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Empowering Indigenous Inclusion in Policy Formulation as the key to Advancing Environmental Justice

Updated: Feb 28

Maya Rotstein

December 17, 2023



The implications of climate change on Canadians’ health, economic sectors and natural

environments are expected to continue to increase in the future.[1] However, what is often

overlooked is how these impacts disproportionately affect Indigenous communities across the country. Government agencies have begun to engage with policy experts on what can be done to mitigate risks associated with climate change, but without significantly including

Indigenous communities along with their knowledge and practices in decision-making, their

needs continue to be neglected.

In order to address climate change issues, Canada must acknowledge that representation must be equitable in decision-making. Involving Indigenous communities through policy reforms is crucial for ensuring equitable environmental practices. If the Canadian government continues to uphold colonial systems, implementing effective, long-term solutions to the climate crisis will be challenging. The Canadian government must recognize the value of Indigenous knowledge and practices regarding the environment and ensure Indigenous representation in decision-making to understand the practices between communities.


In 2023, approximately 1.8 million people identify as Aboriginal in Canada and roughly one

quarter of that figure live on a reserve.[2] As a result of a long history of systemic racism and

oppression, unequal access has affected Indigenous peoples in a multitude of ways, including limited access to and control over lands and resources. Specifically on reserves, Indigenous Peoples face higher rates of reduced access to basic necessities and safe drinking water, as well as higher rates of unemployment and suicide.[3] Policies and programs that pertain to Indigenous communities exists primarily under the jurisdiction of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).[4] Indigenous people in Canada currently have very little autonomy over the use of their land and resources, despite the fact that environmental degradation occurring throughout the country disproportionately affects them. This article addresses several key barriers to increasing representation of these communities in decision-making regarding environmental issues and suggests major themes governments and policymakers can utilize to assist in implementing reforms.


Environmental degradation caused by industrial development increases levels of exposure to contaminants and pollutants in the air, water, soil and food, causing a variety of adverse

health issues.[5] Additionally, climate change and industrial pollution both cause

contamination and endangerment of wildlife, fish, and vegetation, deteriorating their

relationship with traditional foods and medicines, and forces communities further from the

natural environments they once call home.[6]

In 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada successfully ruled that the Crown has a legal

responsibility to consult with Aboriginal Peoples prior to any action that may affect them.[7]

Though this was a step in the right direction, it has been clear over the years that a duty to

consult is not sufficient to ensure rates of inequality related to climate change have decreased.

Furthermore, the legality of the duty to consult is oftentimes circumvented through loopholes. For example, the Wet'suwet'en Nation have not consented to Coastal Gaslink’s (CGL) pipeline construction in British Columbia, however expansion continues due to CGL’s usage of a divisive technique, bypassing Hereditary Chiefs, consulting with and agreeing on construction with a different governing body created by the Indian Act.[8] Not only has CGL allowed for the destruction of the land of the Wet'suwet'en, they have failed to adhere to an array of environmental regulations, leading to abnormally high amounts of fish and wildlife deaths.[9] Current legal frameworks are therefore inadequate at protecting Indigenous rights to their land and leading to disproportionate exploitation of their resources and communities.

Policy Recommendations

To achieve progress with climate issues, it is important to recognize the Indigenous right to

self-govern and thus, rightfully work towards policies that not only address how Indigenous

Peoples are affected by climate change, but collaboratively strengthen recognition-based

relationships and allow for dialogue to ensure that non-Indigenous ideas align sufficiently

with Indigenous values. The suggestions hope to achieve the goal of advancing relationships

between Indigenous organizations, governments, NGOs to initiate meaningful participation

of communities in policy formulation, rather than solely a duty to consult framework.

Lack of community resources jeopardize the health of Aboriginal communities.[10] In order

to promote increased dialogue and partnerships, investments in educational programs are

suggested to raise awareness among policymakers and the public about the importance of

inclusive climate change policies. Government and other stakeholders’ resources must be

allocated to initiatives address the disproportionate impacts to uplift communities and

promote the growth of Indigenous youth as future leaders of environmental advocacy.

