Under Western Skies 2014, Opening Day

This year’s third “Under Western Skies” conference at Mount Royal University was organized around the theme, “Intersections of Environments, Technologies, and Communities.” Since my studies in the Environmental Studies doctoral program at Antioch University New England have been revolving around that very intersection, I thought the conference would be an excellent learning experience for me. I was not disappointed; I left feeling that I had found not only new colleagues in scholarly pursuits, but also allies in climate change movement-building and, most importantly, new friends as well. I made connections with other engaged scholars, public intellectuals, activists and artists who see cultural work—criticism, composition and creation as central to the remaking of our relationship to “the environment,” to radically change how we live in relationship with other beings and with the earth herself.

    My proposed talk was a performative lecture inquiring into the environmental impact of media technologies and the wicked problem of how to recuperate the media for environmental activism when the media industry is responsible for enormous environmental degradation as well as environmental injustice towards unprotected workers in consumer electronics. I have been teaching media arts at the post-secondary level, in academia, that is, for almost 20 years now, and always felt that the arts were marginalized in environmental  studies as well as environmental activism. During this conference, I began to wonder whether my sense of marginalization as an artist may now be, to some extent, self-inflicted. The last two conferences in which I participated, The Association of Environmental Studies and Sciences and Under Western Skies, have both been quite welcoming of artists, writers, musicians and all us creative types. Rob Borschman and Liam Haggarty, two of the key organizers of the conference, were particularly welcoming of Teresa Konechne and I, who had proposed a series of experiences that did not quite fit within any of the typical categories of conference paper, presentation or workshop. We had originally proposed to host a series of story circles inviting conference participants to share stories of the land. For this year, they were not able to accommodate our joint proposal. However, my individual presentation, “Unscreening Mobile Devices” was accepted; and UWS did also invite Teresa to screen her film, Woven from the land: women. prairie. culture. (2010) In addition to her film, Teresa also offered to bring our new project, Wicked Questions: a Global Conversation on Climate & Change (read more about that project here).

The keynote presentations were all recorded, and UWS has been posting them on youtube. In these postings, I’d like to offer my own, personal take on the conference experience. This one will focus on the keynote talks of the first day. I should begin by giving kudos to the organizers, especially Robert Borschman and Liam Haggarty, whose attentive organizing created a dynamic conversation of interdisciplinary scholars, activists, and practitioners.

This third gathering in the series will see fifty-five interdisciplinary panels, seven keynote/plenary addresses, two receptions, a staged dramatic reading of a new play, four poster sessions, an interactive exhibition on the Berger Inquiry, and a new film on the environment.

The first day of the conference was organized to foreground indigenous voices and First Nations issues. The proceedings began and closed with a Blackfoot Traditional Welcome and Blessing, a moving story-talk by a Blackfoot elder. After he received gifts offered by the conference organizers,  we heard the inside story of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry from Justice Thomas Berger himself. The proposed pipeline would have started in Prudo Bay and crossed the US Canadian border. Justice Berger was commissioned in 1974 by the Canadian Parliament and the Ministry of Indian Affairs and Northern Development to investigate the social, environmental and economic impact of the proposed pipeline.  This was the first inquiry of its kind and on such a scale; $50 million was invested in gathering evidence.

Berger’s report set an important precedent, articulating two conflicting views of the North, “one as frontier, the other as homeland.” Justice Berger approached the study not simply in terms of a debate on the feasibility of a gas pipeline construction, but in the context of western expansionism in conflict with the people for whom the territory has been homeland for thousands of years. He was committed to hearing from those people who claimed the land as their home, the Dene and the Inuit who would be most affected by the pipeline construction. As Berger told the story, the Dene said to him, “shouldn’t indigenous people be funded to participate in the hearings?” Taking them up on that question, Berger spent three years gathering testimonials “from everyone in the villages to all the experts,” traveling across the arctic, to the most remote villages, to listen to testimonials of native residents. All the hearings were translated and many broadcast, so Dene and Inuit could listen and read the reports in their own languages. The 40,000 page report he produced apparently shocked the government that commissioned it; he concluded that the region was too susceptible to environmental damage and recommended that the pipeline should not be built across the northern Yukon. His report has been called by some, "Canada's Native Charter of Rights."

Forty years after the Berger inquiry, the Keystone XL pipeline project raises the same debate. Berger’s study is so timely, and his principled approach extremely instructive for environmental activists of today. Berger spoke about writing the report in accessible language, so that anyone who wanted to learn about the case could read it with ease. A French editor worked alongside him as he wrote the report, to craft a translation that retained the accessible idiom of Berger’s writing. This way of working  was a new experience for the interpreter and expedited the delivery of a translation to the francophone readers. Berger also advocated passionately for the fragile ecosystems of the Valley, highlighting the plight of the great herd of Woodland caribou, one of the last great herds on earth. The Mackenzie Valley is the one of the only places on earth where the caribou can calve and nurse. Berger also highlighted the power of the corporation to influence testimony, as illustrated in an amusing (and distressing) anecdote about the aestheticist who argued that “the cuts in the forest would bring welcome relief to the eye of the viewer from the air.” Who would be flying around for that kind of “welcome relief”?  This was a landmark case in which a decision was made to prioritize the rights of first Nations and consideration of ecological impacts above the need for industrial resources. Remarkably, this inquiry occurred in the midst of an energy crisis. The protestors of the Keystone XL pipeline project should be studying this case and telling this story, demanding a similarly, principled inquiry. The Reject and Protect campaign of the Cowboy Indian Alliance that rode into Washington D.C. in April are confronting similar arguments that advocates of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline were faced with forty years ago. UWS models how academic conferences can marshall the resources of universities to support activists, defenders, community organizers, and citizens to link these actions and construct a counter-narrative to the one currently dominating the mainstream media.

