Mistawasis Climate Change Health Adaptation: Rediscovering Nêhiyawak

To prepare for the health risks of climate change, such as water quality degradation, reduced air quality, and safety risks, Mistawasis Nêhiyawak, partnered with the North Saskatchewan River Basin Council from 2017 and 2018 to undertake an adaptation planning exercise that identified risks and ways to prepare for the impacts of climate change. Mistawasis is located about 70 kilometers west of Prince Albert, and 120 kilometers north of Saskatoon. It covers an area of 125 square kilometers. In the past Mistawasis Nêhiyawak has utilized its land base for agriculture, fishing, hunting, fur trapping, silviculture, logging, herbs and craft materials. Prior to this, these land were the tranditional Mistawasis wintering lands from the time their ancestors followed the buffalo across the great plains. Through funding from Health Canada and building-off of the work conducted under many past environmental sustainability projects (such as the Honour the Water Project), the community was able to reflect on the impacts of climate change and explore ways in which climate change could and will affect their health and lands. In the community, changes to the environment and land are minimal, yet that can change quickly. From 2010 to 2014, the community experienced a severe flood events and extreme weather events, and the community was forced to react instead of respond to the event due to lack of preparedness. Homes and roads were damaged, people were forced to relocate, funding was diverted to prioritize response, trees died, and habitat for fish and wildlife were lost. In response, consultations were held with community members, leadership, and elders which revealed a number of perceived risks of climate change, such as extreme moisture cycles causing flooding, degradation of water quality, extended power outages causing boil water advisories, food/water borne illness risks, among others. Through these conversations and important relationships, the community decided to prepare for climate change by returning to their traditional teachings of fire and water. The community also explored other adaptation strategies such as disaster preparation, land use planning, environmental conservation, increasing public awareness of climate change, investing in renewable energy, improved clinical care, ecofriendly practices, early temperature warning systems (and cooling/warming stations).

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

From 2010 to 2014, the community experienced a severe flood events and extreme weather events, and the community was forced to react instead of respond to the event due to lack of preparedness. Homes and roads were damaged, people were forced to relocate, funding was diverted to prioritize response, trees died, and habitat for fish and wildlife were lost. These impacts are long-standing and understood by the community, especially in terms of the damages caused to fauna and flora.
Through the Climate Change and Health Adaptation Program, Mistawasis Nêhiyawak, in partnership with North Saskatchewan River Basin Council, started their adaptation planning process by engaging and involving community members, leadership, and elders to identify climate change risks on their territory. The specific questions that were posed at the time were (1) what is climate change? and (2) are you being impacted? (3) what can we do? The first revealed a number of perceived risks of climate change on health of the people and the lands. For example, the community identified extreme moisture cycles causing flooding, degradation of water quality, extended power outages causing boil water advisories, food/water borne illness risks, winter warmth challenges, among others.
Past environmental projects such as the Honour our Water project was key in providing a foundation for identifying climate risks, as climate considerations are foundational to many other areas of work in the community.
It is important to note that Indigenous populations are expected to face disproportionate impacts as a result of climate change in comparison to non-indigenous populations. Because of this, Indigenous people are calling for strong and immediate action to protect the resources in which everyone relies on. For generations, Mistawasis Nêhiyawakhas relied on empirical knowledge of their ancestors to determine where to hunt, trap fish, where to pick berries and medicine.

Identifying Actions

The second step of the adaptation planning process undertaken by Mistawasis Nêhiyawak, was to identify possible actions for addressing the risks identified by engaging with the community. Specifically, community members were asked: What can we do (question number 3)? As they were reviewing the potential risks, the community decided that the best way to prepare was to reconnect to the ways of their ancestors. Teachings and conclusions made, after much discussion and listening to community members and elders, revealed that the only things within their control is preparation of their hearts, attitudes and skills. Having a strong connection to each other, community members, trees, animals, water, soil are all foundations of being Nehiyawak and of being a Cree person. They decided that the best way to prepare for impacts of climate change was to prepare oneself to be connected and strongly rooted in traditional ways. The community also explored other adaptation strategies such as disaster preparation, land use planning, environmental conservation, increasing public awareness of climate change, investing in renewable energy, improved clinical care, ecofriendly practices, early temperature warning systems (and cooling/warming stations). By creating adaptive strategies, the community is preparing for changes that are unavoidable.

