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It’s the End of This World As We Know It
Q&A with two co-authors of a new book envisioning what true climate justice looks like.
As readers of this newsletter will know, the notion of a “just transition” away from fossil fuels has been a major topic of discussion and dispute in Canada, and especially Alberta, as of late.
A new book from Between the Lines, The End of This World: Climate Justice in So-Called Canada, argues that a truly just transition must encompass a total transformation of society away from extractive industries towards one rooted in Indigenous rights, racial justice, wealth redistribution and an economy that provides care for all.
I sat down with two of the book’s six co-authors, Bronwen Tucker, a climate researcher with Oil Change International, and Crystal Lameman, Beaver Lake Cree Nation’s government relations advisor and Treaty coordinator, to discuss the meaning of a just transition, how it compares to what’s being promoted by the federal government, and the challenges ahead.
This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity. I’ll have the full, lightly-edited audio version up as a podcast tomorrow.
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The book is subtitled Climate Justice in So-Called Canada. What do you mean by “so-called Canada“?
BT: Writing a book with six people, I think maybe getting to the final title might have been the actual hardest part. But that being said, you want to be able to convey what we're talking about in a short amount of words. We are writing about Canada, that is the scope of the book for most of it. We definitely take an internationalist lens, and talking about Canada getting out of the way of a lot of communities and countries in the rest of the world is a big part of that. Our vision for a just transition definitely puts Indigenous sovereignty right at the centre. And so that means you would want to get to a place where this land would not be known as Canada. That’s part of the kind of end game that we write about. Having that phrase in the title was one of the more concise ways we could get at it.
Why is it important to keep Indigenous perspectives front and centre?
CL: That can be answered in two different ways. So in one way, it's important for Indigenous rights to be at the front and centre, first and foremost, because of the simple fact that Indigenous peoples are the original people of this land. We are the original stewards of this land. We have a long history of being able to live and work with this land in a successful way that has been centered and grounded in sustainable practices.
The other piece to it is that there's a strong misconception out there that those who entered the Treaty, ceded, leased and surrendered their lands and resources, and that's completely false. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people need to stop using that language. I find that even our own people who live on so-called “unceded” lands, make comments about Treaty people having ceded their lands, which we never did. We never agreed to that.
When we think about Indigenous peoples being included in this, it really leans on the understanding of the sovereignty of our people — the right to free prior and informed consent, the right to say “yes” or “no,” the right to live freely on this land. When we entered into the Treaty, it was not understood that we would see less or surrender, and that we would then be moved to these confined sections of land where we would be controlled. What was actually said in the Treaty was that you will have now what you had yesterday, and you'll have it the same way tomorrow, and the day after that. What we offer here adds to what you already had. And what we already had was sovereignty, what we already had was an entire system of economic relationships.
BT: A helpful shorthand that I’ve been using to think about this is that there are a bunch of relationships that need to be repaired. And doing so is the only way to get to a just transition.
You talk about how a just transition cannot be confined to a “series of labour market adjustments” in the energy industry. Why not?
BT: The federal government is, of course, working on its own just transition legislation. There's a version of support programs and labor policies in the energy sector that is absolutely needed. I don't think the version of that's needed is likely what the federal government is proposing. We drew our framework for just transition from that really rich social movement history where the phrase comes from and takes a much broader just transition. In some spaces, people are starting to talk about a kind of ‘just transition-washing,’ where anything good, anything that has traction in this world, governments and corporations alike will try to use for their own strategic purposes. There’s definitely a lot of co-option at play.
Climate change and colonialism impact all parts of our society. This doesn't mean there can't be narrow policy packages that deal with it. It could get us closer to a more just world, which is absolutely part of our theory of change. But what we would need to be seeing from the federal government, alongside this proposal for some more narrow labor reforms, are efforts in many other spheres at the same time, and we know that that's absolutely not on their agenda.
All of these pieces can feel kind of unwieldy. We do try to really break it down and get concrete about what we think some of the first steps are. There's a way to have shared principles about moving towards a fair world and knowing that we want to get there together, as well as having more narrow first steps and second steps.
There's a ton that we wrote about building up a caring economy with strong public services and good public health care, having universal daycare and seniors care, and framing those as green jobs which help us take care of each other. It’s a really big range of policies that we're talking about. But just because it is a lot of work doesn't mean it's impractical.
CL: If you look to the six principles that we laid out in this book, we spoke about how a just transition asserts Indigenous sovereignty, not only here in so-called Canada, but also abroad. We make direct mention of our relatives in the Global South. And so when we speak about Indigenous sovereignty worldwide, that means recognizing Indigenous peoples inherent rights, their sovereignty and their self determination over their lands, their ancestral waters and territories. That requires Canada to stop blocking Indigenous peoples from restoring and reclaiming their land, their languages, their governance, their laws and their economies.
We also laid out miyo-pimatisiwin, which we interpreted as meaningful, decent work in a caring economy. We have to support workers dependent on the fossil fuel economy. Often there's a misconception that those of us who are talking about dismantling entire systems that are grounded and founded in greed are against the workers. But that's false. We really centered this book on the rights of workers who are dependent on the fossil fuel economy. We laid out the ways in which they could transition to new jobs that they helped to define and which are globally equitable. We reference our relatives in the Global South who are impacted by Canadian mining companies.
