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Below the Radar Transcript

EPISODE 131: DECOLONIZING CLIMATE JUSTICE — WITH KHELSILEM

Speakers: Kathy Feng, Am Johal, Khelsilem

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Kathy Feng  0:03
Hello, I’m Kathy Feng with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Welcome to Climate Justice & Inequality, a Below the Radar series. In the midst of recent heat domes, mass droughts, seasonal floods, and raging wildfires in BC and across the world, Below the Radar host Am Johal sits down with influential guests from the climate justice movement. This series features conversations that range from how systems of power consistently undermine climate action through policy, to how climate justice is intrinsically linked to issues of colonization and racial injustice. For the first instalment, Am Johal is joined by Khelsilem, Squamish Nation Councillor and community leader. Together, they chat about Canada’s political economy, the need to centre Indigenous rights in climate activism, and the Squamish Nation’s approach to affordable housing. Enjoy the episode!

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Am Johal  1:02
Welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted you could join us again. This week we have a very special guest joining us — Khelsilem. Welcome. 

Khelsilem 1:11
Thank you. 

Am Johal  1:12
Yeah, I’m wondering if we can begin with you introducing yourself a little bit.

Khelsilem 1:18
My name is Khelsilem. I’m a Squamish Nation councillor and spokesperson. I grew up on the North Shore, now live in Vancouver. I also have ancestry to the Kwakwakaʼwakw nation. And I used to teach at SFU, as a limited-term lecturer in an Indigenous language program that I helped to create. And yeah, that's me.

Am Johal  1:39
Yeah, I was just gonna — there's so many things I want to talk to you about. You're involved in so many different projects around the city as a leader, and you were recently on a panel around climate justice. And I'm wondering if we can maybe begin there, in terms of there are so many land right struggles, so many colonial projects still underway. And situated as an activist, and now as a councillor for the Squamish nation, what has been your approach in dealing with questions around the climate emergency, and how to intervene with governments and industry who are oftentimes decision makers, or pushing forward projects without consultation on the ground, or with sufficient environmental protections in place?

Khelsilem  2:33
I've learned over the last number of years that there's all these kind of moving forces that are happening behind the scenes, in government. And, for example, in provincial and federal governments, I think we often mistake the influence of the civil service. And how much the civil service actually influences the political leadership on what decisions they make. And largely not through some sort of nefarious sort of intent, but just that — when you have a civil service who has been mandated to work on something for a number of years, and then to have a government switch — there's a wealth of staff and research, and sort of arguments made for a particular cause. And so you see this in BC, where the BC NDP, his approach to natural gas and to liquefied natural gas, and fracked gas is actually even more aggressive than it was under the right-wing BC Liberal government. And that is a policy, that I think a lot of the decision makers were fed a lot of information, very early into their last term, that convinced them that there was a profitable opportunity for the province in terms of the province’s revenues — that they might be able to capture off of that. And so I think, it's that thing where governments have their stated commitments and their stated values, and what they sort of talk about that they really want to do. But when it really comes down to it, they're motivated by this — in the desire to do good, they're still motivated by a political economy, wrapped around ‘what can we do that protects certain people's interests over others? How do we balance that?’ And they choose. They pick and choose whose interests they're going to prioritize. They're going to pick and choose whose interests they care more about, or care less about. Choose who they are more worried about upsetting than others. And that's, that's the political economy that they operate in. And so I think from an Indigenous perspective, there are times and there are ways in which Indigenous nations can assert our power within the conversation, that starts to concern the government. There are times when we win in the courts, or we win in the streets. And it concerns government, because it either adds the cost of a project, it adds to the delays on a project, or adds to the frustration that the political leaders have, because there is a significant amount of media attention on them. Which takes away from their ability to implement some other type of agenda that they have. And I think we saw this with the Wet’suwet’en solidarity that happened right before the pandemic, over a year and a bit ago. We’ve seen it numerous times in Canada across the country. But we also saw recently with the Blueberry First Nations court win, where the Attorney General for the BC government had announced that they are not going to appeal the decision. And so there's — we keep advancing, but I think First Nations and Indigenous communities still have a lot of power to wield, but it takes a lot of organizing to be able to wield it.

