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By Katlia (Catherine) Lafferty (she/her), Dene/Cree Metis from Northwest Territories, novelist and law student, currently residing on Lekwungen territory

Each and every square inch of so-called British Columbia was inhabited, well taken care of, and respected by Indigenous Peoples before colonization interrupted our sustainable way of living. Sustainability and Indigenous knowledge systems go hand in hand, and it’s important that educators acknowledge this when teaching environmental concepts.

Place-based teachings can show students how to care about their surroundings and may foster a desire to protect the environment they live in. Submersing students in nature should be done through the guidance of local Indigenous Peoples who carry a deep, intrinsic understanding of the history of the area. This type of education is vital to students knowing their place in the world, and it’s up to teachers to facilitate and support this process.

Place-based teachings are grounded in stories. Indigenous stories hold lessons and metaphorical values that align with natural laws of protecting the land, water, plants, and animals. As such, Indigenous legends and historical landmarks go hand in hand with environmental sustainability. There is a story behind every rock face, every creek, every river that only Indigenous Knowledge Keepers know. We may share these stories in order to educate others, but only if that knowledge is respected, used for good, and not culturally appropriated. Having a non-Indigenous educator teaching Indigenous knowledge systems is a type of cultural appropriation in and of itself, because there is no shortage of Knowledge Keepers in the community.

As educators, it’s important to ask if you and your students know the stories behind the mountains you look at through your classroom window from Monday to Friday. Do students know that the shortcut they take to school might be located on top of a sacred burial ground? For educators in Vancouver, do you know the story of the two sister mountains? They are not the lion mountains, as many so incorrectly refer to them. Do students know about Camossung (who Cammosun College is named after), who she was and where her spirit still lives to this day? Do you know about Coyote Rock in the Shuswap Nation territories? Do you know about the significance of the salmon run to Indigenous Peoples going back to time immemorial? Or the story of the Trout Children in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc? If not, I would recommend you learn alongside your students.

Invite Indigenous knowledge holders from the local community to share those oral histories and stories, so the next time a student looks out the school window they might see a significant landmark from a different viewpoint; one that will give them the tools to be able to work alongside Indigenous nations to protect the lands and waters as they have been doing for millennia. This act of respecting Indigenous traditional knowledge as equal to, and possessing teachings absent from, scientific knowledge will help to also eliminate racism and stereotypes.

As the Climate Writer in Residence at the West Vancouver Memorial Library this past winter, I made it my duty to learn about the territory that the library occupies and visited the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) Nation to collect their thoughts on the climate crisis. During my visit, the Elders shared with me concerns about encroachment of their lands due to the never-ending development that settlers often refer to as progress. One Elder, now 85 years old, told of a time when he was a child, cupping his hands in the Capilano River and drinking straight from the banks on the shore. He can’t do that anymore for fear of contamination because a busy highway runs right through their backyard. Speaking to the Elders filled me with urgency: we must pay attention to what Indigenous nations have to say because they are most affected by the majority of environmental disasters, especially considering large amounts of industrial pollution are released in the vicinity of reserves. Environmental racism is rampant in Canada.

Every evening when I returned to my accommodations after visiting with the Skwxwú7mesh Elders, I was able to relax in the sauna where I was reminded of my own home in the Northwest Territories, the subarctic. When on the land (Dechinta), I was able to go into sweat and prayer while listening to my relatives drumming. Afterward, I could go outside and jump into the freezing lake, a glacial pool, to cool off if only for a moment. That is where I am able to feel most connected to the land.

Rooting ourselves in our natural surroundings gives us an understanding of the significance of the territories we live on. Students will only act as change-makers in the future if they learn and care about these issues now and build their own personal connections to the land. Learning with and from the land can and should be done across all subjects and courses. Indigenous knowledge systems do not divide subjects, like history, socials, and science, because we know they are all connected. These categories all intersect with climate change.

There is a great opportunity for schools to address climate issues through the eyes of those who have witnessed the changes over centuries. Indigenous Peoples know the old stories and hold the key to solving the climate crisis. We know what it’s going to take to protect the land for future generations. We have always valued nature over greed. Had Indigenous Peoples been respected from the start of contact and had our knowledge of stewarding the land been heeded, we would not be in the climate crisis we currently find ourselves in, but it’s not too late. We must all work together and start to abide by Indigenous ways of being that do not pilfer the land and waters. We must seek out the teachings of local Knowledge Keepers and learn how to walk forward in the world, some of us as leaders, some as learners, all blazing a new trail together.


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