Published 14 January 2018
Situating Attawapiskat in a Context of Environmental In/Justice
For over a decade, the Attawapiskat Nation – located along the James Bay in Northern Canada – has experienced environmental conditions that led to several State of Emergency declarations. These ranged from sewer backups, to inadequate housing to an escalation in the rates of youth suicide attempts. Each of these declarations reveals what Rob Nixon (2013) refers to as elements of “slow violence”, violences that are slow-moving, systemic and often invisible. As I discuss elsewhere, they are also bound up within an assemblage of settler-colonial policies and practices that reproduce inequities that many Indigenous communities like Attawapiskat experience in their daily lives. In Canada, these range from exposure to industrial air pollution to constant boil water advisories. A recent report from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario noted that the provincial government continues to turn a blind eye on these systemic injustices, which are often referred to as examples of environmental racism.
The media is a double-edged sword for many communities who seek to raise awareness about these issues of environmental injustice. On the one hand, the media can be a powerful tool for mobilizing political will and shifting consciousness. On the other, it can perpetuate stereotypes about Indigenous communities as constantly in crisis and in need of intervention. Challenging the later, a team of artists, researchers and Cree youth from Attawapiskat co-produced the “Reimagining Attawapiskat” project as a means to shed light on the dark edges of settler-colonialism as well as the beauty of their culture, lands and waters. As numerous environmental justice scholars have pointed out, there is much we can learn from Indigenous perspectives and peoples about alternatives to the oppressive status quo to expand the sphere of environmental justice discourse (Schlosberg, 2013).
Mixed Media Storytelling: A Method to Decolonize Community-Engagement
Through mixed media storytelling, academic-activists and artists can partner together to challenge asymmetrical power relations and counter discourses that frame Indigenous peoples as helpless victims. Instead, as a means to expand the sphere of environmental justice discourse, through the voices of those experiencing injustices firsthand, creative forms of community-engaged research through artistic media such as photography, film and music can co-generate alternatives. This multidimensional approach to research is prismatic and brings together an ensemble of angles, vantage points, perspectives and narratives to produce a more fulsome depiction of on the ground experiences. The stories generated through this mixed media storytelling approach are not “just stories” in a simplified sense such that they be cast away as lacking evidence of injustice; instead, they are stories oriented towards justice. Community voices offer compelling counter narratives to those often told by outsiders.
There are three main contributions that mixed media storytelling can offer the study and practice of environmental justice. First, this method of community-engaged research interrogates monolithic narratives that paint communities with a unified brush and cast aside the diversity of their lived-experiences. In contrast, it is prismatic and seeks to create space for the diverse felt knowledges and experience that emerge from those directly affected by harmful laws and policies. Second, by engaging directly with those affected, mixed media storytelling can cultivate more robust dialogue about multidimensional and multilayered policy problems. Through a combination of community screenings and open source platforms, digitally recorded and produced content can inform a wider audience of first hand experiences.
The challenge following from this is how to engage policy makers or key decision makers in these conversations and in what format to impact meaningful social change. Finally, through the process of co-creation with artists, academic-activists, researchers and community-members, the situated stories produced can intervene on asymmetrical narratives. Such interventions are challenging and require careful curation. They also require caution, and consideration of how to decolonize community-engagement (Kornelson, 2017). Any researcher intending to work closely with community partners will need to ask those partners how they envision this intervention, including who the target audience is and what form the intervention should take.
Imagining Decolonial Futures
Initiatives like the Reimagining Attawapiskat project have the potential to challenge the settler-colonial status quo and simultaneously envision decolonial futures. As such this ethic of engagement must simultaneously address systemic issues of environmental justice while also seek to not just hear from but listen to community voices. As the digital stories from Attawapiskat youth articulate so well, their home is not simply a wasteland or a barren land. They are proud of their culture, their traditions and connect their health to the health of their lands and waters. Cultivating connections between human and more-than-human beings are central to their articulations of health and wellness. This resonates with what Cherokee scholar Jeff Corntassel (2012) refers to as “sustainable self-determination”. Academics and policy-makers must realize that Indigenous communities themselves are in the best position to imagine alternatives to the status quo and generate solutions to the challenges they face. Efforts towards sustainable self-determination, much like the hard work of decolonization, are ongoing. Never finished or polished, but continuous.
Mixed media storytelling is a dialogical research tool. It brings together people from very different backgrounds with the shared aim of telling marginalized stories and centering these to enhance public awareness and understanding. Further creative methods of community-engaged scholarship will need to not just think about the process but also the policy context. When academics witness situated stories, they become accountable to the storyteller. Bearing witness entails responsibilities that requires ethical consideration of how to tell stories, to whom and when. By engaging people at the sensory level, mixed media storytelling can create shared experiences that moves people to shift their thoughts and spark action. There is much that the academy can learn from community in order to go about doing so now and into the future.
For more on the Reimagining Attawapiskat project see: www.reimaginingattawapiskat.com.
Corntassel, Jeff (2012). “Re-envisioning resurgence: Indigenous pathways to decolonization and sustainable self-determination.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1 (1): 86-101.
Kornelson, Derek (2017). “Decolonizing Community Engagement”, Blogpost from medium.com. November 17th 2017. Accessed online December 14th 2017.
Nixon, Rob (2013). Slow Violence and Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Schlosberg, David (2013). “Theorizing environmental justice: expanding the sphere of a discourse.” Environmental Politics,22 (1): 37-55.
Wiebe, Sarah Marie (2016). Everyday Exposure: Indigenous Mobilization and Environmental Justice in Canada’s Chemical Valley. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Dr. Sarah Marie Wiebe grew up on Coast Salish territory in British Columbia, BC, and now lives in Honolulu, HI. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawai’i, Mānoa where she focuses on environmental sustainability. She has published in journals including Citizenship Studies and Studies in Social Justice. Her book Everyday Exposure: Indigenous Mobilization and Environmental Justice in Canada’s Chemical Valley (2016) with UBC Press won the Charles Taylor Book Award (2017) and examines policy responses to the impact of pollution on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s environmental health. Alongside Dr. Jennifer Lawrence (Virginia Tech), she is the Co-Editor of Biopolitical Disaster. At the intersections of environmental justice and citizen engagement, her teaching and research interests emphasize political ecology, participatory policy making and deliberative dialogue. As a collaborative researcher and filmmaker, she worked with Indigenous communities on sustainability-themed films including Indian Givers and To Fish as Formerly. For more see: www.sarahmariewiebe.com.