Land Back and Climate Action

By: Graeme Reed & Jen Gobby


Jen Gobby is a settler activist-scholar, course lecturer at McGill University and post-doctoral fellow at Concordia University.  She is the author of the book and report More Powerful Together and co-author of the recent report Decolonizing Climate Policy in Canada. She is the founder of the MudGirls Natural Building Collective and lives in the forest in rural Quebec.

Of mixed Anishinaabe and European descent, Graeme is a doctoral candidate at the University of Guelph who studies the intersection of Indigenous governance, environmental governance, and the climate crisis. At the same time, he works at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) as a senior policy advisor, ensuring federal and international climate policy safeguards First Nations rights, jurisdiction and knowledge.


Real climate solutions are rooted in the return to the land

Eriel Deranger, Indigenous Climate Action

In Canada and around the globe, average temperatures have been steadily rising over the last century, despite an unrelenting number of declarations, political pledges, and high-level meetings promising ambitious greenhouse gas reductions. These approaches have been largely unsuccessful due to their oversimplification of the problem. Governments, businesses, and non-governmental organizations focus on the question, “How do humans achieve a reduction in their emissions of greenhouse gases in the coming few decades?”[i]  This one-dimensional approach is exclusively concerned with the symptoms of the climate crisis, rather than the root causes – the interrelationship of colonialism, capitalism, and carbon – and their disproportionate impact on Indigenous Peoples and their governance processes, rights, and knowledge systems. An Indigenous approach to these crises shifts the focus towards the land, understood as a “system of reciprocal relations and obligations [that] can teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and the natural world in non-dominating and non-exploitative terms.”[ii]

Indigenous Peoples in what we currently call Canada have been standing up for their lands, waters, and territories since time immemorial through, for example, direct action led by land defenders at Wet’suwet’en, 1492 Land Back Lane in Caledonia, or more recently the Nuluujaat Land Guardians. These efforts, framed under the ‘Land Back’ movement, are not only about returning land to Indigenous authority and jurisdiction, but they also embody ambition for the “land to be alive so that it can perpetuate itself, and perpetuate us as an extension of itself. That’s what we want back: our place in keeping land alive and spiritually connected.”[iii] Indeed, Indigenous-led land guardianship has been recognized internationally for its benefits for conservation, self-determination, and, perhaps most-directly related to this conversation, climate change mitigation. Halting future oil and gas development – a contribution that land and water defenders rarely get recognized for – is the most straightforward strategy for climate change mitigation. This would prevent the current projected annual increase of fossil fuel production (2% per year) which by 2030 is expected to be more than double the production rate consistent with the 1.5°C limit.[iv]

In this short commentary, we discuss the connection between climate, Indigenous Peoples, and the growing Land Back movement, arguing for a fundamental reorientation of climate discussions to focus on land. To do this in dialogue, each author independently responded to the questions: How does Land Back interact with other processes of climate action? Do Land Back and climate action go hand-in-hand? – drawing on our positionalities as an Anishinaabe-European scholar and guest on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) (Graeme) and a settler scholar guest in Tiohtià:ke on the lands and waters of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation (Jen). We follow this with a written response to each other’s initial discussion and then close with a reflection on our dialogue and the intersection between Land Back and climate action.

How does Land Back interact with other processes of climate action? Do Land Back and climate action go hand-in-hand?

Response 1: Graeme

As an Anishinaabe-European scholar, it is appropriate to introduce my positionality in relation to this question. Aanii. Graeme Reed nindizhinikaaz. Ottawa nindoonjibaa. I was born and raised in Ottawa, with mixed ancestry from England, Scotland, Germany, and Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island. For the last five years, I have worked at the Assembly of First Nations, fully immersed in First Nations culture, struggle, and politics, specifically issues focused on the land, water, air, and animals. I share this because of how it influences my perception, interaction, and analysis of the world around me, as well as how it connects to my perspective on these questions. To me, Land Back is climate action at its core.

