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Mi’kmaw Adaptation

This story first appeared in The Coast on June 25, 2009:

Psst, hey, climate change deniers: Halifax Harbour is rising, and you don’t need a PhD in carbon core analytics to prove it. A simple observatory pillar in the harbour does the trick—and that’s how city staff measures water levels. And if you don’t trust a low-tech solution, 90 years of tidal records agree with the pillar. These show that not only is our harbour rising, it’s rising faster than the most dire predictions of modern climate science.

HRM environment staff have been hard at work tracking these changes and using the data, along with digital mapping, to model how the shoreline might change, where the most flood prone areas are, and how we can keep that nasty harbour water from taking its vengeance on our polluting asses.

This is important work, but it’s slow going. What’s worse is it doesn’t tackle the even more difficult challenge of dealing with new diseases and infestations, the inland droughts and other consequences of climate change. This preparation falls to the province, and the province is waiting on a grant from the feds.

Natural Resources Canada will likely give Nova Scotia about a million dollars in coming months to pull together research from around the province. The research will guesstimate the ways climate change might hurt us most, and determine “best practices” for mitigating that hurt. Rather than develop a comprehensive adaptation strategy, it will look at specific vulnerable areas like Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Minas Basin, where rising salt water could contaminate drinking aquifers.

The process will be a technocratic exercise devoid of public consultation. And thus, as usual, the province’s aboriginal reserves, those communities where people are most vulnerable to new diseases and infestations, will in all likelihood be ignored. “No one’s going to pay attention to us until there is a disaster,” says Cheryl Maloney, director of environment for the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

Maloney is working feverishly to educate aboriginal communities about climate change and get government—any government, to notice. So far, no interest from Canada, the province or any municipality.

It’s no surprise to Maloney. “The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was signed by all nations except the US, Canada and New Zealand,” she reminds us. “Canada doesn’t invite aboriginal people on delegations. Nova Scotia hasn’t talked to aboriginal people about adaptation.”

Frustrated by the lack of local interest, Maloney, who comes from Indian Brook reserve in Nova Scotia, represented the Mi’kmaq Grand Council before the UN Permanent Forum. She invited the UN to investigate the “human rights violations against the Mi’kmaq in regards to the legislative and administrative barriers within the state system in relation to mobility and safety issues restricting their ability to adapt and mitigate the potentially disastrous affects of climate change on an already vulnerable society.”

According to Maloney, the entire reserve system is a human rights violation because it denies traditionally mobile cultures the ability to move. “We never stayed in one place, it’s against our cultural and environmental laws and the result is unhealthy communities. Indian Brook was forced as far out of the way as possible, and once an aboriginal person leaves the reserve their rights don’t follow them.” The resulting lack of mobility will create a dangerous situation if the predictions of climate experts hold true.

Maloney has not received an official response to her invitation, but as she explains, “I’m setting a seed. Next year the UN is going to focus on the denial of aboriginal rights in North America.” During that campaign, she hopes to bring a group of aboriginal youth to UN headquarters in New York City. “Their generation will follow up on our basic rights to mobility, food and clean water, but right now international indigenous rights are a very new focus.”

Empowered by a better understanding of its rights, she hopes that generation will have the opportunity to live in healthy, vibrant aboriginal communities able to adapt to climate change on their own. For now, Maloney argues that a little money invested in climate change preparation for aboriginal reserves could save a lot of lives.

“But they don’t deal with it until after the disaster has happened,” she adds. “Look how only after a surge of suicides in Eskasoni did the government fund a crisis centre there. Aboriginal women have been going missing for 20 or 30 years and only now people are starting to notice.”

As the harbour keeps rising and the deniers keep denying, it seems foresight remains elusive in the dominant culture.

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