Am Johal  5:38
And certainly you also see that in projects like Site C logging on Vancouver Island — this sort of coalition inside of government, trying to mediate these interests. And certainly there's some big polarized divisions I imagine, within the governing side on these questions as well. I'm wondering as we're recording this in late July — by the time this airs, we're probably going to be in a federal election, is my assumption. And wondering if you can talk a little bit about your assessment of the Trudeau government in, and particularly related to pipelines and resource extraction in terms of their stated record from a policy point of view and from an Indigenous perspective?

Khelsilem  6:25
Yeah. So, the federal Liberal Party of Canada are often regarded as a bit of a master at branding. They’re often the brand party, and they run off brand. The way that they situate who the leader is, how they talk about their policies, with the messages that they put out there, how they communicate those things — it's not often a lot of substance or policy agenda. It's a lot of, how do they make people feel about them? And so you get these kinds of contradictions, where there's these claims to being very aggressive on climate action and setting those aggressive targets. But then at the same time, they're making substantial investments into fossil fuel infrastructure. I think one of the realities for anybody who is paying attention to pipeline politics in Canada, it's important to understand what's the power structure behind it all. And a big majority of oil and gas developments are happening in Alberta. But Alberta, also when you really dig down to look at all the companies that are operating, let's say, for example, in the tar sands, there's a mixture of companies between the large multinational corporations, you know, the Shell’s, and the Chevron's and things like that. And then there's the more mid-level, the low-end range companies, and a lot of them are domestic, they’re Canadian companies. And a lot of them are financed by the Canadian banks. Whereas the multinationals have lenders and financers around the world, or they have their own cash reserves that they're able to invest. And what we've seen for the last number of years is how much the multinationals have pulled out of Canada, and pull their investment out of Canada. And we're seeing it again, with some of the LNG plants in BC, you know, a lot of international investment coming out. But there's a problem where a lot of the domestic producers, because there are sort of financed by Canadian banks, it creates a political economy within Canada — that if the oil sands was to go completely belly up, as an example, that starts to threaten the banking sector within Canada, in terms of how much they're leveraging against them. So I think that when you start thinking about those types of financial aspects of these issues, that's where you start getting, you know — the bankers ability to lobby government is often misunderstood. Because it's hugely influential. The ability to influence policy and government, because the government's are worried about the financial sector and the impact it's going to have on both business, and also the average person. Because it starts to really threaten stability, and then it creates this perception that the government's not handling things well, and then they lose elections. So if I had to guess, who the inner circle within the Trudeau government was more afraid of — bankers from Canadian banks or environmentalists within BC, I think they will choose the bankers. And that's why despite the protests, and despite the rhetoric around climate action, and things like that, they would try to prop up a project like the trans mountain expansion pipeline, with taxpayer dollars by whatever amount is necessary. Because they are more worried about the impacts of a financial crisis within the banking and oil sector, than they are about roads being blockaded or people being upset with them within a small constituency. And in a place that doesn't really carry a significant amount of votes. You know, with our Canadian system, Ontario and Quebec just has way more influence over Canadian politics than BC does.

Am Johal  9:55
With the climate emergency that we have right now, and we're certainly seeing that in the context here in BC with Lytton burning down just a few weeks ago and wildfires still raging. I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit to where you think the Climate Justice Movement needs to go, there's been a lot of discussions around the environmental movement, not being diverse enough in its set of discussions about building a coalition — issues of inequality that have been left off the table over decades. And so there's been, certainly, attempts of changes within the environmental movement, but the environmental movements also gotten broader. And certainly, has been more effective when it's been Indigenous-led, as well. And wondering if you can speak a little bit to your own critiques of the environmental movement broadly, and kind of where things have fallen short, and where things maybe need to go.

