Cities, Climate and Inequalities

Presence & power: The illusion of Indigenous inclusion in climate adaptation plans in Canada

March 2024

Janna Wale (commissioned by the Yellowhead Institute)


Indigenous peoples continue to hold reciprocal relationships with the Land. Many diverse and unique Indigenous cultures across what is now known as Canada are founded on the land and its processes, which invariably inform a culture’s language, culture and tradition. As catastrophic wildfire, unpredictable flooding and species loss become more frequent and severe, Indigenous communities everywhere are feeling the impacts on their wellbeing, their identities and their cultures (Johnson et al., 2021). Since Indigenous cultures are founded on their lands and territories, Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by climate change.

In that context, there is a growing interest in the role that Indigenous peoples can play in climate policy and climate change solutions. Lagging behind other countries by several decades, Canada released the first draft of its National Adaptation Strategy (NAS) and National Adaptation Plan (NAP) in 2022. In 2023, both the NAS and NAP were finalized, albeit with minimal changes having been made from the original draft version and the last version released earlier this year. Canada has also committed to upholding legislation such as the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and to heeding advice issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). This research considers the involvement (or lack thereof) of Indigenous peoples in the adaptation planning and decision-making in Canada.



First and foremost, it is important to understand that the Canadian state is founded on capitalism and the belief that the purpose of land is to be utilized, with its resources extracted and sold at the highest price. To put this in perspective, Canada generated 380 billion dollars in GDP from extractive industry in 2022. A portion of the revenue made from this transactional relationship with the land is then recycled into funding Canadian mitigation and adaptation strategies. Climate actions, plans and strategies in Canada have been and continue to be built on biases created and perpetuated by colonial-settler societies (Latulippe, 2019; Rashidi & Lyons, 2021). Traditionally, these societies have drawn knowledge from Indigenous peoples and communities which they deem useful, while discarding pieces of the Indigenous knowledge related to morality, balance and spirituality. Indeed, the latter type of knowledge tends not to fit within the settler-colonial relationship with the land that is based on extraction. 

This approach is in direct conflict with how Indigenous peoples have interacted with their lands and territories for millennia. Since contact, many Canadian policies serve to facilitate further extraction efforts while compromising the power, ownership of land and decision-making of Indigenous peoples, who were the original stewards of the land (Johnson et al., 2021). Many of these historic policies created are still largely intact and were designed to further remove Indigenous peoples from their lands. One of these policies, the Indian Act, has hardly been changed since it was passed in 1876. Under this act, Indigenous people became “wards of the state,” which resigned them to have roughly the same decision-making power as childrenwith lasting impacts on their cultural and stewardship practices (Harding, 2006). 

Ksan Village
Photo: Janna Wale

More recently, Indigenous knowledge is being heralded as having the potential to contribute to fighting the climate crisis. However, all too often these affirmations are not grounded in action. Seeking Indigenous knowledges without including Indigenous peoples in climate decisions derogates Indigenous peoples to stakeholders rather than self-determining nations with long histories of rights and responsibilities to their traditional territories (Johnson et al., 2021; Latulippe, 2019; Rashidi & Lyons, 2021; Whyte, 2014). 

Today, colonial governments are trying to work together with Indigenous peoples to begin to solve some of the problems the climate crisis is creating. At all levels of government, there is an acknowledgement of the need for reconciliation as well as collaboration and cooperation towards climate action. In many government documents, phrases like “two-eyed seeing” and “braiding of knowledge” are cited as examples of best practice when referring to the possibility of using both Indigenous and Western ways of knowing together. However, when both knowledge systems are not treated as equals, the braid will unravel and the policies will be ineffective. While Indigenous peoples are increasingly given a voice and sometimes included in dialogue, weas Indigenous peoples still do not have equal weight in decision-making, which is an issue of respect and representation. 


Methods and data

This research is founded on quantitative methods, including a document review of key government documents related to the development of Canada’s NAS and NAP. These included documents related to the Visioning Forum convened by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) in 2021 as well as the publicly available information of five expert advisory tables that were established in its wake. These tables focused on the five themes of: Health and Wellbeing, Resilient Natural and Built Infrastructure, Thriving Natural Environment, Strong and Resilient Economy, and Disaster Resilience and Security. Mentions of Indigenous people and Indigenous involvement were compared and contrasted across the publicly available documents and were compared to what was stated in the draft version of the NAS and NAP. 

