Outcomes of climate change on water include rising sea levels, warmer sea surface temperatures, and shifts in precipitation types, timing, and amounts. These outcomes have an impact on Indigenous Peoples’ relationship with water. Indigenous communities continue to draw from Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to maintain the overall vitality of human-water ecosystems in the context of climate change.

Sea surface temperatures have been increasing steadily throughout the 20th century and this trend continues. Changes in ocean temperature affect the ongoing presence of plants, fish life, and other animals. Increases in water temperature have also significantly altered the migration and breeding patterns of sea life, including shellfish. Another key impact is the presence and the frequency of the recurrence of “red tide,” a harmful algal bloom (HAB). Harmful algal blooms are toxic microscopic organisms (also known as cyanobacteria) that feed off the energy of light to grow; they are fatal to marine life, and can make humans sick.

The Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR) network has been monitoring, sampling, and reporting on the levels of toxins among shellfish around the Alaskan Panhandle. SEATOR benefits from Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge to help to predict harmful algal blooms (HAB), reduce poisoning, and harvest shellfish more effectively. Traditional harvesting practices of the Indigenous Peoples of Alaska help to keep Indigenous communities safe from the effects of HAB.

In another example of applying Indigenous Knowledge to manage human-water ecosystems, the Heiltsuk Nation (Bella Bella, British Columbia), on the West Coast of Canada, are applying traditional harvest practices, to facilitate the natural regeneration and resilience of kelp, at a small scale. With the assistance of researchers from the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University, the Heiltsuk Nation are showing how their stewardship practices can help manage the growth of perennial kelp to make the kelp resilient to changes in the climate. University researchers were “motivated by the information needs” of the Heiltsuk Nation and together they co-designed a study to “measure the ecological resilience of feather boa kelp…and determine what environmental variables most affected its recovery.” The combination of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Western scientific practices permitted the researchers to explore how the social relationship of the Heiltsuk Peoples to the ecological resilience of their environment are affected by increases in ocean temperatures.

Colonization compounds the effect of climate change (and vice-versa) on human-water ecosystem relationships. In Madagascar, for example, while rising sea levels have displaced Indigenous communities, conventionally, being nomadic, by choice, was also a way for Indigenous Peoples to deal with the unpredictability of the climate. However, a shift to sedentary lifestyles, further entrenched by modernization and colonization, have also affected human-water ecosystem relationships in Madagascar.

Drawing from a wide variety of Indigenous bodies of knowledge rooted in both Indigenous experiences and practices, shed light on different ways to manage climate change effects and to better understand the fine balance of human-water ecosystems in a changing climate.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Frank McKenna, Unsplash)

Indigenous communities are taking action to manage and improve air quality. Indoor and outdoor air quality are affected by weather and climate change effects. As noted in Chapter 2 of the Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate Report, changes in ground-level ozone, increases in airborne pollutants due to warmer temperatures, and smoke due to extreme wildfires, all negatively affect air quality and Indigenous respiratory health.

Sioux Lookout First Nation Health, the Nishnawbe First Nation, Health Canada, and university researchers conducted a research study to measure indoor air quality, explore its links with high rates in respiratory infections among Indigenous children, and find solutions. Study findings were published recently and supported efforts in the Sioux Lookout Region to address associated factors in indoor air quality, such as poor housing conditions, including repairs. and lack of functioning controlled ventilation.

The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) notes that fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke poses the greatest risk to respiratory health. However, remaining confined indoors during a wildfire poses additional health complications, including mental health impacts and physical inactivity. In 2014, Yellowknife Dene partnered with Ecology North and created videos to show how they organized physical activities to escape from the “Summer of Smoke” and social activities to prevent the isolation of community members.

Changes to both physical infrastructure and social activities within Indigenous communities can go far to improve air quality—a serious factor affecting Indigenous health in a changing climate.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Vlad Kutepov, Unsplash)

Solid waste management is a climate change issue. The decay and combustion of solid waste contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane and nitrous oxide. Indigenous communities that do not have adequate solid waste management systems face challenges to their health, safety, land and water. Additional funding and community education can benefit Indigenous communities to meet the environmental challenges of solid waste management more effectively.

