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"Just Environmentalism" An Interview with Clayton Thomas-Müller

Joined: Feb 20 2009

Just Enviromentalism?

An Interview with Clayton Thomas-Müller

Clayton Thomas-Müller is an activist from the community of Pukatawagan,
also known as the Mathais Colomb Cree nation, located above the 56th
parallel on the Churchill River in northen Manitoba. He is currently the
tar sands campaign organizer for the US-based organization Indigenous
Environmental Network (IEN). Most of his work is focused on what he
calls political base-building: organizing with First Nations impacted by
tar sands development to build the political power of the community and
to stop the expansion of the largest industrial development ever known to
humanity. Sharmeen Khan interviewed Thomas-Müller in August 2008.

Tell us about your political organizing.

I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My background is what you could
call urban native. Most of my family is urban-based, in the north and
west ends and inner city of Winnipeg. So I grew up being exposed
to the socio-economic conditions that urban aboriginals face in
this country. Part of my family has been involved in gang activity
so, as a young man, I also grew up in and around Winnipeg’s inner-
city gang culture. That led me to frontline organizing with young
native people in the inner-city, to organizing with youth involved
in gangs, and to working around the question of decolonization
and leadership development. This organizing embraced indigenous
traditions in order to confront the negative things that young
native people are exposed to in European-dominated culture.
This early background led me to a lot of different activities, like
organizing in the First Nations’ youth political scene, working in
prisons with incarcerated young people, and working on restorative
and alternative justice models. Really, I was involved in anything
and everything related to preventing our young people from falling
through the cracks. I was also trying to help young native people
understand why it is that we are so grossly over-represented in all
of the negative statistics in this country. A lot of that work involved
sharing the political analysis that I learned through my involvement
with the Native Youth Movement. They carried out actions aimed
at empowering young native people by picking up our traditions
and decolonizing our hearts, minds, and spirit.

How did you go from inner-city youth organizing to
environmental justice?

I was always curious about why it was that native people faced so
many struggles. For example, why does it seem like a societal norm
that when you’re a young native man of a certain age you end up in
prison? In doing the frontline organizing work I always wondered
how we got to be so dispossessed of our culture and of our land.
Even I can remember being out on the trap line with my great-
grandparents, learning about traditional medicine and harvesting
traditional foods. How did it come to be that our people now find
themselves in the depths of despair in the inner-city ghetto?
After my early 20s, I reached a point where youth leadership
development wasn’t enough. I wanted to really shake up the system
and challenge the power structure. I began to understand that so
many of the struggles that I was involved in were really tied to the
national crime committed against indigenous peoples through the
destruction of our way of life and through attempts to abolish any
memory of our title to the land called Canada.

Things actually got to a point where a lot of the First Nations
leadership blacklisted me because of some of my political organizing.
I became a target because I tried to develop a funding strategy
that would make the National First Nations Youth Council of the
Assembly of First Nations less dependent on federal funds. This
would have allowed it to become more politicized in its advocacy.
After I was labelled a radical, I had to leave the country to find work
because nobody would hire me. I was offered an organizing job in
California as the North American coordinator for an organization
called the Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Youth Alliance. This
was a coalition of indigenous and non-indigenous activists focused
on developing curricula and training spaces for indigenous and non-
indigenous peoples to work together in a respectful way. I worked
on that project for about a year.

When the project came to an end, my wife and I were going
to come back to Canada but I was given an opportunity by a friend
who worked for the Indigenous Environmental Network to help
coordinate a delegation of indigenous peoples from Canada and
the United States to attend the third preparatory meeting of the
United Nations World Conference on Sustainable Development
in New York City. At the conference, I had the opportunity to
talk about my experiences as a frontline organizer and I began to
notice the connections between the environmental justice issues
and the issues that indigenous communities were facing. For one
thing, I had come from one of the places where people end up
when they get dispossessed of their land - they end up in places like
the projects in inner-city Winnipeg.