Khelsilem  10:50
It is interesting to take note of, sort of, the environmental movement, and then I think its successor, the climate movement. Because the genealogy of that movement definitely goes back to a very — kind of colonialist view around environmental issues. And you look at like national parks, and the advocacy for national parks, it's a very ignorant sort of call for this idea of common space that should benefit the public. But in reality, it was a form of colonialism, where you were usurping control of lands away from Indigenous people and trying to claim them as, not necessarily just belonging to the state, but belonging to this idea of the commons as well. Which was a form of alienating those lands from Indigenous people. And so then there's that kind of attitude where it was more about the trees, then it was about the people who had been from that territory for generations. I think we've come a long way. In that regard. I think that the climate movement and environmental movement, you know, 15 years ago, had this as a real problem. Whereas today, both in BC and in Canada, and even the States and growing around the world, there has been a shift, I think generationally, where younger climate activists sort of understand this concept. That there are Indigenous people, Indigenous people have rights, that these territories belong to Indigenous people. And that many Indigenous people are going to face some of the most severe consequences of the climate emergency. So I think there's been a shift in that regard. And it's, there's still elements of the older sort of ideologies. But by and large, there's a lot of shift that's happened, where the climate movement had been told you need to center or need to put Indigenous rights at the center of the work. So that's been quite successful. I think where the climate movement falls short, it is still largely a very insular, very — “Let's only talk to people who really think and want to do the exact same things as us.” I think that the size of the climate movement is still quite small, and hasn't really focused on expanding its coalition in a meaningful way, to build mass majorities that actually threaten electoral politics in a meaningful way. I think that there's enough of a movement, that it forces politicians to have to look like they're on the right side around climate issues. But the climate movement hasn't reached a level, or a size, or a sophistication, to actually threaten the policies that politicians would run on. And those are two different things. One is just posturing and performance, and one is actually having to implement policies that the climate movement demands. So for example, there's been a movement more recently around ending oil and gas subsidies, which is sort of one of these sacred things in Canadian politics, both federally and provincially. And I think that's a great, important target to pick. I think that is an accurate target to pick. Because we're subsidizing these oil and gas sectors that are some of the biggest polluters. And so I think, I really think about that — how do we expand the coalition now? The way that you expand a coalition is by deep listening. You have to listen to people and organize it people who don't think exactly like you, and don't share the same ideas on every issue. And you have to organize with people who have different socio-economic backgrounds. Whether they have more money than you or less money than you, whether they have different set sensibilities around these issues. And you have to listen, and find out what is what are the issues that they really care about, and how do we connect that to the climate policies that we need? I've been really interested in the way that — in the states for example, there's a number of, I would say political actors in different groups, who have really focused on wrapping the climate action around economic issues, primarily. It's not a moral argument that, ‘oh, no, the world's gonna burn and we need to do something about it.’ It's that we need climate action so that we can create better-paying jobs for our people, that we can revitalize our communities in a meaningful way, that we can control more of the resources within our state or within our communities instead of these multinational corporations. Those are salient ideas that I think are really powerful, because I do think that a person will participate in their political action, if they feel that there is a benefit to themselves. I don't think that most people are going to participate just because they care about what's happening to somebody else somewhere else. But if they realize that there's a benefit for themselves, and for their family, and for their children or in their close friends — then there's a more likeliness of being able to actually see themselves participating in that political action.

Am Johal  15:27
Yeah, that's a great point. In fact, some of the biggest critics of the Alberta tar sands recently have been fiscal conservatives, around the mismanagement around the subsidies to the sector, and also the royalty funds, as well. And certainly, the economic case becomes a lot more flimsy as well, going forward. I'm wondering if we can speak a little bit about — you were on another panel with the City of Vancouver a few months back related to affordable housing, and particularly around renters and the Squamish nation is involved in leading the Sen̓áḵw Development, which is what I think, might be one of the most interesting Urban Development's happening in North America in the sense of not having to follow city rules, in terms of opening up a different type of imagination around what can be possible. I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit about the vision behind the project. And also with the challenge we have around affordable rental housing in Vancouver, how you're attempting to step into that space. And also just the historical piece of getting the land back in the first place.

