Cities, Climate and Inequalities

A just energy transition for Indigenous Peoples:
From ideal deliberation to fairness in Canada and Australia

March 2024

Fabienne Rioux-Gobeil, PhD Student, Australian National University, Fenner School of Environment and Society


To fight climate change, Canada and Australia are setting what they consider to be ambitious renewable energy (RE) production targets (IEA, 2022; NTG, 2021; McConnell, 2022; DCCEEW, 2022). However, achieving such targets is mostly ambitious because it will rely on a massive increase in energy transition metals and minerals (ETMs) extraction as well as a large amount of territory for RE production (IEA, 2021; Sandiford, 2022). Since the vast majority of ETMs and RE potential is located on the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples, it is important to consider how these communities will benefit from the rapid expansion of this sector. This paper summary examines whether Canadian and Australian approaches for implementing energy transition on Indigenous territories are fair in light of environmental justice theories. It is with this in mind that the concept of fairness, at the core of this analysis, has been explored under the lens of the three key dimensions of our energy transition justice framework – procedural power, knowledge renewal and socioeconomic impact distribution. Recognising that these three components of justice are influenced by the consequences of colonisation, we decided to explore how to act on the insidious loop effect emerging from this. That is why this article summary aims to shed light on colonially driven inequities, propose adapted deliberation practices and encourage potential outcomes that are fairer for all parties.

Theorizing the just energy transition concept

Figure 1. The Just Energy Transition’s Insidious Loop Effect
Source: Fabienne Rioux-Gobeil, 2023

Besides illustrating the theorization of the so-called just energy transition (JET) concept, Figure 1 shows an insidious loop effect between its three components: distributional, procedural and renewal, inspired by the environmental justice movement and two of its branches: climate justice and energy justice (Carley & Konisky, 2020). Proposed by Potawatomi scholar Kyle Whyte (2018), the concept of the insidious loop effect means that all environmental justice dimensions reinforce each other, because of the historical and ongoing consequences of colonialism. According to Sto:loh author Lee Maracle (2015), the key proposition of the environmental justice concept is that violence to Earth and violence between humans are connected and perpetuated through colonialism. Building on this concept, Kyle Whyte (2017, 2018) adds that settler states’ economies have relied on natural resource extraction and, consequently, on the relocation of Indigenous populations.

Furthermore, according to a number of authors (Whyte, 2018: Longden et al., 2022; Low Choy, 2016), delocalization and territorial appropriation are undermining Indigenous peoples’ capacities to adapt to climate change. Indeed, when the climate justice movement stipulates that those who suffer the most from climate change are usually the ones who have the least contributed to it (United Nations, 2019), it is incomplete. This is because, for those communities, the impacts of climate change are likely to be exacerbated by colonization (Whyte et al., 2019). In other words, climate urgency can even facilitate actions of modern colonization (Whyte, 2017), such as the implementation of renewable energy projects on Indigenous traditional territories without their consent or through unequal partnerships (Hoicka et al., 2021). This is why Whyte et al. (2019) created the concept of “colonial climate justice.” Considering that in Canada and Australia, access to safe, affordable and sustainable energy has seldom benefited Indigenous communities (Stefanelli et al., 2019; Riley, 2021; Longden et al., 2022), Whyte et al.’s colonial justice concept has been adapted to energy justice as well (Figure 1). Consequently, developing more renewable energy projects may be positive for these communities. However, in order to attain such energy security objectives, Indigenous peoples need a fair opportunity to participate in decision-making processes (Carley & Konisky, 2020; Bazilian et al., 2014; Middlemiss et al., 2015).

This is why procedural justice is one important component of the JET framework. According to the literature, procedural justice aims for meaningful (Suiseeya, 2014) and inclusive processes (Sovacool & Dworkin, 2015; Carley & Konisky, 2020). For Schlozman et al. (2020), inclusivity means that people must feel engaged in the political system. They add that money, time and civil skills are the three main political capacities necessary to enhance political power (Schlozman et al., 2020). The renewal component, for its part, was inspired by the question of recognition. For some authors (Carley & Konisky, 2020; Jones et al., 2015), recognition justice implies the acknowledgement of historical impacts on different groups of the population. For Suiseeya (2014), it is a matter of an equal recognition of identities, experiences and ways of knowing as a valid basis for decision-making. However, Mohawk author Audra Simpson (2021) and Professor Paul Nadasdy (2000) are critically raising an important point:  Who has the authority to recognize? This is why the third component of this framework will focus on knowledge renewal (Simpson, 2011; Corntassel, 2012) emerging from Indigenous peoples themselves. Finally, the third component, distributional, examines the questions of burdens and benefits distribution. In the energy transition, the same sets of populations seem to be negatively impacted by externalities (Carley & Konisky, 2020; Sandiford, 2022; Owen et al., 2022). Although these externalities may appear geographically driven, they are actually the result of people’s capacities and opportunities to defend their interests based on their own knowledge. This partly demonstrates how all three dimensions of the JET framework reinforce each other in an insidious loop effect.