Two summers ago, I had the privilege of spending a week ‘in the bush’ with a mentor of mine up at the border of Northwest Territories and Alberta. In between offering tobacco (sema) to harvest sweetgrass and search for wild mint, Elder Francois Paulette spoke about the importance of balance and reciprocity: taking only what we need and giving back to the Earth when taking anything from it. While engaging in that small ceremony – the exchange of sema for the sweetgrass – an ancient knowledge system was invoked that is “calling for validation …of [ancient knowledge systems] in our contemporary times.”[v] Treating the land in non-dominating and non-exploitative terms is the opposite of how land is treated now. Governments, businesses, and corporations insist on ‘planting trees’ or buying carbon offsets, while maintaining the same extractive practices that have gotten us to this ecological tipping point.

When we challenge these practices by (re)learning how to live in reciprocal relationships with humans, more-than-humans, and all of Creation, we are actively applying a knowledge system that has the potential to transform how we conceptualize and implement climate solutions. Instead of embedding a model of tweaking, where governments, businesses, and corporations try to “escape the consequences of what [they] are doing, without changing what [they] are doing,[vi] we can shift our focus to the interrelationship between the three C’s – colonialism, capitalism, and carbon. This shift was well articulated at a Nature-Based Climate Solutions conference hosted in Ottawa in 2020: climate action is about “transformation that shifts the paradigm away from a hyper-consumerist culture to a paradigm rooted in relationships that value the nexus of people, land and reciprocity.”[vii] Land Back is central to solutions that lift up the long-standing, unique and distinct dimensions of Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge systems and experiences.

Response 1: Jen

I came to climate activism and climate research because I was concerned about climate change and how it threatens my future, and the future of the people and places that I love. Over the last decade I have come to realize that I am a settler living on stolen Indigenous land. Through the years, I have also learned that actively supporting Indigenous rights and resistance means fighting for a climate-safe future for myself and for the people and places I love.

The environmental movements I am part of have come to understand the connections between Indigenous rights and climate change, too. But sometimes this is happening in ways that frame solidarity with Indigenous Peoples as ‘the right thing to do,’ as the righting of past wrongs, or as the justice dimension of the ‘just transition’. However, this is missing the crucial point: Indigenous Peoples, their rights, and their relationship and responsibility to the land are not a sidenote to climate action. Indigenous self-determination is the key to transforming the ongoing systems that are driving the climate crisis.

Canada would not have the massive carbon footprint that it does today if Indigenous Peoples’ rights had been respected through the country’s history. It is only by violating Indigenous Peoples’ inherent, treaty and constitutional rights and dispossessing Indigenous Peoples from their lands that the Canadian state has been able to extract fossil fuels at the rate and scale it has. Again and again, through Canada’s history and at present, Indigenous lands are stolen and their rights are violated in order for the state and industries to extract resources and accumulate wealth and power. This is the system my ancestors brought to Turtle Island, and then implemented through force. And this system is still being upheld by force today, driving the profoundly unjust and unsustainable situation we find ourselves in.

While federal climate policy in Canada fails to drive the kind of change the climate crisis demands, I have come to see Land Back as the most effective and transformative climate policy. And as a settler, I seek to actively support it, not as charity and not only as the righting of past wrongs. I support Land Back because it is precisely the kind of profound transformation of power relations that is required to meaningfully address the root causes of climate change.

The idea and process of giving up and giving back wealth and power and ease that being a settler in a settler colonial country has provided me is uncomfortable. But the urgency I feel over global climate change has transformed how I perceive self-interest. Giving up the excesses that colonialism has bestowed upon me seems like a very reasonable trade-off for a planet where life on earth, including my own human life, can continue.

Response 2: Graeme

One of Jen’s statements really stood out to me: Indigenous self-determination is the key to transforming the ongoing systems that are driving the climate crisis. Not only did this recognize the ongoing systems that are driving the crisis and its connection to the three interrelated C’s identified in my first response, but it also spoke to the centrality of self-determination in Land Back efforts and climate action.