Through that experience, I was offered the position of
North American native energy organizer with the Indigenous
Environmental Network. I went from being a social justice and hard-
core sovereignty activist and entered the world of environmental
justice. This was a baptism by fire. I was thrust into a job where
I had to organize with over 30 different tribes from across North
America - from the north slope of Alaska all the way to the Gulf
of Mexico - to support campaigns by grassroots community
organizations against mega-energy development projects. At that
point, the pieces came together. I realized how the movement for
environmental justice was really connected to indigenous struggle.
I saw how these struggles were connected by modern-day
imperialism, which I consider to be neocolonial liberalization.
The trade policies and multilateral economic agreements that are
being pushed today are new extensions of the same old spirit of
colonization. So for me it was a very natural progression to move
from urban youth politics within Canada’s First Nations to land and
indigenous rights struggle and the fight to protect the sacredness of
Mother Earth. It all started to make sense and fell in line perfectly
with the cultural liberation that I was going through after having
been exposed to my own traditional culture at a late age – I was
19 or 20 when I went to my first Sundance. I started to learn the
importance of spending time out on the land and connecting to
our ancestors.

So, indigenous environmental justice organizing was an organic
progression for me. I excelled at it because of my experience
organizing with youth in the inner city. And it connected with my
attempts to answer all the questions I would get from young people:
Why are so many of us in jail? Why are so many of us dropping out
of high school? Why are the only jobs on the reserve those that are
based on destroying our land, our air quality, and our water quality?
These are all questions that I had asked myself over the years and
didn’t really have answers to until I got involved in the fight for
environmental justice.

What do you mean by environmental justice?

Environmental justice is the idea that regardless of race, creed,
class, religion, culture, or gender everyone has the right to clean
air, clean earth, and clean water – that we all have the right to live,
work, pray, and play in a healthy and clean environment where we
are not exposed to toxic chemicals. That’s a fundamental right
protected and enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of
Human Rights. However, in both Canada and the United States
the location of toxic industries is commonly determined by the
race and class characteristics of communities. In this context
we know that our rights are not being protected, and that we
will have to fight for environmental justice. In the early 1980s,
environmentalism was often defined by the idea of NIMBY (Not In
My Backyard), but environmental justice requires a much broader
understanding of things and suggests an approach of “not in my
backyard and not in anyone else’s, either.” From an indigenous
perspective, environmental justice goes beyond the question of
the disproportionate exposure of people and their traditional
food systems to toxic and nuclear contamination. It also includes
questions of exploitation, ecological damage and compensation,
natural resource regeneration, and the protection and healing
of the biological diversity that sustains us and our linguistic and
cultural practices.

Could you explain the organizing approach of the
Indigenous Environmental Network and how you connect
with indigenous people across North America?

IEN has been around since 1990. It came out of one the first
Protecting Mother Earth conferences, which was hosted in Arizona
by the Navajo community organization Deni’ Care and sponsored
by Greenpeace USA. In 1990, the building of a waste incinerator
was planned for a site close to Navajo communities. In response
to a call from elders in the Navajo nation, IEN and others brought
together different indigenous forces in the region to develop a
community organizing strategy to put a stop to it. This wasn’t an
isolated case, and a call was put out across Indian Country to step
up and organize against the Department of the Interior, the Bureau
of Indian Affairs, and the private waste corporations that were
targeting communities in Indian Country for toxic dumps, waste
incinerators, nuclear waste sites, and energy development. All kinds
of industries were coming into Indian Country. This hasn’t really
changed, but I think the period was a really significant moment in
history. Our communities were being disproportionately targeted.
The whole counter-initiative was based on trying to address
the Indian socioeconomic crisis in the United States by confronting
the institutions of non-native power that were trying to “solve” our
problems by introducing harmful models of economic development
into our communities and justifying them as a way to create jobs. In
reality, racism was being used to determine where America’s most
destructive and harmful waste facilities would be located. In the
end, the resistance was very successful, and IEN grew out of that
experience to become the organization it is now. We have multiple
campaigns and programs, but the flagship program areas are the
native energy and climate programs that support communities in
their on-the-ground campaigns.

