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How Environmentalism’s White Supremacist Roots Branch into Today’s Struggles

An excerpt from 'The Environmentalist’s Dilemma' by author Arno Kopecky, out this week.

Arno Kopecky 13 Oct

Arno Kopecky is an environmental journalist and author. His two previous books are The Devil's Curve and The Oil Man and the Sea, a finalist for the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award. He lives in Vancouver.

[Editor’s note: Tyee contributor Arno Kopecky’s new book, The Environmentalist’s Dilemma, does not offer panaceas or easy answers. Instead, it engages head on with paradoxes, dilemmas and nuance — not to mention issues environmentalists often avoid, like “overpopulation.”

In this excerpt, Kopecky explores the white supremacist roots of some of the West’s foundational environmentalists, and how these roots make collaborations between mainstream environmental groups and Indigenous peoples complex to this day.

We have also published an interview with Kopecky today. Read it here. You can also catch him in conversation with J.B. MacKinnon at the Vancouver Writers Festival on Oct. 22 at 2:30 p.m. PDT, at Performance Works.]

In his 2017 essay “Canada’s National Parks Are Colonial Crime Scenes,” the Kwantlen journalist and author Robert Jago laid bare the terrible social cost of Canada’s earliest environmental impulse.

“Canada’s parks departments have treated Indigenous peoples like an infestation ever since the founding, in 1885, of Banff National Park,” Jago writes. Not only were Indigenous peoples forcibly evicted, they were also barred from returning for any reason. Jago quotes George Stewart, the park’s superintendent at the time, who complained of the Indigenous presence in Banff that “their destruction of the game and depredations among the ornamental trees make their too frequent visits a matter of great concern.”

And so the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Tsuut’ina Nations and the Stoney Nakoda Nations were banished from their territories, as were the Indigenous occupants of the land transformed into every national and provincial park that sprouted across the country in subsequent years. Not content to stop there, Canada’s legislators decided the land’s original inhabitants should be confined to isolated patches of unproductive earth, the more remote the better, which they could only leave with special permission from the local Indian Affairs officer. This reserve system became a political tourist attraction, drawing legislators from South Africa who studied and then used it as a model in creating the infrastructure of Apartheid.

You won’t see any of that context in a Group of Seven painting. Nor will you see the rich Indigenous history that preceded the colonial crimes Jago describes so painfully in his essay. “The places Canada has made into parks are filled with our stories,” Jago writes. “Every mountain, every valley has a name and a history for Indigenous peoples. It is in these places that our history is alive: our Mecca is here, our Magna Carta, our Thermopylae.”

In the 1930s, while Afrikaners were touring Canada, a newly minted Nazi party began studying the 19th-century U.S. legislation that created the legal architecture for America’s pursuit of genocide. In the U.S., the project was described as “pushing the western frontier.” The Germans boiled it down to “Lebensraum,” and their substitution of Jews and Poles and Czechs for Sioux and Shasta and Mojave made the horror of its execution abundantly clear to most Americans. What it didn’t do was cause many of those same Americans to reflect on their own historical embrace of the very same policy.

One American Adolf Hitler particularly admired was Madison Grant, a Manhattan aristocrat born in 1887. Grant was a founding father of environmental conservation in the United States. He belonged to a circle that established America’s constellation of national parks, forests and game reserves. Grant was also an ardent defender of the American bison and California redwoods. But he was better known for his 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, or the Racial Basis of European History, which Hitler described as “my bible” in a fawning letter to the author. Grant’s book cast Nordic peoples as the natural leaders of humanity, pale and noble and rational, better at self-government than the darker Mediterranean peoples. The preservation of all that was noble in the human spirit, Grant believed, depended on maintaining its whiteness, and the preservation of ecosystems likewise depended on keeping dark-skinned humans out.

If only it was just a few bad apples. But the man chosen by president Roosevelt to head both the Forest Service and the National Conservation Commission was Gifford Pinchot, a dedicated member of the American Eugenics Society, which in turn was founded by Henry Fairfield Osborn, a dedicated naturalist who also headed the board of trustees for both the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Zoological Society. “It was an unsettlingly short step from managing forests to managing the human gene pool,” as Jedediah Purdy put it in a 2015 essay for the New Yorker.