Khelsilem  16:38
The Sen̓áḵw development is a hugely exciting project for both, I think the Squamish nation, but I also think for Indigenous communities in general — I think for Vancouver, I think for the country. There isn't anything like it in North America or around the world. It's a multi-billion dollar land development that's being led by an Indigenous community, and also an Indigenous government. And I often remind people of this, because we're not operating as just a private developer trying to raise revenues for an individual, or for one family. We're trying to raise revenue so that we can provide quality programs and services to improve the quality of life for an Indigenous community that has historically been marginalized, and disadvantaged from the same quality and standard of life that most of the Canadians have, or even to exceed it. And it also can be said that our quality of life prior to colonization was actually better than what we have today, too. We had more food, we didn't have homelessness, we have a higher quality of life — because basic needs are met in a much different way. So we're trying to revitalize that, and economic development is one way to achieve that. And so the project is — division of the project is largely rental. It's about 6000 units of purpose-built rental, located pretty close to the downtown Vancouver area. It proposes a number of really important climate actions as well, in terms of energy efficiency within the building. How it recycles the energy of the building, in terms of the cooling and heating systems. And also how it proposes a very low parking type development, where there's one parking one vehicle parking stall for every 10 units. But there is contemplated to be at least one bike parking stall for every unit. So 6000 bike parking stalls, and about 600 or so vehicle parking stalls. So there isn't really a lot of developments in North America at achieving that scale except, be it — go to Europe and maybe in Holland and a few other places, and Amsterdam. We're getting that level of bike infrastructure incorporated into the development. And so that's the future of development in Vancouver, we can't keep adding cars to our streets. Because there's a theoretical point where it's going to be gridlock for six hours a day. We have to invest in active transportation, and transit, and bike, and walking. And also how we design our land use. Are we going to be a region that continues to focus on urban sprawl, where the workers live 40 kilometers east and have to drive into the city every day to be able to earn an income? Or do we start building enough housing that people can actually work and live close to where they work? And one of the pieces that I often talk about with Sen̓áḵw is that the only reason that it is both financially viable, and is seen as a way to generate long-term income for the Squamish Nation, is because of how challenging the housing market is. We are proposing a significant density on a small piece of land. But if there were theoretically, ten other Sen̓áḵw style developments happening in Vancouver, it would start to change the economics of what we could do, because there would be too much competition in the market for that particular type of housing. So the demands are huge. I mean, we saw this even through the pandemic — we didn't know what was happening at the time, but some of the preliminary data that's coming out and showing that during the pandemic, unlike a lot of other places in Canada — because BC relatively did better than most places on pandemic response, and we didn't have to shut down like places like Ontario or Quebec did — we actually had an immigration during the pandemic into Vancouver and into BC. People from other parts of the country moved here. And when you look at the dynamics of the growing population of Canada, you look at the immigration targets that the federal government is looking to set, you're going to see, and continue to see, a significant demand for housing. And I think that a lot of progressive housing activists will think of ideas like Vienna, or Singapore, where there's sort of these models where there is a significant amount of state-owned, affordable housing provided for the public. And in Vancouver, we have roughly around 10% of new housing built is nonprofit, and 90% is market. And, there's been some ways to try to incorporate affordability into the market side of the developments. But it's interesting to me how much Squamish is doing, leads us down that path of being more like Singapore and more like Vienna. Because here we have a government building — housing, market housing, which is then going to help pay for the development of non-market housing. You know, just this past week, citizens of the Squamish nation voted 80% support of rezoning three parcels of land for affordable housing. So about 400 units of affordable housing, that we'll be able to build, one's about a four-storey development, and other ones about a three-storey development in Squamish, and then one proposes a 15 to 20 story, affordable housing developments. So those now have been approved by the community for that type of development. And so when you think about Sen̓áḵw, Sen̓áḵw's a way to generate significant long term revenues, to be able to pay for expenditures, like more affordable housing within the community. And really, that's the way that all governments should be going. You know, provincial, federal, municipal governments, should be trying to increase the share of homes and setting targets. I don't know how long it would take, I don't know how you would reasonably design this. But to say that by a certain time period, we're going to have a certain percentage of the home built in Vancouver be state-owned or government-owned or community-owned housing, and start shifting us towards that goal. And I think that's the other piece, of I think First Nations leading the way and demonstrating a model that can be replicated by others.

Am Johal  23:36
Khelsilem, recently the news that came out of Kamloops, other parts of the country like Saskatchewan and other areas where unmarked graves were found. And certainly, as Murray Sinclair said in his statement that this was part of the testimony and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that various levels of government didn't support the follow-through to verify what was said. And so as he said, it wasn't a surprise what was coming forward. And there's certainly going to probably be more instances of these sights. And I'm wondering, in terms of your discussions with Indigenous leaders across the country, what are some steps that need to be taken in terms of accountability from government and also other institutions like the church and others.