Our organizing protocol and culture are based on native
principles of organizing. They are governed by the 17 principles
of environmental justice that were drafted by activists from
communities of colour and indigenous communities at the first
National People of Colour Environmental Leadership seminar in
Washington, DC in 1991. The main principle is that communities
should speak for themselves. We know what our struggle is and we
know what the solutions to our problems are. Our work is focused
on supporting communities to speak for themselves on issues of
environmental justice and protecting their sacred home fires and

Another important principle is that we don’t go into
communities that don’t have an on-the-ground organization or
coalition, or at least a strong family, that is stepping up and trying to
address the issue. We believe in bottom-up organizing, so we’re very
careful not to engage in narrow issue-based campaign organizing,
which is what a lot of mainstream organizations do. We insist on
starting first and foremost with building the political power of
communities, and part of that is insisting on being invited into
local communities to help support their struggles. There are many
other principals included within the 17 principles of environmental
justice and I encourage your readers to check them out at

We operate on the basis of a training framework for all of our
organizers that specifically focuses on native organizing, and what
it means for native and non-native communities to work together.
This is based on developing an understanding of the unique political
and legal status of First Nations, Native Americans, and Alaska
native communities in relation to the federal governments of the
United States and Canada. This unique legal and political status
includes hundreds of treaties signed between sovereign nations
that guarantee our land rights. It also includes our particular
political history of colonization and victimization by failed colonial
policies. These elements of the indigenous experience differentiate
our struggles from those of other communities of colour. There
are some very important differences that have to be understood
and integrated into how we approach environmental and land
issues. You can’t have just one “people of colour” approach that will
work for everybody. We also have to remember the importance of
recognizing the diversity of First Nations across these territories.
There is no one approach that will work for every different struggle.
Every community is different.

You spend a lot of time in both the US and Canada in your
work. What is your assessment of the environmental
movements in Canada today? Can you compare them with
the situation in the US?

I think the current environmental movement in Canada has a case
of amnesia. There are a lot of incredible organizers, campaigners,
and leaders within the mainstream NGO movement in this
country, but I think many of them have become co-opted into the
non-profit industrial complex. What I mean is that a lot of the
mainstream environmental organizations are overly focused on
policy and have become pretty top-down in their approach. The
focus is often entirely on issue-based campaigning, which too often
comes down to having the most glitzy and effective “messaging”
at all costs. It ends up relying on getting the big bucks and doing
funder-directed work at the expense of accountable community-
directed organizing. As a result, the mainstream environmental
movement in this country has become shortsighted in how it
approaches environmental organizing. In my opinion, this fairly
describes the state of much of the environmental movement in the
United States as well.
The fact is, most organizations don’t have real constituencies
on the front line in the communities that are most impacted by
climate change, energy development, and extractive industries. So
a lot of these organizations are making decisions with few lines of
accountability to the people their decisions impact. That’s a very
dangerous thing. For example, a lot of the solutions being proposed
by the policy hacks in the contemporary environmental movement
in Canada stand to actually exacerbate the situation that people on
the ground are facing. Things like clean nuclear energy, clean coal,
green hydro, carbon trading, and the kind of market-based climate
initiatives that are coming to fruition with the Kyoto protocol do
not help our communities.
As I said, one of the things that’s very clear is that the
mainstream environmental movement has a case of amnesia.
Otherwise it would be obvious that any fundamental anti-systemic
struggle or systematic change will have to come through serious
efforts at political base-building within grassroots communities to
support radical policy proposals, whether we’re talking about the
Beltway in DC or here in Canada.
Take Rosa Parks as an example. Many people still believe that
Rosa Parks just happened to be riding on some bus and that – for
whatever reason, because she was too tired or something – she
decided to sit at the front of the bus, and the civil rights movement
was sparked. But we have to understand that there was a massive
social justice and civil rights machinery behind Rosa Parks, and that
her actions were part of a very calculated movement strategy that
chose to strike at a point in time when the neocons of the day were
vulnerable. An organized and powerful civil rights machinery based
on political base-building mechanisms in communities supported
these actions and made the campaigns effective.
The same goes for any struggle, whether it’s the women’s
movement, the student movement, or the struggle for gay rights:
community organizing and movement-building have always been an
integral part of creating any systematic change. And these struggles
were never limited to any one specific tactic. There was always
an integration of both community base-building and issue-based
campaign organizing within a more comprehensive and multi-
pronged strategy. That’s the current reality that we have to face up
to in this country. We need to reinvigorate the political movement
aspect of organizing around environmental issues, particularly on
the climate change and energy justice issues.