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John Muir sits at Mirror Lake in Yosemite. Muir founded the Sierra Club; in 2020, the organization issued an apology for Muir’s racism. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

One of the most celebrated environmentalists in North America is John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. It was Muir’s literary activism that gave us Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier and other dazzling American national parks. He spent his life exploring continental America on foot, developing a language of the sacred that he brought to bear in his prolific nature writing. “The clearest way to the universe is through a forest wilderness,” he wrote.

What I wasn’t taught was how contemptuously he regarded Indigenous peoples in his early years. Muir described the Cherokee homes he came across in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina as “the uncouth... wigwams of savages” and compared them unfavourably to the settler homes of white men that were “stamped with the comforts of culture and refinement.”

Muir didn’t know, or didn’t care, that those “savages” were the descendants of a nation evicted by the U.S. army in 1832 in abrogation of their land treaty, a treaty the U.S. government ripped up the moment gold was discovered on Cherokee land. The Cherokee Nation was then forced to march over 2,000 miles in the middle of winter to Oklahoma, a journey today commemorated as the Trail of Tears, because 4,000 people did not survive it.

Most of the other foundational environmentalists I was taught to revere took a much more active role in racial oppression: John James Audubon, founder of the Audubon Society, enslaved people all his life. Aldo Leopold, legendary author of the environmentalist bible A Sand County Almanac, worried that immigrants would “overrun the country.”

The list is endless, the message clear: “Wilderness” and “nature” as we talk about them today are the artifacts of men for whom the conservation of an ecosystem was inextricably bound up with the preservation of unequal race relations. For a place to be natural and wild meant it was free of humans — especially humans of certain pigments.

Later generations of environmentalists — people like me — might abhor our forebears’ unabashed racism. (In the wake of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, the Sierra Club issued a public apology for its founder’s racism and promised to address systemic racism within the organization, prompting other environmental groups to follow suit. “A good first baby step,” said Robert Bullard, adding, “In my opinion, none of them have taken a strong stand in the way their white privilege sucks up damn near all the green dollars from foundations and donors, away from people of colour.”)

But we’ve inherited their world of ethnically cleansed parks whether we like it or not. More subtly and pervasively, we’ve also inherited their language, which infuses our descriptions of the environment with a vocabulary of eugenics: we elevate purity, admire supposedly pristine ecosystems and unblemished landscapes, untouched and untarnished by human hands.

There’s a deep irony in these white men striving to protect wild spaces by forcibly removing the very people who know how to take care of those wild spaces. A century later, after all that’s been lost, we’re only just starting to address that irony. In 2017, the United Nations Environment Programme reported that Indigenous peoples across the globe — some 370 million people — “own, occupy or use up to 22 per cent of the global land area, which is home to 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Often overlooked by governments, their role in safeguarding territories from environmental degradation has largely gone unnoticed and undocumented until now.”

In Canada, Indigenous peoples have for some years been the most powerful force in environmental protection. No other group even comes close. Non-Indigenous environmentalists and concerned citizens weigh in on major new projects, from pipelines to megadams; we speak as interveners at public hearings, or write clever books, or wave placards outside Parliament. But only Indigenous peoples have the force of law on their side.

Aboriginal law, as it’s still formally known, is both the newest and fastest-evolving section of Canada’s legal code. If you ask me, it’s also the most interesting. It captures the way we’re just making this all up as we go, as well as how Indigenous perspectives are finally working their way into Canada’s legal architecture.

Consider that the entire field of Aboriginal law stems from a single sentence in our Constitution, known as Section 35: “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.” Because the treaties were written in the vague, archaic language of the 17th and 18th centuries, and because many were arguably signed without informed consent, and because they were subsequently ignored or abused by the Canadian government (for instance, by responding to the promise of free education written into many treaties with the residential school system) — because of all these gaping uncertainties and acts of bad faith, it’s terribly unclear what “the existing aboriginal and treaty rights” are exactly. That’s what the courts have been spelling out, precedent by precedent, ever since Section 35 was drafted in 1982.

