In late June 2021, Western Canada experienced an unprecedented heat wave that saw the breaking of multiple records. Several cities reported temperatures above 40°C, which also resulted in a sharp increase of sudden heat-related hospitalizations and deaths across the province. While tragic, this is not surprising, as heat waves are very lethal environmental hazards.
However, the residents of Lytton, British Columbia (BC) faced the worst of it. On June 29th, the town reached the highest ever reported temperature in Canadian history at 46.9°C. Days later, wildfires ripped across Lytton, leaving the town almost completely destroyed. More wildfires have been raging across the province, and the extreme dryness intensified by the heat wave has made it very difficult for firefighters to extinguish them.
Experts agree that this heat wave was heightened by climate change. With this in mind, it is important to examine which communities are most impacted, and why. The scorching of Lytton reflects the fact that Indigenous peoples are currently facing the brunt of climate change in Canada, and unfortunately highlights the failure of governments and corporations to act effectively.
An important aspect of climate change is that its impacts are not equally distributed across populations. Rather, it is marginalized communities that are currently facing the brunt of heat waves, air pollution, and rising sea levels. For instance, Indigenous peoples, low-income communities, and women are more likely to be affected by climate change. As a discipline, climate justice is dedicated to not only recognizing, but also mitigating the effects of climate change as they disproportionately impact vulnerable communities.
In Canada, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples are hit particularly hard by the impacts of global warming. Many Indigenous cultures and livelihoods are directly tied to the land and waters, thus the melting of ice caps in Northern Canada and severe fires throughout the country are interfering with these land-based practices. Indigenous communities across the country also face a lack of government funding and support for adaptation and mitigation strategies, which then increases the inequities that already exist due to colonization.
Resource extraction projects on Indigenous territories also highlight the colonial policies that harm the land, such as the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline in northeastern BC. Despite the fact that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs voted against the project, the BC Supreme Court approved the construction that would plunder their land and release emissions. From the perspective of climate justice, colonialism must be addressed alongside climate change so that Indigenous communities can fully connect with their cultures and practices rooted in stewardship over the land.
The Nlaka’pamux First Nation
The town of Lytton was built on the territory of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation, who have occupied this land for thousands of years, and today more than 80% of Lytton’s 250 residents self-identify as First Nations. The town also has an older population, and the household median income is lower than the national average.
According to members of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation, their identities are tied to the land and the natural resources that they protect, such as traditional foods and plants. The Nation also relies heavily upon fishing to sustain its economic livelihood. Further, the community also highlights the importance of their individual and cultural health in order to be able to properly exercise their Nation’s right to steward the land.
Consequently, the burning of Lytton has significantly impacted the land and livelihood of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation. In particular, some have pointed to the devastating effect on Nlaka’pamux Elders, “many of whom have only ever known life in Lytton.” As such, the record-breaking heat and devastating wildfires worsened by climate change throughout the province have disproportionately harmed Indigenous and low-income communities.
Reports from Lytton residents also indicated that the provincial government took hours to respond to demands for aid and that despite the fact that wildfires occur annually in the Lytton area, there are still no government evacuation procedures in place. As climate justice highlights, marginalized populations on the frontlines of global warming often lack funding for environmental emergency preparedness, as well as plans for climate adaptation.
While BC Premier John Horgan described the heat wave and the wildfire destruction as “unprecedented,” scientists and activists have been vocal about the fact that these extreme events are only occurring more frequently. Experts argue that while the province is responsible for collaborating with municipalities and First Nations to create environmental adaptation strategies, BC’s “current climate change adaptation strategy is vague and lacks clear roles.” As such, Horgan has faced criticism for his government’s response to the Lytton wildfires.
Climate justice advocates believe that long-term adaptation and mitigation plans are important for not only addressing emergencies, but also the lack of resources many marginalized communities have for tackling climate change. First Nations in remote areas across BC have historically lacked funding for environmental hazard preparedness, and communities across the province have been requesting more government support for years. As well, Indigenous peoples have been fighting for the integration of cultural and land-based knowledge in these efforts, such as in wildfire suppression.
However, adaptation strategies alone will not slow the rate of global warming. Without large-scale mitigation plans that limit the amount of carbon emissions released into the atmosphere, record-breaking heat waves and wildfires will only occur more frequently and will continue to impact the traditions and livelihoods of Indigenous peoples and their lands.
For true climate justice to occur, exploitative extraction projects on Indigenous territories must end, and additional resources must be funneled into marginalized communities to better equip them for culturally meaningful environmental preparedness. Some are hopeful that this summer’s devastating consequences of climate change will further propel governments and industries to advance their carbon emissions strategies. Simultaneously, addressing the disproportionate impacts that climate change has on Indigenous peoples is a step towards reconciliation and justice.