A Dene Lens on Climate Literacy

Katłįà, Catherine Lafferty brings Indigenous worldviews into the discussion as Climate Writer at West Vancouver Public Library.

by Odette Auger

The land of ancient giants, East Arm of the Tıdeè Tinde’e Tucho Tu Nedhé, Great Slave Lake | Photo by Katłįà Lafferty

Katłįà (Catherine) Lafferty, of Yellowknives Dene First Nation is the inaugural climate writer in residence at West Vancouver Memorial Library. Lafferty will be bringing an Indigenous lens to increasing awareness through civic engagement and public understanding. She’s interested in exploring how Indigenous worldviews can shift the task of rethinking society to an act of remembering – there are other ways of being.

Lafferty’s writing has broad scope. Along with climate writing, she’s a columnist, journalist, and novelist. Her recently released novel Land-Water-Sky/Ndè-Ti-Yat’a was nominated for an Indigenous Voices Award. Through her residency, she will be contributing to public climate literacy through writing, events, and workshops.

Lafferty is in her third year of the Juris Doctor in Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders with the University of Victoria. She doesn’t claim to be a climate change expert – she’s learning also. She sees her residency role as facilitating these conversations.

“I’m hoping to shed some light, and bring people to the discussion. It’s more about unity.”

Climate communication as emergency response

Climate writing is an important, and relatively new, response to the emergency of climate chaos.

Communication specialists work to address a tricky dilemma – the difficulty humans have with contradictory information. We’ve been conditioned to live with advances powered by the burning fossil fuels, knowing the destruction of the planet was the price. We humans will go to great lengths to avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance: rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding new information.

The climate writing residency seeks to address the urgent need to inform, and empower. “As a hub for information and community-building,” the Library sees its role “as a critical part of the response to this emergency.” Their Climate Future initiative “invites the community to come together to deepen knowledge and take action around the climate crisis.”

“The permafrost is melting,” she says. “We’ve got drunken trees – we call them drunken trees because the trees are not held in place anymore because the ground is too soft.”

Scientists are now saying that climate change requires a complete rethinking of our society. Naomi Klein explains the crux: “There is simply no way to square a belief system that vilifies collective action and venerates total market freedom with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that created and are deepening the crisis.” Exposing ourselves to other perspectives can sidestep some of our conditioned mindsets – industrial-economic values, for example.

Holding space for climate conversations is essential when we’re faced with understanding science, while at the same time deciphering the messaging of policy makers and politicians. Science writer Jaime Green explains, “Science is political because politicians hold the power to make meaningful change…. All the individual actions in the world can’t save us. Science is political because it demands action from power.”

Challenging the status quo – with a receptive approach

Lafferty has experience with that difficult work. A year of her master’s degree was in environmental management – consulting in communities on the groundbreaking Transboundary Water Agreement. Her team called it “the Kraken,” she says, because of the difficulty of “tricky work, having to navigate the different moving parts” – including the provincial governments of NWT, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. It was an important agreement, because “anything coming downstream from the south had better not affect our large and extensive waterways here in the North or else there will be consequences,” explains Lafferty. At the time of signing, oil was at its peak in Alberta – to have the Alberta premier sign off on the agreement was a victory for the small water team, Lafferty says. They were rewarded for their efforts, winning a premier’s award for excellence.

The work of challenging the status quo comes with rebuttals – a recent experience in this came after writing about the need for more Indigenous representation on environmental review boards. Lafferty takes rebuttals in stride – “it’s generating this discussion that needs to happen – this back and forth.” She sees these interactions as opportunities to learn, and educate.

Environmental protection is about policy and legislation – and traditional ecological knowledge, says Lafferty. When she speaks of policy, she weaves in a quote from Dene spiritual leader, Erǝ́ya Louis Ayah (1857-1940). “The great prophet Ayah from Délı̨nę, on the western shore of Great Bear Lake, warned that it will be the last freshwater lake in the world, and that people will flock to it from all over.” The prophecy warned their way of life on the land would be threatened, their resources coveted – and Délı̨nę must prepare. The prophecy led to the world’s first Indigenous-managed biosphere reserve.

Indigenous communities at the forefront – of both impacts and action

An Indigenous voice in residence is a progressive step, and essential when climate change disproportionately threatens Indigenous communities – which are already bearing the impact of environmental destruction.

Baskut Tuncak, UN special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes wrote about Canada’s systemic environmental racism:

“Throughout the lifecycle and value chain of economic activity in Canada, Indigenous peoples appear to be disproportionately located in close proximity to actual and potential sources of toxic exposure. Indigenous peoples live next to refineries and other manufacturing facilities. Existing and proposed pipelines crisscross their lands. Landfills, incinerators and other waste disposal sites are often closest to their reserves.”

Indigenous voices are marginalized and excluded during conversations directly impacting their health and livelihoods. Lafferty’s community knows the impacts. “The permafrost is melting,” she says. “We’ve got drunken trees – we call them drunken trees because the trees are not held in place anymore because the ground is too soft. So they’re just kind of swaying, and falling over in certain areas. And then we’ve got low, low water levels – drought, forest fires. Extremely cold winters, extremely hot summers. There’s major changes happening in the north. The problem is, there’s too many other things to be fighting. So it takes away from putting all of your eggs into one basket and fighting climate change when you’re trying to do negotiations with the government, land negotiations for example. It’s hard.”

“We need to look at countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, who are presenting to the UN the universal declaration of the rights of mother earth.”

Lafferty takes a fortifying cue from the work of her “fellow northerner from the arctic,” Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who addressed the COP15, saying, “Our Indigenous voice must remain strong and united around the world to continue to model and lead with life-centered sustainability as our focus and commitment.” Lafferty explains this means “Indigenous people need to uphold the standard of environmental integrity to a higher standard and not get persuaded or manipulated to get on board with non-renewables.”

She points to green initiatives such as Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation’s solar initiative. The Yukon territory nation is generating their own solar and commissioning it, earning an annual revenue of 400k that goes back into the community. “First Nations are leading the way right now in Canada when it comes to green energy because we have so much land and we have that assertion of it – that we can do our own thing. I think the rest of Canada just needs to follow the models that Indigenous nations are doing.”

“We need to look at countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, who are presenting to the UN the universal declaration of the rights of mother earth,” says Lafferty. The outdated Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), was written in 1999. Indigenizing CEPA would serve to recognize everyone’s right to a healthy environment.

“Some people believe that climate change is something that’s just kind of inevitable with the way the world evolves and changes. Man has really had a hand in furthering that along, much faster with industry,” says Lafferty. She hopes to explore “how we can move away from the industrial revolution and more into the green technical revolution. And how we can do that is by changing regulations and changing legislation – because the government’s being pretty slow on doing that.”

Lafferty’s awareness-building includes learning about what’s happening, in terms of the climate emergency and green innovations, and the politics around it. She’s looking forward to sharing workshops that involve “looking at nature as being a character in itself and as being a part of us – instead of separate from us.”

Katłįà (Catherine) Lafferty, of Yellowknives Dene First Nation | Photo provided by Lafferty.

Join Lafferty and host Shelagh Rogers on January 22, when West Vancouver Memorial Library is kicking off the residency with an afternoon virtual session.


Related Posts

Watershed Sentinel Original Content

5 Issues/yr — $25 print; $15 digital