- Local community restrictions, with priority given to requests or directives issued by the local First Nations;
- Number of contacts that will happen in the field trip;
- The self-isolation and personal health record of any staff member proposed for a trip to the field; and
- Whether the field trip is in the same health region.
To read more about our policies and procedures for travel in communities please click here.
From the time Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere in the late 15th century to the present COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous people have been highly impacted—in many cases disproportionately—by infectious diseases. Experiences with disease outbreaks are part of the oral histories of Indigenous communities across Canada and the United States, and these experiences are passed down through generations, shaping the ways communities respond to disease outbreaks in the present. An overview of the past and a survey of the present show that while this knowledge is being deployed by Indigenous leadership as they manage the COVID-19 crisis, these leaders are not adequately supported by the federal and local governments as gaps in government COVID-19 response coincide with long-existing problems that have rendered Indigenous populations especially vulnerable to disease.
A Long, Dark History
As has been widely documented, the arrival of Europeans in the Americas brought a number of diseases to which Indigenous peoples had never been exposed, such as smallpox, measles, and yellow fever. Because they did not have the antibodies necessary to prevent infection, Indigenous people were subject to extensive depopulation throughout the hemisphere as communities came into contact with European ships and explorers.
The spread of disease throughout what is currently Canada is documented in the oral histories of Indigenous communities that experienced it, as well as in the journals and correspondence of explorers and fur traders. In the 16th century, Jacques Cartier observed the drastic impact of smallpox on Indigenous populations in the St. Lawrence River watershed, including the depopulation of the once-thriving Iroquois village of Stadacona (present-day Quebec City). As the fur trade spread west across the continent, so did disease, and by the end of the 18th century, George Vancouver was documenting deserted villages up and down the Northwest Coast.
In some cases, Indigenous people were subject to intentional genocide by European settlers, who either intentionally infected Indigenous people with diseases known to kill them, or took advantage of the ravages of disease to force Indigenous leaders to bend to the will of colonial armies. The most well-known incident of intentional infection occurred in 1763 during Pontiac’s War, an uprising against the British by a confederation of Indigenous groups from the Great Lakes region. Colonial correspondence from this time shows British military leaders discussing the introduction of smallpox to their Indigenous adversaries via infected blankets, an act later carried out by a trader at Fort Pitt (present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania).
After the establishment of the United States in 1776, politicians like Andrew Jackson were eager to push Indigenous people out of the eastern US to make way for settlers, even as these populations had already been drastically reduced by previous centuries of disease and warfare. When Jackson became president, he signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act to pave the way for the Trail of Tears, a multi-decade forced removal of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Nations from their ancestral territories in the southeastern US to “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi River. These forced removals were known as “death marches” due to the arduous journey that killed many through the spread of infectious disease in addition to malnutrition and exposure to the elements.
On the Northwest Coast, the 1862 smallpox epidemic was devastating, killing approximately half of the Indigenous people living along the coast between southern Puget Sound and southeastern Alaska. The epidemic began in March 1862, when a steamship carried smallpox from San Francisco to Fort Victoria, British Columbia (present-day Victoria), a bustling fur trade hub. While many settlers were immune, the Indigenous people staying at a nearby encampment were not, and when those who did not die of smallpox returned to their communities, the disease went with them. According to Robert Boyd, a leading scholar on the matter, “this [Indian] epidemic might have been avoided, and the Whites knew it.”
The disproportionate effects of disease on Indigenous people continued to be a factor well into the 20th century, with Indigenous communities being hit hard by the 1918 influenza pandemic. At the time, it was believed that isolated communities would be safe from the pandemic, but naval ships travelling to Alaska brought passengers and crew members who asymptomatically carried the virus. Some of these crew members delivered mail to remote areas of Western Alaska, like the Inupiat village of Wales, the population of which was then decimated. The 1918 pandemic hit Alaska the hardest in all of the US, with an estimated 2000-3000 people dead and 8 percent of the total Alaskan Indigenous population killed. Subsequent flu pandemics in 1957 and 2009 raised similar fears for Indigenous communities and produced similar effects.
Memories of the Past, Carried into the Present
Today, in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous people continue to be disproportionately affected. Competition for funding, delayed funding, and expedited timelines to spend funding once it is received have made it difficult for communities to respond to the situation as it unfolds on their reserves. Combined with existing factors like lack of clean, running water and protective equipment and limited access to health services, the pandemic has been devastating. The Navajo Nation in the southwestern US has been held up by the media as an example of how badly things can go wrong—in May, the Nation passed New York City for the highest per-capita rate of COVID-19 in the US.
