One of Shianne McKay’s most rewarding work moments came while sitting in a room, surrounded by Indigenous women and youth in the small community of Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, in 2019. McKay is a Senior Project Manager at the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER), and that day they were developing posters for the then new Shining Lights program, designed to support Indigenous communities who wanted to increase energy efficiency and reduce their reliance on diesel in the future. Part of the program involved sitting with Elders, translators, youth, and women as key energy terminology was drawn and translated for participants. “Everybody was speaking different languages and laughing because the translations were so funny,” says McKay. It was one of three regional community workshops CIER facilitated that reached 56 Indigenous women and youth from 22 different NWT communities. Numerous stories were shared, and new connections formed between those gathered. Many went on to present what they learned to their communities and changed how energy is used in their homes.
The success of the Shining Lights project is no surprise, given CIER’s history of work across Canada over 27 years. CIER is a non-profit that “Works coast to coast to coast, helping Indigenous communities build capacity to protect lands and waters, and build sustainable communities,” explains McKay. Their work reaches across a broad spectrum of topics where they intersect with environmental health, including traditional knowledge, water governance, sustainable waste management, climate change, renewable energy, biodiversity and more recently, the protection of grasslands and Species at Risk. McKay says the organization helps communities identify their environmental needs and priorities, then figures out how best to support them. “That could be education and training, skills development, facilitating workshops, or doing some assessments of their current local environmental infrastructure”.
CIER often works on the ground, providing real and meaningful results for the communities they engage with. From 2015 to 2018, they worked with Brokenhead Ojibway Nation (BON) to facilitate a wetland monitoring and restoration program in an area of critical importance for hunting and other cultural practices in southern Manitoba. CIER and BON partnered with regional conservation and western science organizations such as Ducks Unlimited-Native Plant Solutions to address environmental threats coming from several directions: invasive species such as purple loosestrife, flooding and erosion of the stream and riverbanks of the Brokenhead River, and increasing inputs of effluent coming from developments around Lake Winnipeg. Five people were trained in community-based monitoring, and a restoration plan was developed for the area. Participants in the program also developed a purple loosestrife control program, and community members got involved in the riverbank restoration program
Over the years, communities have identified common needs that have led CIER to develop a series of workshops which tackle everything from youth leadership, to community and watershed planning, to learning how to write effective funding proposals. One of the workshops helps communities develop a framework for how to manage consultation requests. “CIER’s new Species at Risk Needs Assessment surveys confirm that communities are experiencing consultation fatigue, and there is a growing desire make these processes more efficient,” says CIER Project Manager Kate Hewitt. For example, some communities have requested help in managing what can be the onerous and repetitive process of participating in provincial and national Species at Risk designation processes. “Individual communities would like their own Species at Risk field guides specific to their territory,” explains Hewitt. “If they don’t know what animals are out there and what classifies as a Species at Risk, how can they report it?”
The Species at Risk Needs Assessment and grassland workshop surveys also clearly identify a desire from communities for more opportunities to connect with one another over shared issues and goals. For example, Indigenous nations that are culturally connected with bison want to learn from each other’s experiences in bringing Plains Bison populations to their land. “It comes with a lot of questions,” says Hewitt. “How does the status of Plains Bison as a Species at Risk affect the communities’ ability to hunt them? If [bison] are a protected species, will there be an exception for Indigenous Peoples?” Hewitt says there are also commonly held concerns about the transmission of disease between domestic and wild bison. CIER is helping acquire the knowledge and resources needed to address these questions and concerns. They recently sent a representative to the National Bison Convention to learn more, and to help develop the network of communities interested in re-establishing their relationship with bison.
Building relationships between communities is core business at CIER. “We want to help bring back a piece of what was lost, what was originally there when communication and participation between nations was really common,” says Hewitt. McKay agrees, adding, “It’s about the spirit of collaboration, sharing knowledge on best practices and sharing success stories, too.” Beyond that, Hewitt hopes their work reinforces Rights and Title for Indigenous Peoples across Canada. “We want to create more self-determined spaces where there is less direction and forced input from outside sources to Indigenous communities,” she says. “It’s about moving individuals toward more control over what was originally theirs, from the beginning.”