Given these realities, do you work with mainstream
environmental NGOs in your current campaigns?

IEN has a long history of working with mainstream organizations.
We’ve always tried to be very principled about how we work with
non-native organizations. One of the ways that we do this is to
insist that these organizations engage with native communities in
ways that are respectful of our unique needs as native people. We
need to be sure that they are not tokenizing our community leaders
in campaigns and initiatives that build the profile and power of that
particular NGO instead of helping to build the power and profile of
the community. We have always acted somewhat as a watchdog on
these questions, and when we see that kind of behaviour we tend
to be very blunt in pointing it out.
We also do a lot of teaching and mutual exchange at different
conferences, and we share resources about tactics and particular
actions. We’re always pushing mainstream environmental
organizations to be more accountable to communities. We push
them to develop mechanisms to make sure that the free and
informed consent of indigenous communities is respected, and to
make sure to involve all community stakeholders (I hate this word
but will use it for lack of a better one), including our traditional
people, our hunters, our women, our youth, and not just the council
I think one of the stark realities worth mentioning is that the
Indian Act government structures have no institutional separation
of powers and that leads to problems, especially when you’re talking
about large-scale resource development. There aren’t the kinds
of checks and balances and accountability mechanisms that are
needed. So there are opportunities for corruption and exploitation
when you’re talking about negotiating multibillion-dollar projects
with extractive industries in Indian country. A lot of our work is
focused on trying to balance those scales and making sure that
industry and government, but also the NGOs, are mindful of that.
At the same time, we need to make sure that our communities
have the resources and capacities for high-level negotiations and
are not being exploited, and that it’s not just elected officials who
are sitting at the table. We need to push for the full and meaningful
participation of all members of the community.
In the United States and Canada, we work with communities
that are asserting their right to develop their own environmental
protection programs, with their own water and air quality standards,
including by applying and enforcing their own environmental,
sacred areas, endangered species, and conservation laws. These
initiatives strengthen our sovereignty.

How have native communities in Canada responded to
IEN’s work?

Resource development in Indian Country tends to be very divisive.
It divides communities, it divides friends, and it even divides
families. Much of our elected political leadership is in a situation
that I don’t envy. On one side they claim that they have to generate
economic opportunities and sustainable revenue streams to build
and maintain the infrastructure of First Nations communities. Most
elected leaders are dealing with nightmare situations that are very
dificult to navigate, and the Department of Indian Affairs and the
Indian Act government system are a big part of the problem. Leaders
who get into power are dealing with budget deficits. And with the
funding caps that have been imposed, federal transfer payments
to First Nations haven’t changed since the 1980s. So they’ve got a
finite pot of money to use to try to deal with the needs of a growing
population facing all kinds of crises. They’ve got to make up the
difference somewhere if they don’t want to go into third-party
receivership and have the community’s powers stripped by Indian
Affairs. So many communities are both pressured and seduced by
big corporations and the government into cutting deals and getting
a quick payoff by bringing in big money-making industries like oil
and gas, mining, and forestry. In the case of southern Ontario – in
places like Sarnia – this is often just a matter of leasing the land
out, but then you end up with 30 refineries beside your
community. But we should recognize that there are not a lot of
How do people respond to IEN’s work? On the one hand, there
are a lot of people at the grassroots who are already struggling
around these issues. They know about the dangers of oil and gas
development. They know that climate change means a lot of
really scary things for their people. They are happy that there are
organizations like IEN that can help connect them with other
communities in struggle. On the other hand, I think that there are
a lot people out there, especially in the leadership, that are in bed
with the corporations and the federal government. They have sold
out or bought into the quick fix that unsustainable development
offers and would prefer it if we did not exist.
We are realistic. We understand the need for local community
organizations to work out differences with their leadership and to
deal with things internally to the best of their ability. Sometimes
that’s not possible. But we have to try to work out the divisive issues
in our communities on our own, in our own way, using our own
traditions. In our work we do our best to respect local autonomy
and to stay out of those kinds of local debates. But we do support
our allies at the grassroots that are standing up for our people and
the protection of Mother Earth.

