Arctic Indigenous conference spurs hope, fear

Ingrid Inga (right, Sami Parliament), Henriette Thompson (Anglican Church of Canada) and Mariann Lorstrand (left, Church of Sweden) at the Future of the Arctic: the Impact of Climate Change conference at Storforsen, Sweden. Photo: Contributed
Ingrid Inga (right, Sami Parliament), Henriette Thompson (Anglican Church of Canada) and Mariann Lorstrand (left, Church of Sweden) at the Future of the Arctic: the Impact of Climate Change conference at Storforsen, Sweden. Photo: Contributed
Published October 20, 2015

Hope mingled with horror this October at a church conference in Sweden dealing with climate change, Indigenous peoples and the Arctic, some participants from the Anglican Church of Canada say.

The conference, organized jointly by the Church of Sweden and the Canadian Council of Churches, saw 40 people from countries with Arctic land gather October 5-8 to share their experiences and plan more action against climate change.

On the one hand, conference attendees were riding a wave of optimism generated by the release of Pope Francis’s environment-focused encyclical last June, says National Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald.

“That very much was an animating factor in our gathering,” he says. With Laudato Si’, “the Pope articulated, in a way that is very forward-leaning, his concerns from a theologically grounded point of view, about the human response to climate change.”

In fact, many activists now feel that the world is on the cusp of dealing more seriously with climate change and its effects on Indigenous people, MacDonald says.

“There is a sense of forward movement, perhaps even a tipping point,” he says. “From a religious perspective, the papal statement and other responses show that there is a quickening of concern that is critical.”

But the optimism of attendees, MacDonald says, was mixed with a renewed sense of the urgency of acting to prevent climate change.

Henriette Thompson, the Anglican Church of Canada’s director of public witness for social and ecological justice, agrees that the conference served to heighten many attendees’ already intense concerns.

Attendees heard, for example, how climate change is affecting migratory patterns of animals as well as ice coverage on the water and many other vital aspects of the Arctic environment-in short, she says, “whole ecosystems, and within those ecosystems the human beings, the peoples who depend on those ecosystems for their lives-not just their livelihoods, but their lives.”

One particularly worrying presentation, Thompson says, was by Deborah Tagornak, of the KAIROS Indigenous Rights Circle, who read reports by scientists and others detailing the effects of climate change in the Canadian Arctic.

“We realized, with a sense of horror, that it was basically a litany for the North and for the Earth,” Thompson says.

The conference also heard about the disturbing and tragic effects climate change is having on the Sami people (formerly known in English as Lapps) of northern Scandinavia. Global warming is threatening the viability of reindeer herding, Thompson says, which until now “has been a mainstay of not just their economy but their whole way of life, their whole worldview, their whole understanding of who they are in relation to the earth and to the creator.”

Without reindeer herding, Thompson says, “there is a very real risk that the whole culture will implode, that there will be a sense of such deep loss and grief.” Already rates of suicides, especially among young men, are on the rise in Sami communities, she says.


Indigenous rights

One key impact organizers hope the conference will have is to help make sure Indigenous rights remain protected in a UN convention that is now being drafted. This document, part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, currently makes explicit mention of the rights of Indigenous peoples-but MacDonald and others worry, given the varied interests of parties at the table, that this reference to Indigenous rights may end up being deleted from the document at the UN’s Paris Climate Change Conference slated for this December.

“I think there’s a tremendous pressure in these things to make them concise, and everybody wants their particular issues to be highlighted,” MacDonald says. “You have nation-states who are trying to look after their own economic interests as well as trying to look after this concern, and Indigenous rights have traditionally been on the back-burner for these people. What we’re trying to remind them is that Indigenous rights are on the front-burner of climate change.”

Adds Thompson: “If that operative paragraph is revised and it removes the reference to Indigenous peoples, then it will take years to get it back in.”

Some key members of the Sweden conference, she says, will be attending the UN meeting, including Wilton Littlechild, a former Conservative MP, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and one of the architects of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

But influencing the Paris meeting was only the conference’s immediate goal, MacDonald says.

“There was a constant reminder that even if Paris is extraordinarily successful, that this had to be a long-term commitment and all of the churches involved had to have a longer point of view in terms of how we were going to move forward,” Macdonald says.


Spiritual solution

The crisis now gripping the Earth ultimately has a spiritual origin, MacDonald and Thompson say-and so it requires a spiritual solution.

“It is clear that governmental action alone will not solve this problem-a spiritual revolution is necessary to it,” MacDonald says. “In a sense, you could say that a spiritual revolution is part of the cause.”

This “spiritual revolution” of modernity, MacDonald says, meant the cutting of the world’s connection to spirituality; the world is now seen not as the creation of God or gods, but as a resource for exploitation. The church, then, “has to reassert the moral connection between human beings and the rest of creation, something that is elemental to Scripture and elemental to virtually every religious tradition.”

The response of participants to his own presentation, MacDonald says, gave him special food for thought. He told them, he says, that when he first became national Indigenous bishop, elders had said he should also act as a bishop for mother earth.

“It was interesting, because most audiences, when I tell them that, they say, ‘That’s interesting.’ But this group said, ‘So why isn’t every bishop supposed to do that?’ ” he says with a smile. “That’s a good question!”

In his June encyclical, subtitled On Care For Our Common Home, Pope Francis blasts consumerism and expresses concern for the environment, citing climate change and other threats.

The message begins with a nod to the medieval St. Francis of Assisi’s poem of praise to creation, including “our Sister, Mother Earth.”

“This sister,” the Pope writes, “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will.”

Pope Francis’s message also makes special mention of Indigenous peoples.

“They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed,” he writes.

In addition to Canada and the Scandinavian countries, conference organizers also tried to attract participants from Russia, but were not successful, Thompson and MacDonald say.


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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