The creation of a ceremony-ground for Indigenous-led climate solutions requires a clear understanding of how the current world, what some would refer to as the ‘‘heteropatriarchal capitalist modern/colonial world system”[viii] interacts with Indigenous Peoples. In identifying the way in which Canada has violated the inherent, treaty, and constitutionally protected rights of Indigenous Peoples, Jen hit on something that is rarely discussed in the climate conversation. That is, the ongoing legacy of colonialism, land dispossession, and systemic racism and how it interacts with the capacity of Indigenous Peoples to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. This legacy finds its way into present-day discourse as governments and businesses call for ‘building back better’ without any regard to inequitable starting points. In a similar fashion, Potawatomi scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks to the origin of the economic system as one of scarcity, accumulation, and competition. As she documents her relationship with the Serviceberry (Bozakmin in Potawatomi), she describes an alternative approach to economic organization, a gift economy that “arise[s] from the abundance of gifts from the Earth, which are owned by no one and therefore shared.”[ix]

Shifting the economy’s organizing principle from scarcity to abundance opens up the possibility of expanding the narrative around ‘winners and losers’ in global discussions on ‘just transitions’ towards one of cooperation and reciprocity grounded in a responsibility to care for the land in its entirety. Land Back, in this context of abundance, is not actually about taking physical land away from settlers (although, those who hold violent and extractive goals may not fit in the gift economy); instead it is about first resetting our relationship with the systems and structures that seem to trap us in this box of thinking, and advancing the self-determination of Indigenous Nations to reclaim their rightful place as Nations. Truly transformative climate action can only be attained when it is “based on the gift-reciprocity relationship of interdependency and mutual aid learning from Mother Earth.”[x]

Response 2: Jen

Graeme wrote in his first response about Elder Francois Paulette’s teachings of the importance of reciprocity. Of tobacco offered, as a giving back, for the taking of sweetgrass. In a seminar course I am teaching at McGill’s Bieler School of Environment, we are reading  Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. In it, Kimmerer raises up reciprocity as the counterforce to extractive worldviews and economies. The students, mostly settlers like myself, find the stories in the book deeply inspiring – offering a profoundly different picture of the relations between people and the land than they are familiar with. It is bringing them new hope about what real climate solutions can look like. The students are asking themselves and each other some hard questions, like: “I am starting to see what it could mean to live in reciprocal relationship with the land, but I am having trouble imagining … how could we, as settlers, foster reciprocal relations with Indigenous Peoples whose stolen land we are living on?”

We can begin to answer that question through a powerful set of concrete actions that Christi Belcourt, Michif visual artist, offered during a keynote address at a symposium hosted by École d’innovation sociale Élisabeth-Bruyère in November 2020. She told the audience that almost every time she gives a talk, a settler will stand up and ask, “What can I do?” In response, she identified a long list of actions that settlers can take to actively support Land Back. As I was trying to write these teachings down as fast as I could, several stood out:

  • Participate in measures that legalize the rights of Mother Earth and recognize the authority of Indigenous Peoples in their territories to make decisions.
  • Centre Indigenous leadership and give your seat up at the table to amplify the voice of Indigenous leaders and land defenders.
  • Fundraise and support frontline land defenders if you can’t put you own body on the line.
  • Push for those who are leaving estates to give land back in their will; transfer private land ownership.
  • Push for laws that recognize collective Indigenous land ownership.
  • Start to research and find out whose land you are on, and to follow their laws and protocols, which have been functioning for thousands of years.
  • Believe the Earth is alive, believe that she has spirit.
  • Fight white supremacy however you can. If you want to run for government or positions of power, do it with the express purpose of changing laws. If you want to join the police, when you are called up to be violent towards Indigenous Peoples to protect industry, refuse to do so.
  • Organize, organize, organize.

Path forward

We began this article asking ourselves: How does Land Back interact with other processes of climate action? Do Land Back and climate action go hand-in-hand? From our different vantage points, we both contend that Land Back is an essential form of climate action: Indigenous self-determination is the key to transforming the ongoing systems that are driving the crisis. This form of dialogue, while slightly condensed, is essential to exploring the opportunities and challenges of framing (and implementing) Land Back as a climate solution.