Underlying the current situation with Indigenous communities and pandemic response is a long history of issues with government funding for Indigenous health care, where Indigenous patients are often delayed or denied care due to jurisdictional discrepancies over which government (provincial or federal, in Canada) is responsible for covering costs. As detailed in a special brief by the Yellowhead Institute on COVID-19 and the Numbered Treaties in Canada, the current situation sheds light on the differing interpretations of treaty language around health care and the resulting implications for communities during the pandemic.
Even in places where COVID-19 has been contained, it has been a struggle for Indigenous leadership to assert their rights to control who can and cannot enter their territories. As lockdown restrictions have lifted (or as people have grown tired of staying at home), tourists are attempting to flock to Indigenous territories for their vacations in spite of the wishes of these communities to stay closed. In the US, this is happening in places like Glacier National Park in the territory of the Blackfeet Nation, which has chosen to stay in lockdown to protect members and is now dealing with Park tourists putting their community at risk. In Canada, First Nations on the coast of BC have clearly stated since the beginning of the pandemic that they are closed to outsiders, but non-Indigenous tourist operations have been ignoring these wishes and trying to open for business, leading to situations like the Haida Hereditary Chiefs deeming the Queen Charlotte Lodge sportfishing operation no longer welcome in Duu Guusd, the North Coast and the waters of Haida Gwaii.
During Times of Crisis, We Need to Listen to Communities
Both the history of pandemics and the present situation across Canada and the US show that the broader approaches taken by federal and provincial/state governments are not working for Indigenous communities. Many long-existing problems with health care access, funding, and reliable infrastructure for things like clean water—which Indigenous people have been asking for decades to be remedied—have exacerbated an already dire situation. Indigenous leaders are attempting to protect their people by instating checkpoints and deeming their territories closed to outsiders, but the public frequently ignores their authority. While there is no easy fix to any of these issues, it is clear that the place to begin is listening to Indigenous communities about what they need and how they want to manage their territories, whether during a time of crisis or not.
As provincial and territorial governments across Canada continue to respond to the COVID-19 public health crisis, businesses and individuals are looking for rapid economic recovery. Major projects – i.e. large, capital-intensive projects such as mines, hydro-electricity and pipelines – are central to the Canadian economy and form a key component of economic revitalization. These projects take place on Indigenous land and must only be developed with Indigenous Nations’ free, prior and informed consent. However, the push for economic recovery is resulting in efforts to fast-track major projects and bypass environmental and socio-economic oversight, in violation of Indigenous rights. This is particularly clear in the area of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
What is Environmental Impact Assessment?
EIA refers to:
“the process of identifying the future consequences of a current or proposed action. The ‘impact’ is the difference between what would happen with the action and what would happen without it,” (IAIA 2009).
EIAs are designed to identify, predict and mitigate the environmental and socio-economic effects of potential projects before they are authorized to proceed. EIAs are absolutely critical for Indigenous communities because it gives them the opportunity to voice their concerns, identify impacts on their lands and communities and shape the conditions under which the project should operate. Indigenous nations have historically been relegated to the sidelines of the EIA process. However, new EIA legislation and processes in Canada are moving toward a more meaningful role for Indigenous nations regarding consideration of Indigenous rights and recognition of Indigenous jurisdiction.
How is COVID-19 impacting EIA?
The Canadian economy plummeted in March of 2020 as a result of business shut-downs related to COVID-19. Rather than accommodating this unprecedented economic pause, jurisdictions responsible for EIA across Canada have tried to keep major projects rolling or find ways to speed them up. This approach has played out in three major ways, each of which have a detrimental impact on Indigenous communities:
1. Business as Usual: During the initial months of COVID-19 lock-down, various jurisdictions allowed regulatory processes for major projects to proceed rapidly, with little regard for Indigenous communities’ capacity to meaningfully participate. Despite the closure of Indigenous community offices, project referrals kept rolling in, regulatory timelines were unaltered and exploration work continued (such as the Ontario government’s decision to allow remote mine claim staking permitting processes, over the protests of Indigenous nations). While the protests of Indigenous communities resulted in some accommodations such as extended timelines, other measures are being put in place to speed up environmental reviews, such as doubling up process steps that usually occur sequentially.
2. Regulatory Rollback: The EIA process results in legally-binding conditions that a company must adhere to in order to construct and operate their project. Some of these conditions include requirements to monitor the project’s impacts and the effectiveness of its mitigation measures. Various Canadian jurisdictions have suspended some of these requirements (as well as others) in order to provide companies with greater operational free-reign. For example, the Alberta government suspended environmental monitoring requirements for oil sands producers, the Ontario government suspended a section of the Environmental Bill of Rights (since reinstated), and BC, Quebec and Saskatchewan granted leeway for non-compliance with environmental laws.