Canada can look to other communities’ reforms regarding this topic, for example in what is

referred to as Montana, the Salish-Kootenai Tribe produced the Climate Change Strategic

Plan which contains delegated authority for different issues, goals and actions related to

dialogue with other actors, and funding mechanisms for said goals.[11] This document has

been incorporated into other government agency climate plans, informing the impacts of

project planning and building resiliency.

To address gaps in the current legal system, a reform of current legislation must take place, ensuring laws and policies are strengthened to have dependable legal grounds for protection of their lands. Additionally, an increase in environmental impact assessments is suggested on any projects affecting Indigenous communities’ land to assess potential risks and create a more transparent understanding of all implications.


Empowering Indigenous communities in environmental policy reforms is imperative to

ensure equitable environmental justice. By recognizing Indigenous rights and systems,

promoting inclusive governance and decision-making, allocating more resources to nurture

future leaders, and address gaps in our current legislation, policymakers can create a more

sustainable future for all. Acknowledgement is required on the government’s part to

participate in continuous work to ensure these communities play a pivotal role in environmental stewardship. By facilitating the inclusion of Indigenous communities and their

needs into discussions around Canada’s climate ensures a stronger and more resilient nation

in the future.


1. Government of Canada, Climate Trends and Projections (Canada,ca, 2020).

2. Black and McBean, Increased Indigenous Participation in Environmental Decision-

Making: A Policy Analysis for the Improvement of Indigenous Health (International

Indigenous Policy Journal, 2016), 1-24.

3. Bhardwaj and Grover, Vulnerability of First Nations Communities in Canada to

Environmental Degradation in Impact of Climate Change on Water and Health (Boca

Raton, Taylor and Francis Group, 2014). 173-194

4. Black and McBean, 2016.

5. Ibid.

6. Bhardwaj and Grover, 2014.

7. Crown Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, Aboriginal Consultation

and Accommodation - Updated Guidelines for Federal Officials to Fulfill the Duty to

8. Amnesty International, Criminalization of Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders (Amnesty

International, 2023).

9. Simmons, We Should Avoid Monitoring’: Feds Quietly Backed off While Coastal

Gaslink Pipeline Work Killed Fish (The Narwhal, 2023).

10. Basu and Lanphear, The Challenge of Pollution and Health in Canada (Canadian

Journal of Public Health, 2019). 159-164

11. Whyte, Indigenous Climate Change Studies: Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the

Anthropocene (English Language Notes, 2017). 153-162.


Amnesty International. “Criminalization of Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders.” Amnesty

International, March 6, 2023.

Basu, Niladri, and Bruce P. Lanphear. “The Challenge of Pollution and Health in Canada.”

Canadian Journal of Public Health 110, no. 2 (2019): 159–64.

Black, Kerry, and Edward McBean. “Increased Indigenous Participation in Environmental

Decision-Making: A Policy Analysis for the Improvement of Indigenous Health.”

International Indigenous Policy Journal 7, no. 4 (October 8, 2016): 1–24.

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. “Aboriginal Consultation and

Accommodation - Updated Guidelines for Federal Officials to Fulfill the Duty to

Consult - March 2011.” Government of Canada; Crown-Indigenous Relations and

Northern Affairs Canada, September 15, 2010.

Government of Canada. “Climate Trends and Projections.”, February 13, 2020.

Grover, Velma I., and Lalita Bhardwaj. “Vulnerability of First Nations Communities in

Canada to Environmental Degradation.” Chapter 9. In Impact of Climate Change on

Water and Health, 173–94. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group,


Simmons, Matt. “‘We Should Avoid Monitoring’: Feds Quietly Backed off While Coastal

Gaslink Pipeline Work Killed Fish.” The Narwhal, December 14, 2023.

Whyte, Kyle. “Indigenous Climate Change Studies: Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the

Anthropocene.” English Language Notes 55, no. 1–2 (March 1, 2017): 153–62.

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