To explore this further, an extensive literature review was conducted along three main themes: justice movements, energy transitions and Indigenous experiences. Since this paper summary is part of a broader comparative case study, reading choices were restricted to issues relative to the Canadian and Australian contexts. The literature review revealed that few studies have approached knowledge renewal, procedural power and socioeconomic impact distribution as equally important and linked to processes of colonization. This paper summary therefore sheds light on the effect of this insidious loop on the Canadian, Australian and Indigenous peoples’ energy transitions.

Canadian and Australian JET frameworks

Around the world, the implementation of renewable energy projects is affecting Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories. For example, in Australia, the flooding of Lake Argyle and Lake Kununurra for the construction of the Ord River hydroelectric dam is impacting the Miriwoong Gajerrong people (Mclean, 2014). In Canada, similar events are occurring in Muskrat Falls in Labrador, Site C in British Columbia (Omand, 2017) and La Grande Complex in Quebec, amongst others (Savard, 2009). Yet, despite their proximity to renewable energy sources, many Indigenous communities are missing out on the benefits generated by these renewables. Instead, they rely on more expensive, off-grid and diesel-powered infrastructures (Stefanelli et al., 2019; Arriaga et al., 2013; Weis et al., 2008). Moreover, in Australia, the distribution of RE is regulated differently in urban areas compared to remote areas, which relies on prepayment instead of post-payment methods (Riley, 2021). As a result, the disconnection rate is very high in these regions, mostly inhabited by Indigenous peoples (Longden et al., 2022). Thus, given that traditional territories are rich in RE resources and given the presence of energy security issues, Indigenous peoples should or would do well to be part of energy transitions’ discussions. However, given the ambiguity surrounding Indigenous national sovereignty, defending their interests is a constant and complex battle.

In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ rights to their traditional territories were recognized in 1993 under the Native Title Act (NTA) (Bartlett, 2020). This act introduced the Indigenous Land Fund (ILF) and the Right to Negotiate (RTN) process. However, in 1998, amendments were made to reduce impacts on miners and pastoralists, which had the effect of undermining Indigenous peoples’ RTN (Thomassin et al., forthcoming; Maynard, 2022; Bartlett, 2020; Corbet & O’Faircheallaigh, 2006). The creation of the Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) was part of the Ten Point Plan amendment. The objective was to clarify theeliberateon process for projects developed on native title territories. According to the ILUA, if no agreement is reached within six months, the National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT) can be asked to give the final decision (Bartlett, 2020). But the fact that the NNTT is not independent, whereby it tends to have the same interests as governments and project developers, puts pressure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The latter are, hence, more likely to benefit from an agreement reached within the six-month timeframe (Corbet & O’Faircheallaigh, 2006). The so-called Expedited Procedure is the alternative for projects that will presumably not affect native title holders enough, like small-scale renewable energy projects, for example. It denies them their RTN by allowing parties to proceed without negotiations (Corbet & O’Faircheallaigh, 2006). In this regard, the fairest way of dealing with project implementation on Indigenous lands for Australia is to compensate native title holders via the ILF and to negotiate the projects terms, albeit this remains carefully limited.

In Canada, Indigenous traditional and treaty rights were constitutionalized in 1982, namely through section 35 of the Constitution Act (Karanasios & Parker, 2018; Borrows, 2016). The main change this brought about was the recognition of their right to self-government and the duty to consult them. However, according to Anishinaabe scholar John Borrows (2017), the biggest flaw of section 35 was that Indigenous peoples’ right to self-government could not be applied beyond their communities. This explains why some Indigenous nations still refuse the constitutionalization of their rights (Borrows, 2016) and are still negotiating their territorial claims, after more than 40 years (Poirier, 2017). In 2004, the Canadian government (2021) legislated the Duty to Consult Indigenous Communities potentially affected by projects. The objective was to add this aspect as mandatory to project permit delivery and to appropriately accommodate Indigenous peoples when necessary (Government of Canada, 2021). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) (CIRNAC, 2007) supported this and recommended obtaining their Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), as prescribed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) (United Nations, 2007). However, anthropologist Sylvie Poirier (2017) explains that in Quebec, the government is sometimes issuing permits to develop projects on Indigenous traditional territories without their consent. As recognition, negotiation, consultation and compensation are the fairest approaches forward for Australia and Canada, the way in which these actions are being implemented in Indigenous settings needs to be further explored.

Figure 2. A Just Energy Transition for Indigenous Peoples: From Ideal Deliberation to Fairness in Canada and Australia
Source: Fabienne Rioux-Gobeil (2023)

In precedent sections, we illustrated how historical consequences of colonization have led to unequal power relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada and Australia. Figure 2 shows the colonially driven challenges that arise from such dynamics as well as the elements of leverage for Indigenous peoples to fairly seize the energy transition’s opportunities. Challenges and opportunities have been categorized according to distributional, procedural and renewal justice components. However, because these components are interrelated and have overlapping effects, there is only one category of leverage that emerged as targeting the improvement of deliberative practices. This is why Figure 2 suggests that to achieve ideal fairness, people should aim for ideal deliberation.