3. Fast-tracking: Perhaps the most worrisome development is an emerging trend to fast-track major projects with little-to-no scrutiny of environmental and social impacts. For example, Quebec’s Bill 61, would allow the government to expedite environmental reviews for 202 projects and make certain provisions of the Environmental Quality Act inapplicable (the bill received substantial backlash and is still under review). In Ontario, Bill 197 (COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, 2019) introduces substantial amendments to the province’s Environmental Assessment Act with the goal of reducing assessment time for major projects by up to 50%. Among many of the changes introduced by the Bill, automatic assessment for public sector projects will be replaced by a to-be-determined list of projects designated by Cabinet, class EIAs will be replaced with “streamlined” EIAs, and a mechanism enabling the public to request a full project review will be removed. Other examples of this trend include Alberta’s decision to allow open-pit coal mining in the foothills of the Rockies and advocacy from industry groups and think tanks to accelerate infrastructure projects while streamlining EIA processes.
All of these economic responses to COVID-19 put Indigenous peoples and their lands at greater risk. Moreover, these measures go against Canada’s legal duty to consult and accommodate Indignous nations, as well as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (fully endorsed by Canada in 2016) which states:
“Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own Indigenous decision-making institutions” (Article 18, UNDRIP) and
“States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources” (Article 32, UNDRIP).
Environmental impact assessments and Indigenous rights should not be sacrificed for the sake of rapid post COVID-19 economic recovery.
Canadians want the Canadian economy to recover as quickly as possible from the effects of the global pandemic. Indigenous nations also want a rapid recovery from COVID-19. Indeed, the pandemic is causing even greater impacts in vulnerable Indigenous communities, particularly given the history of infectious diseases devastating First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities as a direct result of colonization. Remote communities face particular challenges as they often have less access to medical equipment and financial resources.
However, business as usual, regulatory roll-back and project fast-tracking will hinder rather than help Indigenous communities. Indigenous nations need time and resources to carefully consider proposed projects that have the potential to impact their rights and territories. This may include undertaking community-based research with elders and citizens to identify values, concerns, knowledge and use – a process that needs to be respectful, appropriate and cannot be rushed.
Whether Indigenous nations choose to assess the project independently or collaboratively with the proponent or Crown, they need accurate information to inform their consent-based decisions and any conditions they may have for allowing a project to proceed.
In an interview with The Narwhal about EIAs being conducted during the pandemic, Firelight Director and Regulatory (EIA) Team Lead, Alistair MacDonald, stated:
“It can take two to three years to conduct an environmental assessment. That’s a heavy commitment for an individual nation. Capacity is very limited, very few nations have the funding capacity or human resources that they could devote a single person to a single environmental assessment. This is not a ‘business as usual’ environment we’re living in, especially for First Nations with multiple responsibilities in governance.”
Moreover, fast-tracking the EIA process does not guarantee that major projects will actually be completed faster and is likely to result in greater costs for government and corporations. In fact, most project delays result from social conflict regarding unaddressed environmental and social concerns which, from a business perspective, is not just time lost and money not being made, but also money being spent on heavy legal costs. One study found that almost half of mining projects in Canada between 2008 and 2012 were delayed and of that 81% of these projects were delayed due to “non-technical” issues such as lack of regard for social and environmental concerns thus resulting in court cases (Sestagalli 2017).
Designing Better EIA and Promoting Economic Reconciliation
Now is not the time to start gutting or bypassing EIA processes. The EIA process is far from perfect, but has made considerable advances over the past 50 years. New federal EIA legislation, new EIA legislation in BC and developments elsewhere in Canada (such as the Yukon’s initiative to improve its EIA process) recognize the essential role of Indigenous nations in the EIA, including the importance of early planning and Indigenous co-management. These processes need to be continuously improved upon to ensure that projects are sustainable, result in real benefits to Indigenous communities and avoid impacts to the environment and Indigenous rights.
One of the most innovative aspects of new Canadian EIA legislation is the ability of Indigenous nations to drive some or all of the process. The Impact Assessment Act, for example, includes mechanisms for delegating some of the impact assessment, or even substituting the entire process, to Indigenous jurisdictions. Indigenous nations are undertaking a greater role in preparing their own studies, writing up reports and co-managing the process. Despite fears raised by some, the meaningful inclusion of Indigenous nations in the EIA process is likely to speed up, rather than slow down project approval and construction. When Indigenous issues and concerns are adequately and appropriately dealt with from the earliest opportunity, proponents will avoid costly and lengthy mid-EIA battles and project design changes, as well as post-EIA legal challenges.
