we layer these two lenses over top of one another in our view of this problem, our focus is further narrowed to a much, much deeper issue: Black and Indigenous women have experienced the impacts of climate change disproportionately for generations.

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What the Indigenous female perspective can offer climate protection policies

Indigenous women in Canada have been leaders in conserving the environment long before eco-feminism was a thing. Indigenous tradition carries an inherent awareness about our environment. Living in synergy with the Earth supersedes any ambition for “progress” (by the Western definition.) Their knowledge and unique experiences in fighting climate change is crucial to understanding the intersectionality of the global climate crisis.

I spoke with Lynne Groulx, CEO of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), to discuss the organization’s first-hand groundwork activism in this area, and about how elevating Indigenous female voices to decision-making levels of parliament could radically improve Canada’s approach to the climate crisis.

I asked Groulx, bluntly, what is different about the way Indigenous communities approach the climate crisis. Groulx warned me that she was going to get philosophical, so naturally my ear holes expanded three sizes. “Indigenous women are protectors of the Earth. It is our duty,” she responds.

Related: Indigenous-owned businesses to support across Canada.

She references New Zealand and Bolivia, where the people have given human rights to mountains and rivers. “We consider nature to have equal rights because we live from the earth. The earth doesn’t need us, we need it. That consciousness, that realization, that spiritual connection is very, very deep in Indigenous people.”

Groulx also says our practices of putting garbage in the right place, reducing use of plastic bottles, bringing reusable bags to the grocery store — these are all well and good, but what’s missing is a more philosophical perspective that is intuitive to Indigenous culture. “If you had to boil it down to one word, it’s respect,” she says.

Indigenous women are protectors of the Earth. It is our duty.

She explains that women are inherently educators about the environment within the Indigenous community. “Indigenous women consider this as part of our role,” she says. “It is important to men as well, but we all say ‘Mother’ Earth, don’t we?”

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When asked what impact she thinks having more Indigenous female representation in parliament would do to climate change-mitigation policies, she responds, “If they brought more women into finding the solutions I don’t think we would be where we are.” She explains that she believes the female approach to education is more impactful.

“Women put ideas not just in people’s minds, but in their hearts. Intellectually, we can all absorb the science, but women have the gift of empathy. I think having more women in parliament would bring more kindness, more love, understanding, respect and emotion. Decisions that are made just based on intellect and fact are not necessarily going to be the right decision. Decision-making has to be balanced between the head and the heart. We’re human beings, we’re not machines. And the earth is not a machine either.”

See also: 10 Indigenous beauty brands to buy from.

The Canadian government does not support the Indigenous community’s efforts to mitigate climate change
“Climate change is not a one-off project,” Groulx states. She cites that the main problems Indigenous women encounter when trying to push environmental protection agendas is insufficient and unstable government funding. Often the Canadian government will fund short-term, band-aid solutions, which are unsustainable.

Women put ideas not just in people’s minds, but in their hearts.

Unstable government funding has thwarted more than just climate change mitigation initiatives. Initial funding to investigate the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was halted prematurely. “As soon as the MMIWG report came out and the government saw it, the funding ended, and they never funded it again,” Groulx reveals.

It’s worth noting that MMIWG activity includes investigating the 751 unmarked graves found at the former residential school in Saskatchewan earlier this year. “We’re working on a genocide and we’re not funded for it.”

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Groulx’s role as CEO of NWAC often includes lobbying for policy changes at the parliamentary level. Being privy to overarching conversations about environmental protection, I asked her what she has observed. “There’s a lack of political will,” she says. I asked her who is responsible for the lack of will. She responds, “Who’s destroying? Who’s exploiting? And who has been in the positions of power?” Telling questions.

Groulx believes that the lack of female representation means crucial opinions are not being weighed in Canada’s decision-making process. “You won’t have a balance in any decision-making in any policy. That is why we developed a culturally relevant gender based analysis because we realized if we don’t use that tool systematically you’re going to have problems in your decision-making because you’re not looking at the intersectionality.”

You may also like: On a budget? Here are 11 ways you can still support social justice issues in Canada.

a white woman's hand holding a cardboard sign that reads 'Planet Over Profit'
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What can Canadians do to propel climate reform policies?

Unsurprisingly, Groulx says, “People need to vote. In the end, politicians have to follow what the people want, so if we push hard enough we will get what we want out of them.”

Besides electing the right people, Groulx advises that we need to keep talking about it. She believes that awareness is growing as a result of recent incidents, and emphasizes the need for people in positions of power and privilege to promote climate impact reduction, even advocating on social media to raise environmental consciousness. “Post, share — keep it in the media,” she says. “Social media has become a hugely important political tool. It takes influence to get the community to keep putting pressure on politicians.”

You’re going to have problems in your decision-making [when] you’re not looking at the intersectionality.

Groulx believes Canadian women specifically need to push for an anti-colonialist approach to climate change mitigation. She explains that what has been happening in Canada is that any work in anti-colonialism is reactive to status-quo climate change programs, or is subservient to extractive modes of development, meaning Western science and techno-rational solutions continue to dominate. We need to include Indigenous perspectives on climate change much further upstream to effect fundamental changes to policy.

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Related: Indigenous author Tanya Talaga talks righting legacy wrongs in Canada.

“There’s not really an excuse for not acting.” Groulx states. “Look at what was mobilized during the pandemic in terms of human resources and financial resources. Why can’t we do that for Mother Earth?”

Rachel Samson, lead author of the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices report warning of the 800,000 jobs at risk, states, “Canada is at a pivotal moment, when global markets are changing and governments and businesses face a choice of whether to take action to transform the economy to succeed in new market realities or watch our competitive position in the world erode.”

We are behind the 8-ball, and we need to adopt radical ideas to enact radical change. Perhaps something as radical as increasing Indigenous female representation in parliament.

You may also like: Dear white women, we need to do better in the workplace in 2022.



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