Current climate policy in Canada continues to oversimplify the climate ‘problem,’ framing it as solely about reducing greenhouse gas emissions through technological arrangements or market mechanisms that are de-politicized and ignore the root causes of the climate crisis.[xi] Our discussion provides examples of how Indigenous Peoples are challenging this oversimplification by advancing both resistance to extractive development and resurgence of Indigenous cultures, languages, and laws. In this sense, they are enacting real climate solutions every day. Nevertheless, ongoing land dispossession, extractive pressures, colonial policy and settler incursion attempt to hinder action by Indigenous Peoples. In spite of this, Indigenous Peoples continue to assert their relations of responsibility and reciprocity with their lands and waters, including through Land Back. Land restitution is required for Indigenous climate solutions to flourish – solutions that are, as Graeme put it, based in “cooperation and reciprocity, grounded in a responsibility to care for the land in its entirety.”

As Jen’s responses emphasize, settlers have important roles to play in Land Back. As Indigenous Peoples engage in transformative resistance and resurgence, settlers can engage in active solidarity by relinquishing control and leveraging access to power and privilege to dismantle and transform colonial systems. They can also unlearn extractive, oppressive relations with land and others. Together, our interventions emphasize the centrality of relations – illustrated by the simple, but powerful ceremony of exchanging sema for sweetgrass – and what we must do to rebalance these relationships from extraction and scarcity towards cooperation and abundance. As Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte has compellingly argued, the qualities of relations that are needed to foster the coordinated and collective action that the climate crisis demands – the relational qualities of consent, trust, accountability, and reciprocity – are sorely missing.[xii]

To build just and reciprocal relations, the fundamental power imbalance related to land needs to be rebalanced. Indigenous Peoples have powerful alternatives and climate solutions, but to unleash this transformative power, land and sovereignty must be returned.

[i] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The politics of climate change is more than the politics of capitalism” in Kum-Kum Bhavnan et al, eds, Climate Futures: Reimagining Global Climate Justice (London, UK: Zed Books Ltd, 2019) at 21–31.

[ii] Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2014) at 13.

[iii] Shiri Pasternak & Hayden King, “Land Back: A Yellowhead Institute Red Paper” (2019): Yellowhead Institute, online (report): <;.

[iv] The concept of Indigenous-led mitigation was first introduced to us by Eriel Deranger who provided several examples of the contributions that land- defenders provide. This statistic is from SEI, IISD, ODI, E3G, & UNEP, “The Production Gap Report: 2020 Special Report” (2020), online (report): <;.

[v] Nickita Longman et al, “‘Land Back’ is more than the sum of its parts” (10 September 2020), online: Briarpatch <;. 

[vi] Majandra Rodriguez Acha, “Climate justice must be anti-patriarchal, or it will not be systemic” in Kum-Kum Bhavnan et al, eds, Climate Futures: Reimagining Global Climate Justice (London, UK: Zed Books Ltd, 2019) at 21–31.

[vii] Diandra Bruisedhead et al, “Indigenous Caucus Statement” (Nature-based Climate Solutions Summit, Ottawa, February 2020), online: <;.

[viii] Arturo Escobar, Pluriversal Politics: The Real and the Possible (London: Duke University Press, 2020) at xii.

[ix] Robin Wall Kimmerer, “The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance” (20 December 2020), online: <;. Many other lessons are contained within this beautiful story. One that stood out to us is the requirement to transition away from scarcity as a guiding economic assumption towards abundance.

[x] James Tully, “Reconciliation Here on Earth” in Michael Asch, John Borrows & James Tully, eds, Resurgence and Reconciliation: Indigenous-settler relations and Earth teachings (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018) at 116.

[xi] Graeme Reed, Jen Gobby et al, “Indigenizing Climate Policy in Canada” in Frontiers in Sustainable Cities: Energy Justice in the Era of Green Transitions (forthcoming).

[xii] Kyle Whyte, “Too Late for Indigenous Climate Justice: Ecological and Relational Tipping Points” (2019) 11:1 WIRES Clim Change at 1.