Across the Pacific: Solidarities in a Time of Climate Crisis
by Chaya Go
On November 29, 2014, a crowd gathered at Burnaby Mountain, unceded xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) territories. The event was a celebration after blockades sustained for over 3 months by Burnaby residents and First Nation members succeeded in pressuring Kinder Morgan to remove equipment and stop survey work for its proposed Trans Mountain pipeline. To date, the blockade on site has been officially dismantled while grassroots communities remain vigilant.
Event invite posted by ‘Burnaby Mountain Updates’ on November 29, 2014;
Audrey Seigl of the Musqueam Nation
The event entitled “Frontlines Beat Pipelines” recognises that Indigenous, Black and peoples of colour are at the front lines of the environmental crisis. Far from a short-lived party to celebrate the evacuation of survey equipment from the site, the gathering at Burnaby more importantly served to make visible the continuing struggles against colonial histories and realities shared both by Indigenous, Black and peoples of colour. From the tar sands in Northern Alberta impacting First Nations communities, to the Mount Polley mine tailings spill devastating Secwepemc territories, to the Aamjiwnaang living with toxic emissions in Canada’s Chemical Valley, all across the country Indigenous peoples and ancestral lands suffer from the violence caused by state-sanctioned corporate extractions. As feminist and anti-violence activist Andrea Smith (2007) has argued, the violence inflicted on the environment must also be understood to be the very same violence inflicted on Indigenous—in particular Indigenous women’s—bodies as sites where state, colonial, and gender violences all intersect. Similarly, drawing on transnational examples of the environmental crisis, storms and floods have begun to ravage Bangladesh (see, Haque 2010) and the Philippines (see, Gray-Block 2014), proving that the world’s poor and its women—all of which, by no random fate, have been historically colonised—are also the most vulnerable to climate change.
The sun shone brilliantly in a vast blue sky that afternoon. Up on the mountain snow covered everything around us. A crowd of a hundred stood huddled together (many freezing in the winter cold!) for an afternoon of prayers, music, spoken word, and stories. As explained by one of the event’s organisers, South Asian activist and co-founder of No One Is Illegal, Harsha Walia, “Frontlines Beat Pipelines” intends to make clear the interlocking mechanisms of colonial, racist, and sexist oppressions: the defence of Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protection in Burnaby runs parallel with the defence of Mayan communities impacted by Canadian mining in Central America, with the grieving for the missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada, and with migrant workers struggling against everyday racism here. What was local to Burnaby simultaneously stretched across oceans and histories. In light of this, Indigenous women and women of colour were prioritised to speak and perform that afternoon.
Along with other artists and activists, I was invited by Harsha to speak about my work as an emergency relief worker after the super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) devastated the Visayan islands of the Philippines last November 2013. I shared with the crowd that prior to this invitation to speak, my personal commitment to the action in Burnaby as a Filipina scholar at UBC was simply of standing with the protestors in a practice of deep listening. However, as the event recognised that a super typhoon killing 10,000 and displacing millions in the Philippines is inextricably linked to the continuing expansion of extractive industries on unceded Coast Salish territories here, I accepted the responsibility to share.
I stood on stage that afternoon alongside my friend Kim, a Filipina artist who was invited to perform several songs: 2 Filipinas to share a mic and to speak of climate justice as women of colour, whose bodies have been racialised, now standing in solidarity with First Nations on stolen lands. Our story begins with colonisation: when 7,107 islands were baptised by the conquistadors as ‘Las Islas Filipinas’, when our islands were negatively feminised into these ‘many women’ whose bodies could be dominated. The Philippines lived for ‘300 years in a convent, and 40 years in Hollywood’ (referencing to the Spanish rule which was followed by the Americans), invaded by the Japanese, and today living under the ‘4th wave of colonial rule’, which scholars of Filipino indigenous and postcolonial psychology have argued to be the most difficult: internalised colonialism has created a people of ‘brown skin and white minds’ (David 2013). Dispossessed of ancestral lands, mother tongues, and ancestral ways of being, many of us have become seduced by White ‘modernity’, ‘democracy’ and ‘development’.
To speak of climate justice is to recognise that climate change does not affect us all in equal ways. Extreme weather conditions are a matter of life and death for peoples already made vulnerable prior to a disaster (just as the notion of ‘post’-colonial can be critiqued for the Global South, the idea too of ‘pre/post’-disaster does not speak accurately for the survivors of Yolanda). A vast majority of the Yolanda victims were landless farmers, fishers from small coastal villages, the poor in some of the poorest provinces in the country, who continue to struggle through feudal oppressions a century after ‘independence’. On a wooden stage at Burnaby Mountain, I recounted that across the Pacific Ocean our islands and their survivors already live the horrors of climate change. It is not just about the polar bears, or a distant doomsday to fear, but an everyday crisis for many of our communities in the Global South where vulnerabilities are shaped by histories of injustices intersecting along lines of class, race, gender, ableness, and age.
I shared with the crowd that to commemorate the 1st year anniversary of super typhoon Yolanda, activists from Manila walked 1,000 kilometres southbound to Tacloban City, the super typhoon’s ground zero as part of an unprecedented “Climate Walk”; while, simultaneously, coconut farmers set off from Davao City to walk 1,750 kilometres northbound to Manila as part of a historical march called “KM71”, to demand agrarian reform from the national government. These 2 marches met and crossed paths on route, and sent each other off: a powerful moment that has taught us all that the struggles for social and climate justice are inextricably intertwined, if not one and the same.
Climate Walk marchers in Tacloban City, November 2014
KM71 marchers in Manila, November 2014
Like many of the speakers and artists who shared before us, Kim and I also recognised that in order to sustain this painful work amidst horrific scales of destruction, our capacity for love and beauty are vital. Kim and I chose to end our time together on stage by sharing a tampering of the Philippine national anthem by a well-known Filipino singer, Joey Ayala. By changing the tempo from a march to that of a ballad, and rewriting the last line of the anthem to mean a dedication of love to one’s people, we sang Lupang Hinirang at Burnaby Mountain not to pledge allegiance to nation or state, but to simply sing a love song to our kapwa (our selves in others), to all our relations, here and there. Because, as Kathy Jetnil-Kijner, mother and poet from the Marshall Islands of the Pacific, declared in the opening of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit: “We deserve more than just to survive, we deserve to thrive” (2014). Indeed in these times of madness, those of us at the front lines of crisis need to summon up greater courage to also be the front lines of change.
Learn more about the defence of land on Burnaby Mountain in Tsleil-Waututh territories: “Thicker Than Oil” (February 10, 2015)
Chaya Go is a Filipina graduate student at the UBC Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality & Social Justice. This article was written on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam.
David, E.J.R. (2013). Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino-/American Postcolonial Psychology. North Carolina: Information Age Publishing, Inc.
Gray-Block, A. (2014, December 11). From typhoon hit Philippines, a call for climate justice. Greenpeace International. Retrieved from http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/makingwaves/typhoon-hagupit/blog/51668/
Haque, N. (2010, November 8). In search of climate justice. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/photo_galleries/centralsasia/201011894019575811.html
Jetnil-Kijner, K. (2014). Dear Matafele Peinam. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJuRjy9k7GA
Smith, A. (2007). Native American Feminism, Sovereignty and Social Change. In Joyce Green (Ed.), Making Space for Indigenous Feminism. (93-107). Manitoba: Fernwood Publishing.