What does it mean to truly live well in a land where resource extraction is highly prioritized? How can Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples work together to restore harmonious relationships with each other and with our land? KAIROS Canada sponsored two workshops at the Peoples’ Social Forum in Ottawa that addressed these questions.

On the first day KAIROS welcomed 30 participants to learn about the Indigenous history few know about by experiencing our Blanket Exercise. The exercise uses blankets to represent the lands of what is now called Canada. Participants, representing the First Peoples, move about on blankets and are taken back in time to the arrival of the Europeans and ensuing treaty-making, colonization, residential schools and resistance that shaped Canada.

My colleague Katy Quinn led a group that included youth and older people from across the country through a bilingual version of the exercise. As usual, it was an emotional experience marked by tears and drumming by Indigenous participants as we reflected on a painful past and our hopes for reconciliation. At the end of the workshop several educators gathered to find out how they can present the exercise in their classrooms and communities to teach more Canadians about this important part of our history.

Of course, conversations of reconciliation between Indigenous peoples in Canada and settlers must include the impacts of ongoing resource extraction. These conversations continued the next day during a workshop I led, entitled Learning from Andean Indigenous Peoples on Living in Harmony with Mother Earth.

The 55 participants introduced themselves by naming the watersheds and the Indigenous Peoples’ traditional lands to which each of us has been welcomed. During the workshop an Indigenous woman thanked the youth who were present for their activism. Several spirited exchanges between youth and elders ensued. A man who had just participated in the Tar Sands Healing Walk spoke movingly about the experience. A woman asked him about gender relations in the area and he explained how the violence against Mother Earth that occurs though the extraction of bitumen also negatively infects relations between men and women around Fort McMurray.

I presented the powerpoint that summarizes KAIROS’ recent publication, Indigenous Wisdom: Living in Harmony with Mother Earth. In addition to depicting industrial societies’ huge ecological footprint, the slides illustrate how Indigenous peoples’ teachings can guide us in learning how to reduce it. Indigenous peoples offer us invaluable insights on living in harmony with Mother Earth, including the ethic of taking only what we need, and being conscious of the impact of our actions on seven generations to come.

Richard Renshaw, a former KAIROS board member who lived in Peru for several years, described what Andean Indigenous peoples mean by their ancestral teachings on ‘living well’ — not living better at the expense of other people and of other living beings. We discussed applying this wisdom to our situation in Canada through movements for reducing over-exploitation of nature and overconsumption of consumer goods while improving the quality of life for all through sharing of public goods.

Participants left both workshops recognizing Indigenous peoples’ leadership role in sustainable living, and were energized to carry on the struggle. For me, this was the most rewarding outcome of the People’s Social Forum.


John Dillon is Ecological Economy Program Coordinator at KAIROS Canada.