Additionally, internal British Columbia government census data concerning promotions and hiring rates of self-identifying Indigenous people were evaluated across ministries involved in climate change and the environment. This information was compiled and summarized alongside federal information pertaining to employment equity within the Government of Canada. 

 All of the documentation was keyword-searched for mentions of “Indigenous peoples,” “Indigenous communities,” “Climate change” and “adaptation.” A separate document was then created for each keyword, so that they could be thematically sorted according to context. The resulting information was then summarized followed by a final analysis.

Figure 1. Cover photo art: Our Matriarchy by Brett Huson (Gitxsan Nation). 

ARTIST STATEMENT: “The face at the top of the image represents the Grandmother at the top represents and, by extension, our matrilineal governance system. Our people have only been able to upheld maintain their balance when they aligned themselves following with this type of governance. The beings on each side represent people continuing on this path. The blue in the center of the image represents n water at the center. Overall, the image is about People facing one another in truth. All surrounded by our world which sustains us.


During the creation of the National Adaptation Strategy (NAS), ECCC convened five expert advisory tables to contribute to the discussion on the five themes of the NAS. Of a total of 110 total advisory members, 17 represented Indigenous organizations. While this may seem like a step forward, it is important to remember that National Indigenous Organizations (NIOs) are not rights and title holders themselves. In fact, none of the people who were listed as expert members had any community attributions or affiliations, despite representing Indigenous peoples. In the age of the “pretendian,” this is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, without having a connection to place, it becomes more difficult to evaluate the context of where their knowledge is coming from. Secondly, the so-called Indigenous representation is only an illusion in that the people working and representing Indigenous communities through these national organizations could well be non-Indigenous. It is true that non-Indigenous peoples play a key role as allies within these discussions. However, I contend that non-Indigenous peoples who are hired to work within Indigenous organizations to represent and speak on behalf of Indigenous people can never truly reflect Indigenous experiences of climate change.

 Moreover, while the NIOs are composed of community members, these members’ ability to reflect the interests of their communities is questionable since they are not elected by their community and do not operate under traditional leadership, practices, protocols or laws, which vary from community to community. Traditional or hereditary leadership is grounded in culture and protocols. In contrast, the imposed band council system was created under the Indian Act and tends not to be reflective of traditional governance systems. Canada has over 600 diverse Indigenous communities, each with distinct experiences of climate change and climate knowledge. While their inclusion is important, asking 17 people to represent Indigenous voices, visions, knowledges and priorities within the development of the NAS and NAP is insufficient. Moving towards meaningful inclusion means moving towards co-development of climate policy, which can only be achieved through intentional inclusion and representation of Indigenous people at decision-making tables.  

While the advisory table did provide important input in steering the development of the NAS and NAP, both of its formalized documents were ultimately written by policymakers working at ECCC. Within the provincial and federal governments, the situation is similar: the data shows that we are lagging behind significantly in increasing Indigenous peoples in leadership positions, where they would be able to influence decision-making tables and help to guide climate policy. 

Reference: Yellowhead Institute, 2023

For example, within 10 ministries of the Province of British Columbia, approximately 50 middle managers self-identify as Indigenous, out of a total of 1,655. At the senior manager level, this number is only 20 out of a possible 322. In some spots, the data has even been suppressed, meaning the number of persons fitting the demographic is lower than three. Federally, the 2022 Canadian Employment Equity Promotion Rate Study confirms that Indigenous peoples continue to have lower rates of promotion when compared to non-Indigenous people (Government of Canada, 2022). This paucity of Indigenous peoples within government makes it almost impossible to include Indigenous knowledge in a meaningful way when planning for the imminent climate future. 

Given the extent to which Indigenous peoples have been excluded from government decision-making all along, their input, if any, in policymaking resembles the advice issued by the advisory tableswatered down, formulaic statements that lend themselves to being repeated over and over in reports rather than contributing a living, breathing way of knowing and being (Latullipe, 2019). On top of this, there is confusion about which federal department is responsible for engaging Indigenous people on the NAS and NAP, and about whether other federal initiatives, such as the UNDA Action Plan, have any bearing on this process moving forward.