Solid waste is often referred to as garbage. Solid waste management involves “collecting, treating, and disposing of solid material,” which is thrown away because it is deemed to be no longer useful. If waste is not managed properly, it can result in environmental pollution, vector-borne diseases spread by rats and insects, and outcomes associated with poor sanitation. Improper waste disposal techniques in managing landfill wastes can result in the leaching of contaminants (i.e., leachates) into well water, ground water, and surrounding surface waters (e.g., lakes, rivers, and streams).

Two First Nation communities facing challenges to solid waste management are those of the Garden Hill First Nation and Wasagamack First Nation in Northern Manitoba. In 2018, a research study outlined how both Garden Hill and Wasagamack communities resorted to open dumping and burning toxic waste, including styrofoam and electronic waste (i.e., e-waste) in backyards disposal pits, because of poor infrastructure for safe and effective solid waste disposal and management. The study asked Indigenous community members to identify key issues in solid waste management that required attention; these included:

  • Lack of waste management for toxic wastes including plastic and e-waste.
  • Lack of funds dedicated for waste management.
  • Lack of curbside waste collection, leading to the proliferation of multiple community garbage dumps, including in backyards, and close to homes.
  • Lack of enforcement of environmental regulations by federal governments on dumping by off-reserve contractors.
  • How “reserves provide a black hole for toxic waste, stewarded products, and recyclables.”

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has called for funding for First Nation communities to increase the capacity of landfill and transfer stations, to store or accommodate wastes, and to innovate sustainable solutions to solid waste management. Projects like a proposed engineered wetland in Wasagamack First Nation hold the potential to reduce the adverse effects of leaching and its residual effects. The human-made wetland would use phytoremediation—a mitigation practice of introducing native plants in former disposal pits to reduce the concentration of leachates contaminating the environment. Educational projects like the Seventh Generation Waste Warriors are also promising, to inform Indigenous youth about how to develop waste diversion projects in their own communities. The lack of funding to both rural and urban Indigenous communities for solid waste management is corroborated in a 2021 report by Indigenous Services Canada that evaluated the First Nations Solid Waste Management Initiative (FNSWMI), a program that funds Indigenous solid waste management initiatives.

Indigenous communities need adequate and sustained funding to design, operate, and maintain solid waste management systems. Community education programs that foster collaborative approaches also deserve focused attention.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image credit: Sara Cottle, Unsplash)

Natural hazards are one of the top seven climate change risks to Indigenous peoples’ health, as reported by Health Canada. According to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a natural hazard is not a human-made hazard; it is “an environmental phenomena that [has] the potential to impact societies and the human environment.” The Canadian Disaster Database offers an inventory of disasters affecting Canadians since 1900.

Natural hazards include:

  • Avalanches
  • Earthquakes
  • Floods
  • Hurricanes
  • Landslides
  • Severe storms
  • Storm surges
  • Tornadoes
  • Tsunamis
  • Wildfires

Natural hazards in the form of extreme weather and climate emergencies, like fires and floods, can cause land degradation, including permafrost degradation, and the destruction of spaces of cultural and environmental significance. These effects can increase the risk of human injury and fatalities as well as the loss of Indigenous traditional knowledge and skills about working with the land.

Indigenous peoples may become displaced from their traditional territories, as a result of natural hazards in a changing climate. Consequently, the emotional health of Indigenous peoples must also be considered in relation to climate-induced displacement. Much of the research in this area has focused on the lives of Inuit living in the Arctic, and more research is needed that involves other Indigenous communities.

Chapter 2 of the Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate: Advancing Our Knowledge for Action describes hazard mapping in Kashechewan First Nation and Peavin Métis Settlement’s FireSmart Program as ways of managing natural hazards and enhancing Indigenous health.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Raychel Sanner, Unsplash)

Individual gardens, grown in backyards, balconies, and containers; community gardens developed in public spaces; and Indigenous demonstration gardens developed collaboratively, all play a role in helping local small-scale climate adaptation. Gardeners can show how to practice agency in managing climate change, while Indigenous demonstration gardens can offer public education about, and promote traditional uses of, Indigenous plants.