Khelsilem  23:28
I think all levels of government need to support investigations into any and all of the residential schools. And there's work underway to do that. I also think that there's a significant amount of records out there that are still unavailable, to either the public or to the communities. Whether it's from the Archdiocese in the Catholic Church, or whether it's from the government. The federal departments’ information on school records, attendance — anything around reports from Indian agents, or from principals of the schools. There's just a lot of records that are still held somewhere out there, that we don't have access to, and were never submitted to the TRC. Because there wasn't the legal requirement under law at the time, to force those disclosures, which is a huge problem. I actually remember — I think the Federal Minister had talked about — the Justice Minister had talked about, if needed, they might look at federal legislation to force and compel institutions that have records to have to disclose them by law. So still huge challenges in that regard. I also think that there needs to be more much more commemoration of both the residential schools and their survivors, and those that didn’t actually survive. I think we see polling that there's still — it's not a majority of Canadians that really deeply understand what happened at residential schools — there's still a huge gap. I think, we often think because we live in these sort of bubbles and social bubbles, we think, ‘oh, I, everybody around me sort of understands and cares about this issue.’ But we forget how much there are people out there that just haven't learned about this, and haven't been educated. And there's still a huge gap in that regard. And that’s when media plays a role in helping educate people. But memorials, I think, are really important to commemorate. And, and we see this in other places. I've learned about this from friends who have travelled around the world. And you go to other places where there has been genocide, Rwanda, or even Germany, and look at the way that those places commemorate those events. And it's really about this idea that this can never happen again. That these types of atrocities are just so awful, and they're so egregious that they can never happen again. And we need to memorialize these events, so that both the young people in our communities — all the young people in the communities learn about them, but also everybody learns about them. And that, generations from now, I've learned that when we don't document our history, and we don't commemorate things, our collective memory just goes away on these things. We forget about these events. And this needs to be instilled into Canada, in a way that is if you were to move here, or if you were to grow up here, everybody should know about what happened, why it happened, and what the long-term impacts of it were. And I think that that's the place that we definitely need to go. And then I think there's still a lot of work to do on healing within Indigenous communities, we're still dealing with the trauma, and the legacy of the trauma. We’re still dealing with the psychological effects that have been handed down from generation to generation. And we're dealing with the work to reclaim a lot of those things that were lost, like our language, and our culture, and our ceremonies. And ensuring that our people are connected to them. And in ways that more people probably would have been, if the residential schools hadn't happened.

Am Johal  26:46
Khelsilem, I know you probably have to go to another meeting — you are such a busy person. But just wondering if you have anything to add and what do you do for fun?

Khelsilem  26:55
[laughs] Yeah, I mean, I have a lot of really good friends in my life that I'm always so forever grateful for. And one of the things that's been hard about the pandemic for me is that I'm very extroverted. [laughs] I like socializing. I like meeting people. I like being around events. I actually get like, my batteries get recharged from going to meeting people and events, and socializing. And so I'm looking forward to things starting to open up again. There's a lot of, sort of outdoor events happening this weekend for Pride in Vancouver, which I'm really looking forward to. Ceremonies in the community will start happening again, which I'm really looking forward to. And so there's those things, and my last thing is I like canoeing, and I like being out in the water, and enjoying nature and connecting with the land in that way. So those are the few things that keep myself happy.

Am Johal  27:45
Cool, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. I know that so many activists in the city look up to you, you do such important work and, and keep it up. You have a whole — thousands of people who support the incredible work that you do, and look forward to seeing the various projects you're working on come to come to fruition.

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Kathy Feng  28:05
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thank you for listening to the first instalment of our Climate Justice & Inequality series with Khelsilem. You can find links to learn more about Khelsilem’s work, the Sen̓áḵw Development, as well as the full transcript of this episode in the show notes below. Thanks again for listening, stay tuned for the next instalment of this series, with Anjali Appadurai.

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Transcript auto-generated by Otter.ai and edited by the Below the Radar team.
August 31, 2021
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