Environmental conservation education from an Indigenous perspective

From Oct. 25-30, the McMaster Students Union ran an online virtual sustainability-focused event called Earth Week. The MSU collaborated with various campus and community organizations to host an event each day of the week. 

Adrianne Xavier, an Indigenous studies professor at McMaster University, said that events like Earth Week are great awareness builders. They can allow people to engage in more conversations regarding sustainability and think more critically about the environment. 

However, Earth Week was an event created through a rather colonial perspective on environmental conservation. Speaking about the difference between Indigenous sustainability and colonial ways of sustainability, Xavier said that there isn’t necessarily a strict comparison between the two. One of the greater differences would be the way Indigenous communities approach sustainability and view their own personal involvement with the environment. 

“I think Indigenous sustainability is about understanding that we all have a responsibility to every part of life, that it isn’t just ourselves and our families and the people around us, but also the things that impact the people around us. The environment is a huge part of that, including things like our food, our health and well being and all that stuff. But also, then, by extension, how we get the food and where it comes from and what the environment itself is being cared for in and in what ways,” said Xavier. 

“I think Indigenous sustainability is about understanding that we all have a responsibility to every part of life, that it isn’t just ourselves and our families and the people around us, but also the things that impact the people around us,” said Xavier.

One of the events during Earth Week was No Meat Monday. Hosted by the McMaster Veggie Club, people were encouraged to not eat meat that day and try out meatless recipes. Xavier shared that for Indigenous peoples like herself, most of the meat that she eats is hunted. Therefore, it undergoes a very different process from most commercially available meat and may not encompass the same concerns that those who don’t eat meat for environmental reasons may have. 

At McMaster, Xavier said that she has seen ongoing conversations where various faculties and organizational partners are trying to find ways to assist Indigenous students. However, Xavier said that change can begin with an acknowledgement and understanding that the current assistance is inadequate.

The Post-Secondary Student Support Program provides financial assistance to First Nations students who are enrolled in eligible post-secondary programs. However, the PSSSP does not provide adequate or equitable support for all First Nations students. 

In addition to financial support, Xavier also noted that Indigenous students may require other supports such as access to healthy food options. Conversations about Indigenous food options and education regarding Indigenous practices with environmental conservation could also be beneficial to events such as the previous Earth Week.

Conversations about Indigenous food options and education regarding Indigenous practices with environmental conservation could also be beneficial to events such as the previous Earth Week. 

Aside from No Meat Monday, another Earth Week event included a talk with Wellness and Sustainability Manager and Registered Dietitian, Liana Bontempo, about reasons why people should buy locally-grown food. 

Xavier added that it would be beneficial to expand conversations about healthy and sustainable food options. These conversations could include education on the food cycle of an omnivore who is eating off of the land, such as herself. 

“There are lots of really cool farm programs in the region. There are lots of cool groups of people who are doing gatherings and things like that of wildcrafted food, which are much more sustainable ways of understanding because when you do those sorts of things, you are more apt to learn the basics of respect for the plants that you’re taking in. [Reason being,] wildcrafted food has to be left enough for the next year or for other animals as opposed to large scale farming, which of course is crop grown specifically to be taken for food,” explained Xavier. 

Xavier said that another big issue to consider across colonial approaches to environmentalism is the issue of food waste. Most grocery stores purchase large scale, aesthetically pleasing produce. They will pay less for imperfect produce unless it is organic, but even then, it is not easy for companies to sell organic produce. 

“You’re paying a higher premium and a cost for perfect looking fruit that doesn’t necessarily taste better, or isn’t even necessarily better for you because how it looks is not indicative of nutrition,” said Xavier.

Produce that are deemed imperfect are often either composted or sold at a lower price. 

“We are being trained as a society to only want fruits and vegetables that look a certain way,” added Xavier. 

“We are being trained as a society to only want fruits and vegetables that look a certain way,” added Xavier. 

In addition to imperfect-looking produce, best before dates are also a factor in producing food waste. Xavier discussed how grocery stores typically won’t sell food when it comes within three months of the best before date or they sell them in a clearance section. 

Xavier noted that there are lots of costs to getting food to where they are in grocery stores, including shipment, packaging and other environmental costs and often, the food that is thrown out may not even be food that has gone bad. 

“Because inevitably in classes that I teach, there’s always a component at some point in the class no matter what the topic is about where we fit in the world and remembering where we fit in the world, what our role is in all of those things, because that as well is a big piece of understanding sustainability. What part do we play in it?” Xavier said.

“A lot of times when it comes down to things like sustainability and sustainability weeks and events like that, I urge people to at the very least be aware of them. Think about them and talk about them. Because inevitably in classes that I teach, there’s always a component at some point in the class no matter what the topic is about where we fit in the world and remembering where we fit in the world, what our role is in all of those things because that as well is a big piece of understanding sustainability. What part do we play in it?” Xavier said.

Image courtesy of C/O Ella Olsson

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