Implementation

A series of actions have been implemented since the project started. Foundational to these actions have been the relationships and connections established with many different actors, within the community but also external to the community: neighbouring Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, NGOs, academic institutions and other government organizations. These relationships have been necessary to increase the knowledge base, build off of expertise, capacity and resources, Another key component that has led to the success of the actions have been the involvement of elders and youth from the community. Elders have been instrumental in sharing generational teachings to the younger members. Youths, on the other hand, have had an active role in various projects, leading to the development of longstanding and sustainable perspectives. Examples of the actions implemented since the project include:

  • The community prepared a series workshops for fire and water, reconnected to traditional teachings of fire and water and explore how to secure both locally. By having sound skills in how to safely secure fire and water, most of the potential health risks could be mitigated.
  • Updating and acquiring community monitoring technologies to be able to further understand and monitor climate impacts on their territory as well as increase their capacity to contribute to a larger body of knowledge to address common impacts.
  • To address infrastructure resiliency concerns, the community undertook major construction of their draining systems and installed larger culverts to anticipate 1/50 years event. This will allow them their systems to handle additional loads of water.
  • Evacuation and land-based plans have been developed in the case of future climatic events. The experiences of the 2010-2014 events have been instrumental in putting these in place. Community members have also been involved in iterations of such plans and are aware of the steps to be undertaken in the case of a new event.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

In their experiences so far, Mistawasis Nêhiyawak has come to realize that a few foundational components are necessary to support their efforts to advance sustainability and resiliency:

  1. The involvement of elders and youth in planning processes and in the implementation of actions and projects. Elders and youth have been instrumental for sharing knowledge and building community capacity for the long-term. The community has also paid particular attention to involving a balanced gendered participation, such as, involving a young female project coordinator.
  2. Providing educational and technological support to their youth and the broader community. In parallel to the communities advancements related to climate change, the community has invested enormously over the last few years in their technology (communication lines, monitoring technologies, computers and software) and school infrastructure (building a new school with up to date IT equipment). Additionally, climate change is now part of their school curriculum and students are increasing aware of the topic and formulating actions. This resulting in important co-benefits when it comes to establishing a cross-community network, building capacity, preparing for future climate impacts and being able to monitor future risks and impacts on their territory.
  3. Realization of the importance of connections and partnerships. Early on, Mistawasis Nêhiyawak realized that relationship with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners was essential to advance their sustainability and resiliency efforts. Prior to ‘crown’ treaties, treaties were collaborative and established on a sharing-basis and Mistawasis Nêhiyawak is emulating that approach by investing in friendships and by finding ways to work with many other actors who experience similar climate-related impacts. This has led to many efficiencies and co-benefits in terms of resources, expertise and knowledge leading to the development of shared solutions. Over the years, Mistawasis Nêhiyawak has established many connections with different actors, such as (to name a few), the North Saskatchewan River Basin Council, Prince Albert Model Forest (National Forest Model Network), Saskatchewan Rivers basin, Red berry Lake Biosphere Reserve. The community has also been an active participant on many committees advancing climate related work, such as, the CCHAP Selection Committe.

They have also experienced a few challenges throughout the years:

  1. Despite mutual respect and the willingness to collaborate, the establishment of relationships do require sustained capacity from all actors involved.
  2. Although some funding programs have made recent improvements, short-term funding cycles and the many sources of funding become hard to navigate, especially in the terms of capacity and in ensuring constant financial support.

Next Steps

Mistawasis Nêhiyawak’s climate change work continues beyond this project as they regularly reflect on the three questions to guide their work on an ongoing basis : (1) what is climate change? and (2) are you being impacted? (3) what can we do?

They continue to build longstanding and foundational partnerships, alliances and friendships to address the climate change impact experienced on their territory. In many ways, they are pursuing the ways of their ancestors who approached challenges by combining efforts. One can think of how the Buffalo crisis was addressed by nations across he great plains. In the near future, Mistawasis Nêhiyawak will contribute their knowledge and experiences to a few initiatives that will advance sustainability and resiliency issues for their communities and others:

  1. Further advance the development of courses and curriculums in collaboration with neighboring colleges and universities to build knowledge for their community members and across their partners.
  2. Contribute to the UNESCO Biosphere Reserves Indigenous Circles, as a Canadian voice to discuss species at risks, the designation of new Biosphere reserves as well as identify solutions for sustainability and build connections across different actors.
  3. Create a Climate Treaty to established a collective promise where humans work together to address the climate change issue (as it relates to the sky, water and land). Similar to the Buffalo Treaty, this Treaty would look to group all those who share common concerns on climate change and commonly find solutions for a sustainable future. Mistawasis Nêhiyawak will be advancing this effort with other Treaty 6 Nations and aims to have the Treaty ready for all to join in 2026.

Resources

Link to Full Case Study

Additional Resources: 

Information Bytes

  • Are you aware of the Buffalo Treaty? It was first signed in 2014 and now includes multiple signatories, resulting in a ‘spider web’ network o relationships between many nations across Canada and the United States of Canada. The Treaty was establish to respond to a decrease in buffalo populations, fundamental to many nations traditional practices. The Treaty looks to bring back the buffalo to our consciousness and bring it back to the land.
  • Do you know what Nêhiyawak signifies? It signifies Cree Nation.