Climate policies in Canada have historically been focused on environmental impacts, with little consideration of how the social and ecological dimensions of climate change interact. Put another way, our experiences as individuals and communities informs how we are able to prepare and adapt to climate change. Intersectionality, or how the differences in identities hold different knowledges and viewpoints, explores how power relations shift based on intersecting aspects of identity such as gender, class, race and age (Crenshaw, 1990). Intersectionality is especially important in climate work, given that climate impacts vary so drastically across the country. 

Since 1995, the Government of Canada has been committed to using inclusivity metrics such as Gender Based Analysis (GBA+) analysis. In 2022, ECCC had nothing to report for 2021‒2022 related to the Climate Adaptation Programwhich houses both the NAS and NAP. While GBA+ is mentioned within the NAS, the term does not appear anywhere within the NAP, despite inclusivity being highlighted as one of the guiding principles of the plan. Since associated metrics have not been reported for 2021‒2022 either, the prospect of progress in the creation of inclusive policy outcomes appears slim.  

Within Indigenous communities, women, gender-fluid and non-binary community members hold special responsibilities and knowledge related to decision-making. While governments are beginning to catch up by empowering more women-identifying people as leaders, they still make up less than 50 percent of people in power and decision-making roles. Further, the statistics available both provincially and federally remain starkly binary and do not create space for other forms of expression that could influence decision-making outcomes. 

Vulnerability to climate impacts can be exacerbated by racial, ethnic and socio-economic considerations that influence community climate resilience (Wale, 2022). While Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by climate change, their strength and agency can be additionally downplayed, and thereby diminished, by the perpetuated stereotype of Indigenous victimhood (Johnson et al., 2021). 

In Canadian government plans and strategies, Indigenous peoples are generally portrayed as victims who lack agency or autonomy rather than as leaders and active participants in climate resilience and solutions. However, this narrative of victimhood does not accurately depict how Indigenous peoples see themselves in relation to climate change. As a result, government projects created through this lens can unintentionally downplay the fact that Indigenous communities are already rising to the challenges of climate adaptation. In other words, the focus on how Indigenous peoples must be rescued from the impacts of the climate crisis stands in the way of seeing them as active and equal players with valuable knowledges that could contribute to solving the crisis. I contend that current efforts to invite Indigenous peoples to participate in climate planning as shape-shifters, or of modifying and shrinking Indigenous knowledge to fit within the narrow bounds of “Indigenous inclusion” in current climate policies, are part of the victimhood narrative and should best be avoided. Studies have shown that failing to include intersectionality in climate planning can result in maladaptationwhere outcomes are more harmful than helpful (Whyte et al., 2016). Conversely, greater engagement of intersectionality and other ways of knowing within climate policy and decision-making stand to create more equitable and inclusive climate adaptation (Johnson et al., 2021). 


Federal and provincial governments have placed emphasis on reconciling with Indigenous peoples and all levels of government are wrestling with the dark colonial legacies that are entrenched in policies that created what Canada has become today. 

The bottom line is that Indigenous communities must have a meaningful and intentional role in co-creating climate strategies and plans. Importantly, co-creation means involvement and leadership at every step of the way rather than engagement only midway through or pulling out towards the end. While the NAS is a promising start, subsequent government-to-government approaches need to be implemented with each nation across “Canada” in order to address both regional and cultural differences in climate impacts and associated actions. Indigenous governance and self-determination should be central to these conversations, and should factor into the hiring and promotion practices of the federal and provincial governments.  

Canada’s success at adapting to climate change is tied to its success of reconciling with Indigenous peoples. The more leadership and decision-makers can reduce gaps and seize opportunities within adaptation plans through a combination of taught knowledge and lived experiences, the more holistic and comprehensive adaptation plans will be. Insofar as colonial governments are showcasing Indigenous peoples as potential climate leaders, it is time for these governments to “walk the talk’ and make space and create capacity for Indigenous leaders within their ranks.

To cite this article

Wale, J. (2024). Presence & power: The illusion of Indigenous inclusion in climate adaptation plans in Canada. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

Reference Text
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