Gardeners face many challenges of climate change effects such as fluctuating temperatures, erratic weather extremes, water shortages, droughts, and flooding from rainstorms. These challenges are on top of common hindrances of gardeners, including, weeds, insects and animal pests, and necessary watering restrictions imposed by governments. When gardeners recognize that they have agency as “both stewards and guardians of our environment,” then there are actions that they can take locally to adapt their gardening practices to climate change. These practices are noted by the National Wildlife Federation, and include:

  1. Using human-powered yard tools vs gasoline-powered tools to reduce energy consumption and minimize pollution.
  2. Growing diverse native species of plants to manage the impact of so-called “invasive species.”
  3. Learning about the connection among birds, bees, and other pollinators in order to appreciate how plants grow, and how gardens depend on symbiotic relationships with diverse insects.
  4. Reducing water consumption and protecting topsoil by using rain barrels and by practicing mulching.
  5. Composting both yard waste and kitchen waste. While this can be done with the support of municipal services, it is also important to consider how compost can be a source of soil nutrients and as work as a natural fertilizer for diverse community gardens.

Indigenous demonstration gardens, even in high-traffic urban areas, can highlight how to manage plants in the midst of climate change, while also promote traditional uses of Indigenous plants. For example, the Bickford Teaching Garden is a biodiverse garden with five plots: pollinator plants, Indigenous sacred medicinal plants, herbs, sun-friendly plants, and a plot for seed saving. The garden, one of several Indigenous gardens in downtown Tkaronto (Toronto, Ontario), was designed and installed by Miinikaan and is maintained by volunteers. The garden beds were developed using the sheet mulching method which regenerates soil without cutting into the ground.

Another Indigenous demonstration garden is the Na’tsa’maht Indigenous Plant Garden – a “living classroom” located on the traditional territories of the Lkwungen and Wsáneć peoples, on the lands of the Landsdowne Campus at Camosun College in Victoria, BC. In addition to supplying space for Indigenous-led education, it also offers opportunities for the study and practice of sustainability at the college. Na’tsa’maht is a Salish word that means “unity or working together as one” or “being of one mind, one spirit.”

All these examples of gardens offer local, human-scale examples of climate adaptation. Whether gardening in a community garden, backyard, or apartment balcony, or volunteering in an Indigenous demonstration garden, gardening can offer opportunities to take individual and collective action in the context of climate change.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Steffi Pereira, Unsplash)

Invasive species are organisms that are not native to a particular ecosystem, and are typically viewed as harmful to their environment. According to scientists, preventing the spread of invasive species also protects the environment from the effects of climate change.  However, current Indigenous research encourages reassessing how invasive plant and insect species are understood. Indigenous perspectives seek to consider why invasive species are present in the first place, so that people can benefit from the these species, rather than focusing solely on their removal.

An Anishinaabe perspective proposes that every plant is kin. Consequently, plant invaders are viewed in terms of the kind of relationship they might create with humans. One might consider what led the so-called invasive plant to appear as a foreigner to the territory in the first place, rather than automatically sanctioning its removal. This kinship approach, notes Dr. Nicholas Reo (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians), in an interview with the CBC Radio’s Unreserved, is a “more participatory, relational approach” to science. For example, Dr. Reo’s collaborative research has opened up the possibility for invasive cattail to be considered as an alternative fuel source, or as food, rather than as a nuisance and an undesirable species to wetland ecosystems around the Great Lakes.

Indigenous perspectives to understanding invasive species, such as through a kinship approach, can be viewed in concert with, or as an alternative to, the federal and provincial legislation and regulatory policies on invasive species in Canada.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Vyacheslav Makodin, Unsplash)

Food security means that a community has stable and sufficient access to nutritious food. Climate change further threatens Indigenous communities from maintaining secure access to country foods. Indigenous food sovereignty is a means by which food security for Indigenous communities is achievable. Having measurable indicators for food sovereignty in Indigenous communities can go a long way in securing the long-term health of Indigenous peoples.

