There are many reasons I choose to collaborate with Indigenous communities, not least of which was a promise...
In 2009, I attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. Canada was best known for being a regular feature at the 'Fossil of the Day' awards, eventually earning us the 'Colossal Fossil' distinction as the country most hindering progress on climate change. This was largely due to our expansion of the Alberta tar sands/Athabasca oil sands.
While there, I attended a side event that included a Canadian book launch and networking event. Near the end of the night, I was introduced to then-National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations, who is also the Hereditary Chief of the Ahousaht First Nation on the West Coast. Not surprisingly, Chief Atleo and I chatted about Canada's inaction on climate change, and a great many other issues that all have implications for justice in Indigenous nations. Somehow, I ended up in a situation in which Chief Atleo asked if I would single-handedly take on the oil sands and bring justice to all communities - Indigenous or not - who are affected by climate change. I tried a few excuses - that's not really my area of expertise; I wouldn't know where to start; I could try but I can't make any promises - but Chief Atleo insisted that trying wasn't enough and, half-jokingly, that the task was now on me. He extended his hand and asked me, "Do we have an accord?"
I stared at his hand for a moment. I knew he was half-joking, that he didn't expect a young person with no life experience to actually take on the nation (at least not yet); although, I could sense that beyond the symbolic gesture of 'making an accord' at this international conference, there was truly some hope or expectation in his words that I would do something about something, even if not the oil sands. With zero confidence felt on my part, I shook his hand. "There, that was easy," he said. We joked about our leaders' inability to do what we just did, and we parted ways.
I was 20 years old and I committed to action. I also did not make this accord with just anyone; it was an agreement between two people of different nations, one of whom was a National Chief representing the voices of all First Nations across Canada at the conference. Not long before our handshake, I shared words lamenting our nation-to-nation history, which I later realized had to mean more than just words. Similarly, I couldn't let that agreement go unfulfilled. I was - and am - committed.
Do we have an accord?
From left to right: National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo (Assembly of First Nations, 2009-2014; Hereditary Chief of the Ahousaht First Nation), me, Randy Hayes (Director, World Future Council US Liaison Office), and Jakob von Uexkull (Founder of the Right Livelihood Awards, World Future Council). Jakob introduced Chief Atleo and I.