The last principle I want to mention is sihtoskatowin, which is a word that's rooted in solidarity, meaning a coming together in mutual support. This one is vitally important because it actually goes back to the question that you just asked previously. We should follow the principle of “nothing about us without us,” which means taking leadership from the nations and communities that are at ground zero and are most affected by these issues when crafting solutions.
Transitioning away from fossil fuels is challenging enough on its own. How do you respond to the argument that casting too wide a net might be counterproductive?
BT: There’s a bit of a caricature that all that’s needed for climate action is to get emissions reductions and that we can deal with all these other problems later. I think this lacks any kind of power analysis of how we make any of this politically possible.
If we do the kind of solutions that capitalism and colonialism really favours — things like carbon capture and storage or hydrogen that's based off of fossil gas — do we actually even get that 1.5 degree goal? Probably not. And then on top of that, the kind of really unequal economics based on extraction and land theft would still be here.
It's not actually true that we can go quickly and be really narrowly focused. It’s a false trade-off. We have to work on all these things at the same time. In the book, we spend a lot of time trying to think about how we actually kind of get people to work together towards making some of these things possible.
A lot of the things that we call for, like funding really good transit, or affordable housing, or upholding Indigenous sovereignty, are concrete policy proposals that are actually really popular. They benefit the vast majority of people. Even though that bigger political change is harder and slower, much of it is the only possible way forward towards any kind of livable future.
These changes you're proposing are incredibly ambitious. How can you build public support for them, particularly in a petro province like Alberta, where oil and gas have such a stranglehold over our democracy?
CL: I don't know if that's entirely true, that most people would feel that it's too ambitious. You have people in this province who don't believe that it's ambitious, they believe it's totally doable. In the Indigenous spaces I’m in, I very rarely hear people say it's too ambitious.
What they do say is that we need a clear pathway, a roadmap to make this happen. That was actually why I agreed to be part of the book. I was continuously hearing in the rooms and the tables I was at that this is possible. And they knew it was possible because they sat in and at the meeting tables with the former NDP government here in Alberta. All the talk was around renewable energy and the economy. However, what some of us technicians were seeing was just a continuation of those same principles, practices, policies and procedures in the extractive industries now being applied in the renewable energy sector.
We wanted to disrupt that, because we didn't want that system to continue in this transition to alternative sources of energy. My point is that people who believe it's ambitious are unwilling to look beyond the current oil and gas industry. But you have a lot of workers in oil and gas, and I know this because it's part of the work that I do, who if you ask them if you had the opportunity to make the same amount of money you're making now, have the same type of opportunities for employment and you were able to do it in the renewable energy sector, where your rights as a human being were upheld, would you switch, or would you stay in oil and gas? And I have not heard one person say they would prefer to stay in oil and gas.
It’s definitely important to distinguish between elite opinion and public opinion. Although the latter is sometimes shaped by the former, they don’t necessarily match up.
For my final question, I wanted to ask as someone who’s in the process of writing a book, and is having enough difficulty on their own, how do you write a book with six authors?
BT: We all have so many other responsibilities and projects going on that having responsibility to each other was actually really helpful. Just being on a deadline is a lot harder, at least for me.
In terms of some of the content, it wasn’t a typical scope for a book. We are really trying to provide an accessible and big picture way to talk about these issues. We focus mostly on climate justice and Indigenous rights, but to do that we need to touch so many other issues and policy areas. Because of that, we needed a group of people who have worked to address all the different parts of the problem. From that perspective, the project needed all six of us.
But I think, as a result, it took us a lot longer. We had a lot of Zoom meetings. There were definitely trade offs there. But it would have been a really different book if any single one of us had tried to write it. We would have been a lot more limited in terms of vision.
So did you have a Google Doc you passed among yourselves?
BT: Each chapter had a lead author and we had a Google Doc for each of those, and then we had a ton of different revisions. We probably met for six months or a year before we really actually got things down on paper.
CL: I would say it was probably closer to a year. We just didn’t know where to start.
It was a really long process of getting to know each other, interviewing each other, determining what the pathway would be, to even just defining what a just transition meant to each of us. And it was different for everyone. We spent a lot of time just meeting and talking and discussing, and then we created themes, from which we were able to create the chapters and determine who would lead each.
BT: It’s a microcosm of some of the stuff that we need to happen when we talk about all the solutions. We spent a lot of time talking about initial strategies that can help us get to a place where a lot of this stuff is more politically possible. Needing to have that shared vision and being able to have conversations about what that is was a nice exercise in proposing one vision that hopefully resonates with lots of people. More of that collective scheming and discussions is needed.
You can purchase The End of This World from the publisher here in paperback or ebook format.
As supplementary reading, Lameman highly recommends Upholding Indigenous Economic Relationships: Nehiyawak Narratives, which you can purchase here as a hardback or ebook.