Section 35 does include a crucial addendum: “For greater certainty, in subsection (1) ‘treaty rights’ includes rights that now exist by way of land claims agreements or may be so acquired.” This sentence, which reads like an afterthought to an afterthought, became the foundation of Indigenous land defence in Canada, especially in British Columbia, where almost no treaties were ever signed. (Except for a small handful of treaties on Vancouver Island, the entire province was simply taken without even the veneer of a legal contract.) As a result, Section 35 has had tectonic repercussions not just for Indigenous communities but for the environmental movement as well.

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Protesters converge near Clayoquot Sound in 1993. Photo by Mark Hobson.

It was Section 35 that sparked the biggest environmental protest in Canadian history, the “war in the woods” to protect the old-growth forests of Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, which culminated in the arrest of more than 800 protesters in 1993.

That drama was first sparked in 1984 by the plan to log Meares Island, the traditional territory of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, for whom the ancient cedars and spruce trees — many well over 1,000 years old — made the island one of several sacred sites within Clayoquot Sound.

MacMillan Bloedel (the logging company licensed by the province to clear cut Meares Island) and the provincial government thought the Tla-o-qui-aht were being ludicrous when they hired a lawyer to argue that Meares Island was legally theirs.

Section 35 was two years old, and the concept of Aboriginal Title was unheard of. Up until then, industry and government logged and fished and laid pipelines wherever they wanted, without a moment’s thought about anyone’s consent but the Crown’s. But the court ruled that Section 35 did indeed give the Tla-o-qui-aht the right to pursue Aboriginal Title to Meares Island; furthermore, until ownership of Meares was established, nobody would be allowed to log it.

In response to that injunction, MacMillan Bloedel accelerated old-growth logging elsewhere in Clayoquot Sound, which led to the historic protests that finally reverted control over Clayoquot Sound to the Tla-o-qui-aht, Ahousaht and Hesquiaht First Nations — sort of. Almost 40 years later, the Tla-o-qui-aht still don’t have formal title to their own land, but Meares Island remains uncut, protected by that 1984 logging injunction, and Clayoquot Sound is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

So far, out of the 634 First Nations in Canada, only one — the community of Xeni Gwet’in, which forms part of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government in central B.C. — has regained Aboriginal Title to a portion of its traditional territories. It took them 25 years in court to get it. That tells you why it doesn’t happen more often; these legal imbroglios have burned through the time, talent and financial resources of entire generations of Indigenous communities. But the wave of legal victories is building, and it’s already had a profound effect on the landscape of First Nations rights and environmental struggles.

Section 35 is the reason we now speak of the government’s duty to consult First Nations on any industrial project that affects their traditional territory. Wherever a First Nation can demonstrate a reasonable claim to the land, a claim they may one day argue in court, federal and provincial governments are legally compelled to gain their informed consent before licensing a major industrial project. That’s why the Northern Gateway pipeline project got cancelled. That’s why the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project was shut down for almost two years, forcing the government to substantially enhance its environmental safeguards. The Coastal First Nations who tried to quash the project entirely may have failed to do so in court, but they came a hell of a lot closer than any of the other groups who tried. That story isn’t over, either. For now, it’s moved outside the courthouse, where it still has more power than any “purely” environmental protest ever will.

The environmental movement is well aware of this. That’s one of the reasons why so many of Canada’s environmental campaigns centre Indigenous voices. Non-Indigenous environmentalists aren’t always the best allies, and lord knows it took us too long to get here. For many years, and sometimes still today, predominantly white non-profits and journalists and politicians have exploited First Nations’ unique standing (and precarious finances) in order to advance their own agendas. It’s not for me to say how far non-Indigenous environmentalists have come or have yet to go, though I do think it’s accurate to note that we recognize legal and moral authority when we see it.

Perhaps the best way to put it is how Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council in southern B.C., once put it to me.

In 2018, the Ktunaxa were fighting to prevent a massive ski resort from being built on long-sacred ground; a broad coalition of environmental groups were also opposed to the resort, though they valued the region for being prime grizzly bear habitat and an unparalleled back country ski destination, too.

“We may be walking in the same direction,” Teneese said when I asked about her relationship with those non-Indigenous environmentalists, “but we’re not holding hands.”

Excerpted from 'The Environmentalist’s Dilemma' by Arno Kopecky. Copyright 2021 Arno Kopecky. Published by ECW Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.  [Tyee]

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