Indigenous women are leaders in constructing this counter-narrative to the mainstream narrative of gas=progress of which Justice Berger spoke. Four original organizers of the Idle No More movement followed Justice Berger. The UWS program provided this description of the speakers:

Idle No More is one of the largest Indigenous mass movements in recent history and has sparked hundreds of teach-ins, rallies and protests across the continent and beyond. The four keynote speakers are Idle No More organizers, and have participated in the growth of this powerful movement since the first teach-in on Nov.10th, 2012. Dr. Alex Wilson (Opaskwayak Cree Nation) is a community activist, educator and researcher. Sylvia McAdam (Saysewayhum) is a nehiyaw and a direct descendant of signatories to Treaty 6, an educator and is currently working at the U of S. Erica Violet Lee is a Cree student at the University of Saskatchewan, and an advocate for Indigenous youth and women. Sheelah McLean is a white settler from Treaty 6 Territory, a teacher, and PhD student in integrated anti-racism at the University of Saskatchewan.

    Dr. Alex Wilson (Opaskwayak Cree Nation) gave a galvanizing overview of the movement. She opened with a beautiful painting by First Nations artist, Daphne Odjig, CM OBC, depicting the Cree and Ojibwe creation story. Dr. Wilson “read” the painting as a demonstration of indigenous epistemology in which no conflict exists between science and cosmology. The painting reflects the importance of relationality in indigenous culture and the understanding that the earth is alive. The image punctuated Dr. Wilson’s statement that “colonization doesn’t define us.” She likened the Idle No More movement to a rhizome-like Wild Ginger plant (check with her for correct name); “if you pull off one piece, more will grow.” The structure of the movement is non-hierarchical and regenerates continuously; everybody is a leader. An indigenous philosophy of revolutionary education underlies the movement; their philosophy is grounded in gender self-determination and body sovereignty—that is, a non-binary conception of gender that rejects and replaces the binary one of Western constructions of gender. She concluded with a teaching of “sakihiwawin,” which means “showing love in actions.” I thought of the work of bell hooks, whose writing on “teaching with love” have inspired and guided me throughout my teaching life.

    Sheelah McLean spoke next about “the grand narrative that infuses people with the identity of goodness and innocence, and makes normal the violence we allow.” As a white settler, she sees her charge in education as one of working in solidarity with indigenous peoples on decolonization. Her analysis of the Group of Seven artists in Canada highlighted the underlying concept of “terre nullius” made manifest in their “empty” landscape paintings, affirming the doctrine of discovery that justified the genocide of the indigenous inhabitants. Education, she argues, contributes to the erasure of indigenous bodies and histories. Solidarity is a lifelong learning process, McLean reminded us. “We have to unpack daily the messages that make racism, violence, and colonialism normal.” Defenders of the Land, a network of indigenous communities, has created an alliance Idle No More and created the Skills for Solidarity series to renew the relationship between white settlers and indigenous people.

    Erica Violet Lee (Plains Cree) was a strong, youth voice on the Idle No More panel. She spoke of the awareness among indigenous youth that “activism” is a matter of survival. She was fortunate to attend a Sasketoon public school where smudge was the norm, and where elders shared their stories in school. Erica is passionate about reclaiming spaces, spaces that have been contaminated by stereotyped caricatures of indigenous people. These caricatures strip indigenous youth of their power. As an act of resistance, Erica pasted a poster that read, “People Not Mascots” on a Blackhawks emblazoned sign in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Her intervention launched a campaign to change racist names and mascots of sports teams. Her blog eloquently makes the connection between mascots and land rights: “Perpetuating this view of Indigenous people insures that the invasion of land and assuming ownership of resources is justified.”

    The last speaker on the panel, Sylvia McAdam (Saysewayhum), is a lawyer and a mother and a powerful warrior of words. She asserted that she is not an activist…”I’m defending,” she said. “It’s all good to hug trees, but remember whose land you’re on.”  Her story of growing up enlisted into forced labor in the sugar beet fields of Lethbridge and of her father’s hunting cabin being burnt to the ground underscored how contemporary the struggle over land is. “History is not written in history books; it’s written on the land,” she learned as she recounts how she returned home and fell in love with the land, and also saw how the logging that was destroying her home. Her scrutiny of the law unearthed the original language of the treaties and evidence that the First Nations never surrendered legal authority over their territories. According to Canadian law, “if something is silent, its title is retained by the original owner.” Thus logging on Treaty 6 territory is breaking the law. She cited the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and spoke out against the Harper government that is desperately pushing through Bill C-45, an omnibus bill that paved the way for expansion of the tar sands mining and building of a pipeline. “Canada has no title; it’s a fraudulent government,” said McAdam. The Treaties promised every family of 5 or more one square mile of land, so people could live off the land. “I would like my one square mile,” but Canada continually violates the Treaties again and again, impinging on unceded territory.

    Sylvia’s talk resonated with Alex’s comments about an indigenous philosophy of revolutionary education in which body sovereignty is tied to land sovereignty. Here’s Sylvia’s call to action in an interview for Yes! Magazine:

“That is why I encourage everyone in Idle No More, here and our supporters in the U.S. to please, find your voices. Never stay silent, because in Canada, that legally means you have acquiesced, or you legally agree with decisions made by others about your future. Find your voice in poetry, song, art, organizing, any way you can in order to resist these various pipeline and tanker projects through our land and waters…We women have led this movement, and I will continue, to my last breath, to defend."

    She closed with the northern Saskatchewan prophecy that “the drums will return to women and the world will change.”



New Dawn Drum Group: sisters, Alecia Charles, Marcia Bird, Margaret Bird, and Ariel Charles.