Sustainable Trent Early Earth Week: A Call-Out for Environmental Justice

School of Sardines

Environmental justice encompasses a diversity of intersecting struggles which aim to address the root causes of environmental degradation and human rights violations. Through attempting to name corporate greed, capitalism, colonialism, and heteropatriarchy as the problem rather than promote consumerist solutions to environmental issues, Sustainable Trent has been undergoing a shift from mainstream environmentalism to a different type of environmental activism—one at which justice is at the core. Through Early Earth Week events we attempted to make new connections, name the oppressive structures driving the destruction of the earth, and raise awareness through a holistic understanding of the environment and the intersections between different social movements.

The week of March 15 to 22 featured many events focused on the the tar sands and fossil fuel industry, unethical Canadian mining practices abroad, Indigenous rights struggles, food justice and food sovereignty, and collective community resistance and involvement in social and environmental justice movements. These incredible events were hosted by many different organizations, including the Kawartha World Issues Centre, Fair Trade Trent, Champlain College, the Seasoned Spoon, Canadian Mining Awareness, the Sacred Water Circle Youth Voices program, Sustainable Trent, and many others who tabled at Early Earth Day.

The series of Early Earth Week events began with a talk by local Haudenosaunee organizer Amanda Lickers at Bagnani Hall, Traill College, on Friday March 15, which was attended by around 40 people. Lickers was reporting back from an EarthFirst! convergence in Ohio and strategy discussions amongst Indigenous Land Defenders on Decolonization and Resistance to Tar Sands and Pipelines across Turtle Island. She spoke about the need for activists working to defend the earth to act in solidarity with Indigenous peoples in their struggles against industrial projects on their lands without consent. The report back also focused on direct action strategies to deal with environmental destruction imposed by governments and industry. Lickers made connections between the prison industrial complex, the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in the prison system, and the destruction of the earth. Lickers discussed our obligation as human beings to protect the earth, the water, and our bodies, against which incredible violence is being done through industrial development, and the need for direct action in many cases where industry and government bulldoze ahead with our plans despite the protest of the people. A strong message from this talk is that overcoming environmental destruction will require building solidarity and a project that is anti-racist, anti-colonial, and decolonizing, and one which confronts cis-hetero-patriarchy and all forms of oppression.

After she finished talking, Lickers had us divide into small groups and brainstorm on different tactics, such as blockades, street demonstrations, and petitions, and on their effectiveness to protect the environment and their ability to decolonize. This sparked critical and insightful conversations on the inherently colonial nature of streets, the tendency for petitions to be ineffective on their own, and the power of blockades to defend Indigenous lands from unwanted development. Sustainable Trent sponsored transportation costs for Indigenous land defenders to attend the conference, and the insights gained from this report back have provided us with many ideas for moving forward in an anti-oppressive way that ensures solidarity with Indigenous folks and decolonization.

On Tuesday March 19 in the Gathering Space, around 60 people gathered to hear Clayton Thomas-Muller, Cree environmental justice and grassroots activist, and Co-Director for the Tar Sands Campaign with the Polaris Institute, speak about the growing movement for environmental justice on Turtle Island. Using humour and an engaging conversational manner, Thomas-Muller stressed the need for the mainstream environmental movement to work in solidarity with Indigenous peoples and nations in their struggles against toxic contamination and environmental racism. With the gutting of Canada’s environmental laws with recent acts in Parliament, battles for Indigenous rights enshrined the Canadian Constitution are becoming central points in the struggle against reckless environmental destruction. The Beaver Lake Cree Nation is launching an unprecedented court challenge to the legality of tar sands operations on their traditional lands. Indigenous communities are affected worst than anyone else by the tar sands, which is the most destructive industrial project on earth, and are experiencing high rates of rare cancers due to the pollution and destruction of their traditional lifeways and connection to the land. As Thomas-Muller pointed out, there is no way such a project would go ahead upstream from a white and affluent community.

Thomas-Muller also delved into social movement theory, referring to Idle No More movement as the “largest social movement in history.” He shared with the audience a metaphor about the power to transform the world and change the entrenched status quo: Do not think about this immense task as a blue whale – the largest animal in the world, which takes a very long time to turn in the ocean – but rather conceptualize social movements as occurring within a pack of sardines. In a pack of sardines there are always some individuals which are swimming in the opposite direction of the group, and once a certain critical mass of that counter-movement of sardines is reached, the pack will change direction. This is a powerful way to conceptualize social movements, because radical social change is achieved through a slow build-up of organizing that all of a sudden escalates into a successful movement. Thomas-Muller reminded us that social movements such as the civil rights movement and Idle No More are rooted in many years, decades, and centuries of survival, resistance and activism; the moment when activists hit the streets or direct action occurs is not a random act but a carefully planned culmination of years of foundational organizing.

Like Amanda Lickers, and also Eric Holt-Gimenez in his talk on food justice and food sovereignty, Clayton Thomas-Muller emphasized the importance of building environmental social movements which are anti-oppressive at their core and confront racism and patriarchy. He also spoke about the need for a truly nation-to-nation relationship between Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and the Canadian state. Another key message that Thomas-Muller expressed is the need to end the violence against Indigenous women that is occurring; this should be a very high priority for Idle No More and other movements. Thomas-Muller’s mother Gail then spoke about her own experiences, which was a very moving part of the evening; we were very grateful for her presence. This event was sponsored by Sustainable Trent and also included a free meal catered by Maamaayin-Makwa Doo-Jiibaakwe-Gamig (Momma Bear’s Kitchen), a delicious serving of local Anishinaabe traditional foods.

In addition to incredible events celebrating Trent’s Fair Trade initiatives, exposing the unethical activities of Canadian mining corporations in El Salvador and their efforts to ban mining, and a talk from Food First speaker Eric Holt-Gimenez on food sovereignty, a variety of organizations gathered in the Champlain Great Hall on Thursday March 21 to celebrate Early Earth Day. The Council of Canadians Peterborough Chapter, Transition Town Peterborough, B!KE: The Community Cycling Hub, the Seasoned Spoon, the Sacred Water Circle Youth Voices Project, Trent Oxfam, KWIC, OPIRG, Sustainable Trent, The Great Cloth Diaper Exchange, and NO LINE 9 organizers all shared their activism and knowledge with visitors to the Great Hall and with each other. The event was a great opportunity to make connections between different movements and initiatives, and to foster a relationship between the Peterborough/Nogojiwanong community and Trent University.

Altogether, Early Earth Week was an intensive period of learning and awareness-raising. We must address the root causes of environmental degradation, find the intersections between movements, and demonstrate solidarity with Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups. This is a constant process and there is always more to be learned. Thanks to everyone who made this happen and to those who attended!