While food security focuses on protecting and distributing food and produce from existing food systems, food sovereignty emphasises having a democratic approach that engages all community members and food producers in building and sustaining local food systems. Food Secure Canada highlights seven pillars for food sovereignty:

  1. Focusing on food for people
  2. Building knowledge and skills
  3. Working with nature
  4. Valuing food providers
  5. Supporting local food systems
  6. Putting control into local initiatives
  7. Food as sacred/gift of life

Indigenous food sovereignty is action-oriented and connected to a broader social movement that considers the needs of future generations. However, determining how to gauge where progress is being made in securing the overall health of Indigenous communities through Indigenous food sovereignty is difficult to achieve. Every effort should also consider the capacity of Indigenous communities to be engaged for long-term engagement.

Indigenous food sovereignty indicators can be used to build both community food systems and improve overall community health. Through a literature review, content analysis, and Indigenous community engagement, a collective of Indigenous and non-Indigenous university researchers has identified seven Indigenous food sovereignty indicators:

  1. Access to resources
  2. Production
  3. Trade
  4. Food consumption
  5. Policy
  6. Community involvement
  7. Culture

An additional twenty-five sub-indicators are identified  and are intended to be transferable to diverse Indigenous communities across differences of “cultural values, history, traditions, geography governance, beliefs, resources, capacity, and goals.”

One of the limitations of this research is that current public policy does not typically connect food sovereignty with public health priorities and so the implementation of these Indigenous food sovereignty indicators will require leadership to meet community expectations that link food security with sustainable health and wellness in Indigenous communities. Indigenous food sovereignty indicators can also be used to frame health promotion initiatives at the local community level by supporting Indigenous approaches to farming, harvesting, cooking, and language revitalization in conjunction with enhancing scientific work.

Indigenous food sovereignty projects worth considering in terms of their efforts to build food security and to heal from centuries of colonization include: Ginawaydaganuc Food Sovereignty Project; a project of the Pauquachin and T’Sou-ke First Nations of South Vancouver Island called Feasting for Change; and projects led by 28 different organizational efforts worldwide. Many of the projects combine seed saving, financing, guidance and mentoring by Elders, food preparation, and feeding programs.

Indigenous-led food sovereignty projects, combined with an application of indicators to gauge for impact, could offer a powerful means to manage and overcome Indigenous food insecurity, while promoting long-term Indigenous community health in the context of climate change.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Johnny McClung, Unsplash)

Climate change threatens the survival and migration practices of monarch butterflies. Drastic shifts in weather patterns and the fragmentation and degradation of habitat adversely affect environmental cues facilitating migration and hibernation of monarch butterflies. Restoring the monarch butterflies’ habitats, destroyed by climate change and deforestation practices, would increase the butterflies’ chances of survival.

Monarch butterflies are among the endangered species assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Once numbered at over one billion in the 1990s, monarch butterflies declined to approximately two hundred million individuals in 2015-2016.

Milkweed is the food supply for monarch butterflies. Monarch butterflies need milkweed to grow and develop. Caterpillars only feed on milkweed. As milkweed adapts to climate change, they can also threaten to poison the butterflies. When milkweed plants sense warming temperatures, they increase their production of cardenolide, a poison, as a defensive mechanism against predators.

Monarch butterflies can freeze to death in temperatures below freezing. As the weather gets colder in parts of Canada and the United States, monarch butterflies fly thousands of miles south to Mexico, starting in October, to winter among the Oyamel Fir Tree forests. Typically, monarch butterflies make their return trip North in early April; however, habitat loss threatens monarch survival.