What about your relationship to labour unions? How have
they responded to your work around climate change and
tar sands development?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a lot of buzz about
so-called Blue-Green alliances between mainstream environmental
organizations and the big unions. I think that has all kind of died
down in both Canada and the US, but there has been some resurgence
of alliance-building around the realities of climate change. I think a
discussion is beginning with the workers most impacted by climate
change – like steelworkers, auto workers, and other workers in the
fossil fuel industries. This has taken the form of discussions about
the question of “just transition” and how to ensure that public and
private funds are being directed at mitigation and adaptation to
climate change, while recognizing that these things impact workers
as well the communities that are living beside big emitters.
We’ve worked with the Steelworkers over the years in this area,
and we’ve been collaborating with the Just Transition Alliance and
other union organizations in the United States to try and forge what
we jokingly refer to as “Cowboy-Indian alliances.” Work is being
done to connect the struggles of workers in toxic industries with
those of people impacted in the community. A lot of that is geared
around a discussion of a zero-carbon economy and just transition.
A lot of my work here in Canada has been focused recently on
reaching out to labour. I see a lot of long-term strategic benefits
for social movements in this country if the indigenous struggle for
environmental justice and the labour struggle can unite.
If you look at the demographics, by 2016 one out of every
fourteen workers in Canada will be native. Three quarters of native
people are under the age of 30. The face of entire regions of this
country is going to change in the coming years. There is going to
be a pretty fundamental shift in the labour market, and in political
and economic power. So in that context there’s a lot to be said
about the need for the labour struggle and the indigenous struggle
to come together to push for systematic change around a new and
renewable energy economy.

How do you respond to workers or unions who really rely
on resource extraction for their incomes even though it’s
devastating for the earth?