Economic recovery should not be driven by a focus on developing all major projects as quickly as possible, but by a focus on developing the right projects with a view to the future – particularly, those projects that promote sustainability and economic reconciliation with Indigenous nations. There are many examples of “shovel-worthy” projects that could benefit the environment and Indigenous communities, such as orphan well clean-up, Indigenous-led low carbon energy development, infrastructure development in Indigenous communities, and natural infrastructure projects. Whatever the project, it should be developed in partnership with the Indigenous nation on whose land it is situated. Additionally, Indigenous nations should take a leadership role in assessing and approving major projects that occur on their territories. Finally, Indigenous nations should take on a much more active project oversight role through mechanisms such as Indigenous guardian programs.
By developing the right projects, promoting true Indigenous partnership, enhancing Indigenous co-management, and supporting Indigenous leadership and oversight during the EIA process, Canada could seize this moment in history to shape a healthy, prosperous and just future together with Indigenous nations.
The First Nations Major Projects Coalition developed a Major Projects Assessment Standard (MPAS) that outlines Indigenous requirements for EIA of major projects. The MPAS provides 9 principles that must be adhered to during a major project assessment, including:
1. First Nations Rights will be respected, maintained, and promoted.
2. First Nations will be fully engaged in assessment and decision-making for major projects, integrating their laws, norms and values.
3. First Nations stewardship and governance rights and responsibilities will be respected and adhered to throughout the major project life cycle.
4. Ecological values and services will be maintained and if necessary, restored.
5. Impacts to Indigenous culture, socio-economic conditions, health, rights, title and traditional use will be properly assessed and managed to the satisfaction of the affected First Nations.
6. First Nations will have access to adequate resources, information, and time in order to inform their engagement and decision-making processes.
7. The major project assessment scope and process will adhere to agreed upon high quality practices and reflect First Nations values.
8. All projects will be assessed using a focus on total cumulative effects loading and best practice of cumulative effects assessment.
9. Adequate information will be provided to inform consent decisions made through First Nations’ Worldviews.
If Indigenous communities are experiencing regulatory rollback or fast-tracking there are a few things they can do which include:
- Directly contact investors and finance institutions to inform them of the risks the project creates through a fast-tracked process;
- Refer government and industry to the recent Moody’s Investor Services report titled Focus on Indigenous Rights Increasingly Vital for Project Execution;
- Talk to legal counsel and/or write a letter flagging the legal risk of bypassing meaningful engagement and/or consultation;
- Document all communication, concerns, and disputes on paper;
- Engage with other Indigenous groups involved in the same process and seek multi-nation unity in voicing their concerns;
- Seek support from the First Nations Major Projects Coalition’s Environmental Stewardship Technical Team which can provide further advice;
- Contact the Firelight Group for further advice and consultation.
We are so grateful for our staff and want to share more of their stories. We recently welcomed Gabe Mahamad to our team as an Environmental Monitoring Intern supporting the Impact & Benefit Agreement and Regulatory teams. We feel honoured to work with Gabe and are excited to be a part of his story. Here is his journey to Firelight in his own words:
“My name is Gabe Mahamad and I’m an Environmental Monitoring Intern with The Firelight Group. I’m currently entering my 4th year of Civil Engineering at the University of Alberta. Here’s a little bit about myself and what I do at Firelight!
My goal as an aspiring engineer has always been to use my technical skills to improve the everyday lives of people from communities all around the world. I chose the civil discipline knowing I’d be able to realize my goal while working on infrastructure projects that will have an impact on many people. Indigenous communities in Canada have an important role when it comes to big projects and new endeavors in the energy and resource sectors. With this in mind, I realized working for an Indigenous consulting firm was the perfect fit for me to not only develop my skills in a professional setting, but also work towards my personal goal of helping others.
My co-op placement with Firelight is my second of three co-op placements before I finish my undergraduate degree. My first placement was with Thurber Engineering, where I got hands-on experience working on various construction projects while performing materials testing and assisting in project management. I wanted to build off of that experience and luckily, I’ve been able to as an Environmental Monitoring Intern with Firelight!
I work with the Impact & Benefit Agreement and Regulatory teams at Firelight. Over the past couple of months, the two main projects I’ve been focusing on have been about Water Resource Management and Environmental Remediation. These are two areas of Civil Engineering that interest me so I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given. I spend most of my time writing and reviewing technical documents and attending meetings with clients. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a variety of professionals, including elders from many Indigenous communities. Working with such a diverse group of people has put me in a great learning environment that will help me develop my skills as I progress in my career. I’m having a great experience working with Firelight, and I’m looking forward to what the future will bring!”
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