As many Indigenous communities in Canada and Australia are confronted with energy security issues, the distribution of socioeconomic impacts is one important colonially driven challenge’s category. The prepayment method in Australia, diesel-powered generators and expensive transportation structures are some examples. Moreover, extreme temperatures in remote Indigenous communities and poor-quality housing imply higher energy needs (Longden et al., 2022), which will intensify with climate change (Whyte, 2017). Consequently, the installation of off-grid renewable energy systems could be seen as an opportunity for Indigenous peoples to access more sustainable and affordable energy and as a means to facilitate home ownership, income generation and job creation (Riley, 2021). Yet the implementation of RE projects is not as easily accessible to all groups of the population. In Australia, the installation of individual solar panels implies high up-front costs and housing ownership (Linnenluecke et al., 2023). In remote areas, however, houses tend to be government-owned. Thus, exploring how the energy transition’s burdens and benefits are unfairly distributed illustrates how Indigenous peoples need opportunities to express their interests. Further, the fact that interests can be conflicting or competing between different groups is an indication of how important procedural power is in deliberation spaces.

The distribution of financial resources and energy infrastructure likewise affects questions of procedural power (Schlozman et al., 2020). In addition, settlers’ legal traditions and perceptions of history are influencing deliberative practices, which challenge Indigenous peoples’ participation and trust in the process (Borrows, 2017; Thomassin et al., forthcoming). Finally, the failure to include Indigenous peoples early enough in project planning (Maynard, 2022; O’Sullivan, 2021; Hébert, 2018) or confidential deliberations (O’Neill et al., 2022; Desmeules, 2018) result in additional barriers. These circumstances undermine Indigenous peoples’ capacity to maximize benefits such as solidarity between parties, expertise gain, influence, and representativeness in the energy transition (Desmeules, 2018; Schlozman et al., 2020; Riley, 2020). While sharing information is extremely important, it needs to be tailored to the target group to result in a fairer exchange. Hébert (2018) notes that scientific jargon and thousand-page long studies are often the only resources to rely on in formal deliberative processes, which may not be accessible to all. In the case of Indigenous peoples evolving in a colonial context, differences in language, culture and organizational practices further emphasize the need for them to have the opportunity to express their cultural implications and adapt the communication in consequence (Schlozman et al., 2020).

Indeed, presence is not influence: the hierarchical structure of knowledge makes it much harder for some cultures to influence decision-making processes via their own practices and theories (Suiseeya, 2014). This is why, according to renewal justice, Indigenous peoples must have the opportunity to self-determine and share their own source of validity for decision-making if they are to be seen as leaders in contemporary technological or resource exploitation fields. All too often, however, they face challenges such as the over-romanticization of Indigenous peoples’ relationships with nature (LaDuke, 2014; Bargh, 2010; Lowan-Trudeau, 2017) and the fetishization of history (Borrows, 2017). In other words, non-Indigenous peoples tend to have a cliché perception of Indigenous peoples’ ways of life as something stuck in time. Yet colonization has imposed changes on Indigenous peoples and their relationships with nature, as they had to evolve in contexts of land claims negotiations, population displacement, territorial appropriation and more (Borrows, 2017; Alfred, 2001; Nadasdy, 2000; Thomassin et al., forthcoming; Corntassel, 2012). Von der Porten and de Loë (2013) attribute these judgments to non-Indigenous peoples’ lack of education about Indigenous history and realities. The authors argue that this can lead to questionable deliberative practices such as treating Indigenous peoples as stakeholders instead of nations. Renewal justice would therefore advocate that Indigenous peoples be given the space to share their cultural and contextual implications and expectations so that they could, then, co-define what they consider to be a valid basis for decision-making.


This summary paper explains how the JET theoretical framework calls us to think about climate action from a decolonial perspective. Indeed, the framework’s three components—socioeconomic impacts distribution, procedural power and knowledge renewal—are interacting in an insidious loop effect driven by the consequences of colonization. Over the years, Canada and Australia have introduced measures such as Canada’s Duty to Consult and Australia’s Right to Negotiate to prevent environmental injustices against Indigenous peoples. The literature shows these measures, which boil down to recognition, negotiation, consultation and compensation, to be limited and unfair.

To propose solutions and highlight the opportunities offered by energy transitions, this summary paper explored, in the first step, these colonially driven challenges through the lens of the three JET components. In the second step, we examined the elements of leverage with regard to the improvement of bilateral and intercultural communication strategies. Indeed, to reach ideal fairness, let’s pursue ideal deliberation (inspired by Cohen, 1997). Since the question of sovereignty is embedded with those of deliberation, consent, negotiation and consultation, it would be interesting to adapt this framework to Indigenous peoples’ territorial claims negotiations as a future avenue of research. Indeed, if Indigenous peoples’ national sovereignty was accepted and respected by settler states, would they be only consulted and compensated for projects developed on their territories or would their consent be mandatory?

To cite this article

Rioux-Gobeil, F. (2024). A just energy transition for Indigenous People: From ideal deliberation to fairness in Canada and Australia. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

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