Practices of rewilding rural and city landscapes, including growing more milkweed, support monarch butterflies’ survival, and the nectar-rich milkweed give the butterflies added energy before their long flight South each year.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: M. Dean, Unsplash)

According to “PAS Report 600: Planning for Urban Heat Resilience,” released in April 2022 by the American Planning Association (APA), urban regions need to develop a framework to build resilience against rising temperatures due to climate change. Although the APA report focuses heavily on the United States, the findings can be appreciated within the context of North America. With more than half of all Indigenous people in Canada living in towns and cities with a population of 30,000 and more, the threat of increasing heat is not simply an urban issue, it is an Indigenous issue.

The APA report defines urban heat resilience as the ability of urban systems “to maintain or rapidly return to desired functions and improve quality life in the face of chronic and acute health risks and to quickly transform systems that limit current or future capacity to adapt to extreme heat.” The report lays out an urban heat resilience framework, based on scientific information, with “seven practical considerations” to facilitate planning for, monitoring, and measuring extreme heat events. The framework also calls for developing a “fact base of information on heat risks” and a robust collection of heat mitigation and heat management strategies.

Key components to urban heat resilience planning are heat mitigation strategies and heat management strategies. In the urban context, heat mitigation strategies focus on buildings and infrastructure and reducing the heat that they produce. Heat mitigation strategies often fall under the category of “urban greening” such as tree planting, urban forestry, and green storm water structures (e.g., bioswales, permeable pavements, etc). Urban heat management strategies enable cities to both prepare for and respond to immediate, recurrent, and long-term heat risks also associated with the built environment (e.g., renewable and reliable energy systems, indoor cooling). Heat management and heat mitigation strategies require the assistance of diverse experts, including planners, engineers, architects, urban designers, and public health professionals, among others.

Building urban heat resilience, and protecting the health of Indigenous peoples due to adverse climate effects require planning ahead, and taking leaps forward to “proactively” coordinate all parties to manage increasing heat. The Government of Canada has developed a list of tools and resources to help public health professionals develop approaches to reduce, the effect of urban heat islands. The First Nations Health Authority has put into place “heat response supports” to mitigate the adverse health effects of extreme heat on BC First Nations and to promote climate health. The Canadian Institute of Planners’ Policy on Climate Change Planning has recommended that planners “[b]e inclusive and respectful of Indigenous peoples, striving to promote understanding, validation, and respect of Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices to ensure decisions and interventions are culturally relevant and appropriate.”

The disastrous impacts of the record-breaking extreme heat of the summer of 2021, in the Western United States and Canada, shed light on the need for collective efforts to ensure that heat risks are managed more effectively. Planning for urban heat resilience requires a collective and culturally informed approach.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Berkay Gumustekin, Unsplash)

Climate maladaptation is defined as the unintended negative results of adaptation policies and decisions. Maladaptation cuts across social and geographic boundaries as well as time.

In 2013, researchers Jon Barnett and Saffron J. O’Neill developed a framework for maladaptation, and categorized the phenomenon into five types:

  • Increasing emissions of greenhouse gases.
  • Disproportionately burdening the most vulnerable.
  • High opportunity costs.
  • Reduce incentives to adapt.
  • Path dependency.

Actions that burden the most vulnerable carry the highest climate risk. Furthermore, institutions and organizations that are path-dependent to address climate change slow down climate adaptation and associated decision making processes.

According to the 2022 IPCC WGII Sixth Assessment Report: “adaptation planning and implementation that do not consider adverse outcomes for different groups can lead to maladaptation, increasing exposures to risks, marginalising people from certain socio-economic or livelihood groups, and exacerbating inequity.”

Preventative measures against maladaptation must be undertaken. Exchanging mutual learning and knowledge gained from assessments about what works and what does not in environmental monitoring and decision-making may help to prevent maladaptation. Furthermore, “blueprint approaches” to climate adaptation that lack an understanding of the details regarding the vulnerability and social inequities of a context, and that minimize engagement, should be avoided.

Poor climate leadership is a primary culprit of maladaptation, and governance practices in climate adaptation need more scrutiny. Climate equity and justice must be prioritized while “inclusive planning initiatives informed by cultural values, Indigenous knowledge, and scientific knowledge” can further prevent climate maladaptation.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Jezael Melgoza, Unsplash)