Well it’s actually quite easy to respond to that. When you’ve got
folks talking about the kind of short-term realities involved in
shutting down the tar sands, I point out what’s going to happen
if we don’t shut them down. We have a country with abundant
natural resources and an incredible capacity for renewable energy
development. We have water resources in a context where water
security is a major concern all over the world. My response to most
of those working in the industries is that we desperately need to
turn things around, and in that context we need to unite indigenous
struggles and labour struggles to build an economy that makes
sense, not just for us, but also for all future generations.
What it really comes down to is the question of a green job
strategy. Groups like Green For All or the Apollo Alliance in the
United States, for example, haven’t really thought through their
strategy, but I agree with them that the solution to the tar sands
nightmare is green jobs. I believe that there is a multi-trillion dollar
economy emerging out of the millions of homes, businesses, public
sector buildings, etc. that could be retrofitted, and out of the new
infrastructures that have to be built to adapt and implement new
and existing technologies. But there has to be more discussion
about wealth distribution, land use, and ownership if we are going
to be able to create a green jobs strategy that will actually benefit
indigenous and working class communities. These things represent
a world of possibilities right now. But we don’t have a lot of time
before the worst impacts of the climate crisis start to take effect.
So when I hear union folks and policy folks say “Well, you’re
going to destroy the economy if you shut down the tar sands,” I
point out that we are going to destroy the economy if we don’t
shut them down. We are going to destroy our food security and our
water security. Tar sands development isn’t just about 3000 square
kilometres in northern Alberta. It will affect the entire Prairie
breadbasket, and beyond. Our ability to produce crops is going to
be compromised by devastating acid rain caused by the pollution
coming out of the tar sands. Lakes are becoming dead zones for
the same reasons. These are important economic issues, not just
conservation issues. There are so many overlapping ways in which
tar sands development absolutely doesn’t make sense.
The other way that I respond is to point out that we are already
getting screwed over even from a narrow economic point of view.
The tar sands are the world’s biggest private oil patch. More than
forty companies are operating there with tens more salivating to
get in, but you’ve got the weakest royalty payments regime on the
planet. They are practically giving away the leases. In addition to
the First Nations that have had their land taken from them and
are suffering grave human and ecological problems as a result of
this exploitation, the Canadian public is getting very little benefit
from it. Every other big oil reserve on the planet is controlled by a
nationalized petroleum company, and the energy profits are often
collected in publicly-controlled funds for careful investment and so
that the country’s economy is protected from inflation.
We are now seeing a crisis in the manufacturing sector,especially in Canada’s traditional economic powerhouse of Ontario.
Recent numbers released by Stats Canada show that more than 50
percent of Canada’s employment base is now represented by retail
jobs. So people are paid $12-$15 an hour, if they’re lucky, compared
to $25-$30 an hour in manufacturing. Add to that the inflation that
is coming, which is going to make it difficult for workers to afford
fuel, rent, and transportation, and you’ve got a gross distortion of
Canada’s economy and a pretty scary reality. So I point out to folks
that if we don’t confront tar sands development, Canada’s economy
will suffer from the same resource curse that has faced other
countries that have built their economies on resource extraction. I
don’t want to see that happen.

Why do you think that environmental justice hasn’t taken
hold as strongly with many mainstream environmental

I think that environmental justice isn’t central to mainstream
environmental groups with funders and close ties to governments
because it represents a radical shift in how these issues are
addressed and how power is talked about. When you bring
race, class, and gender analysis and an analysis of power into the
environmental struggle, it shakes things up. If you look at the
environmental conservation sector, just as an example, you’ll see
that it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. Like any other institution
with power here in North America, it is dominated by white men.
When you start talking about having communities of colour and
indigenous communities direct where resources should go, what
strategies should be implemented, and how policy should be
developed, it threatens to take the power to steer the ship away
from white people. It also means a much slower, more serious, and
more accountable, process of organizing in communities to build
their political power. That takes time, resources, and commitment,
so you can’t just drop in and out. This requires a radical change in
how they have been doing business for the last 30 years, which is

Green socialists or anarchists talk about environmental
degradation in connection with class and capitalism.
What is your analysis of capitalism and class in relation to
ecological degradation?

We view capitalist development and neoliberalism as ongoing
neocolonial manifestations of long-standing racist and imperialist
policies, from Terra Nullus to Manifest Destiny. These relations
are what have gotten us to where we are in North America today.
We view capitalism and the unregulated pursuit of wealth as
pathological. They have no place in the natural order or in how we
have traditionally governed ourselves and our communities.
I don’t believe that we can just steer this Titanic called
capitalism. There’s a whole green capitalist movement that is
emerging. It is represented by the groups that talk about green jobs
but don’t talk about community self-determination, let alone about
ownership. They are not talking about the radical redistribution of
wealth and land in this country, and until we have that conversation
we are going to continue to be governed by the same economic
power structures that benefit the rich and thrive on the backs
of indigenous people, communities of colour, and workers. So
when we talk about a “green economy” we need to ask what that
really means. Do we imagine that British Petroleum and Shell and
Exxon will be giving us those dream jobs? Do we mean “green”
Wal-Mart jobs? Or do we mean highly technical, community-
controlled, well-paid local jobs in activities that are owned and run
by our communities, and where the wealth produced stays in the
community? I think one of the things that we have to be adamant
about is the need to develop regional economic models, which of
course indigenous people have utilized from time immemorial. We
need models based on an understanding of our local environments
and our place within the sacred circle of life so that we can protect
the earth for future generations.★