Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.

The Colonial Dimension of Climate Migration

Already forced from traditional lands, Indigenous peoples face relocation or disruption as the world warms.

Maggie Quirt 21 Oct 2021The Conversation

Maggie Quirt is an associate professor in the department of equity studies at York University in Toronto. This article originally appeared in the Conversation Canada.

We are being increasingly warned about climate migration within Canada. And these warnings are a critical reminder of the fragile state of the Earth and our relationship to it.

But climate and weather events have already had a disproportionate impact on Indigenous communities in settler states like Canada. Such disparities are the calling card of colonialism.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre defines internal displacement as “the forced movement of people within the country they live in.” It recognizes that those affected include “Indigenous communities forced from their ancestral lands to make way for the construction of dams and other infrastructure projects.”

In Canada, however, it is not only development that has uprooted Indigenous peoples.

Treaty-making began the process of land theft, resulting in the forced relocation of Indigenous communities. The abduction of Indigenous children through colonial “education” and child welfare systems were further devastating displacements.

The Inuit High Arctic Relocations removed Inuit peoples from northern Quebec and Qikiqtaaluk to islands farther north, in part to “establish Canadian sovereignty.

In short, the internal displacement of Indigenous peoples in Canada is nothing new.

In addition to the historic displacement of Indigenous peoples to further colonial policies, the forced relocation of communities due to climate change and weather events is a contemporary Canadian reality.

Displaced from their traditional territories, many First Nations now reside on a fraction of their original land base. In some cases, these areas are prone to seasonal events, such as ice breakup and snow melt, that require moving residents to safer spaces.

Kashechewan First Nation in northern Ontario regularly evacuates its members each spring when the Albany River swells its banks. In 2016, more than 75 per cent of community members were temporarily displaced to Kapuskasing and Thunder Bay.

The Canadian Disaster Database tells the stories of numerous other affected Indigenous communities. Such forced migrations have prompted Indigenous peoples to call on the government to permanently relocate their communities to safer places.

When wildfires swept through British Columbia this summer, Indigenous communities felt the impact. The village of Lytton was destroyed by a fire in June — Indigenous people make up more than one-third of its population. And the White Rock Lake fire that happened in August claimed 10 properties on the Okanagan Indian Band reserve.

Discussions around moving due to climate change raise important questions about space, mobility and privilege. Canada’s historical preoccupation with containing Indigenous peoples through the reserve system means fewer options in the present day for communities to relocate. And those relocations that are permitted are often plagued by bureaucratic delay and oversight.

Climate change has also been a pressing issue for Arctic residents — the Earth warms faster at the poles. In her book The Right to Be Cold, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the former international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, outlines the impact of climate change on the North.

Rising sea levels and the reduction of land and ice have affected traditional hunting grounds. Shoreline homes and animal habitats have been destroyed. The gradual disappearance of the permafrost has impacted the built environment. And warmer temperatures make food storage more difficult.

All of this has had a significant impact on Inuit cultural practices. Watt-Cloutier argues that climate change must be fought in order to maintain traditional Inuit ways of living. Northern Indigenous communities, in other words, have “the right to be cold.”

Adaptation and relocation may be viewed as potential solutions to these challenges, but such initiatives must be Indigenous-led. Historically, the spectre of assimilation has haunted Indigenous displacements. We must do better.

All of us should be concerned about the impact of rising global temperatures. But we need to recognize that in the immediate future some communities will be more vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change than others. Not all displaced people within Canada have or will experience the same degree of privilege when it comes to reconfiguring their lives in response to climate change.

If we are serious about redressing Canada’s colonial history and repairing damaged relationships with Indigenous peoples, the disproportionate ways in which we experience our shared territory — and threats to it — cannot be left out of the equation.The Conversation  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Environment

  • Share:

Get The Tyee's Daily Catch, our free daily newsletter.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed


The Barometer

Should Fossil Fuel Ads Be Restricted?

Take this week's poll