Sherry Pictou is a Mi’kmaw woman, former Chief from L’sɨtkuk (known as Bear River First Nation, Nova Scotia), and former Co-Chair of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples. She is an Assistant Professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, a member of the IPBES Task Force on Indigenous and Local Knowledge, and a Partnership Grant holder with KAIROS working on a project called: “Building Indigenous-Academic-Not-for-Profit Relations for Mobilizing Research Knowledge on the Gendered Impacts of Resource Extraction in Indigenous Communities in Canada.”
I first heard Sherry speak last fall as part of the UW School for Marine and Environmental Affairs’ (SMEA) Environmental Justice Speaker Series, and was immediately struck by her sincerity and compassion. I became deeply interested in Sherry’s work surrounding recognition of gendered and racialized violence against Indigenous communities all over the world, and her determination to provide a platform for land and water defenders who risk their wellbeing to resist settler efforts to undermine and destroy their homes. Sherry’s work covers a range of topics including decolonizing treaty relations, social justice for Indigenous women, Indigenous women’s role in food and lifeways, and Indigenous knowledge and food systems. In this interview, Sherry talks about her journey from community work into academia, Indigenous Feminism, and the links between environmental, racial, and gender injustices.
You’ve held many roles, from Chief, to professor, to task force member. What first brought you from community work into academia, and what challenges have you faced within the Western higher education system?
Basically, my community work was entrenched in a number of struggles with formal State-Indigenous relations (i.e. treaty negotiations) where it became clear that these processes were very state- and corporate-driven, and would preclude any alternative visions for how to implement Indigenous and treaty rights. Yet my community continued to find alternative ways to implement their treaty rights outside of this process. I was moved by their resilience and became interested in grassroots perspectives of treaties, so I wanted to explore this as a reflective research project with the community.
I was extremely fortunate to have a wonderful, interdisciplinary committee that supported my pursuit of Indigenous research methodologies. So, as a Ph.D. student I was very much supported in being able to privilege Indigenous voices as part of my work. My career as a professor was unplanned, and in my early days of teaching I experienced many challenges in trying to bring an Indigenous perspective into programs and teaching. I am more comfortable in my current position as assistant professor for both the faculties of law and management in the sense that this position is Indigenous-oriented, as opposed to having to struggle for Indigenous content to be recognized.
A lot of your work focuses on Indigenous Feminism, and last year you launched the Mother Earth and Resource Extraction (MERE) Hub to support women land and water defenders at the forefront of environmental protection. What is the relationship between resource extraction and gender, and what is at stake?
Most Indigenous struggles are criminalized regardless of gender. However, it appears that most often it is Indigenous women who are on the front lines of activism and of persecution. For generations, they have been impacted by the imposition of patriarchal, colonial governance and decision-making processes in their communities. This imposition has translated into the exclusion–if not erasure–of Indigenous women through gender discriminatory legislation, like the Indian Act in Canada that limited Indigenous status to patrilineal criteria, and exclusion of political rights.
As these state-driven negotiation processes progress, Indigenous women and gender diverse persons are again excluded. Most of these negotiation processes involve the commodification of natural resources, and there is now emerging evidence that resource extraction impacts the health of Indigenous women via pollution and other environmental degradation impacts. Resource extraction also encourages direct violence through the influx of male workers since most resource extractive industries are dominated by men.
Meanwhile, Indigenous women are also at risk of being criminalized and even murdered for their resistance, which is in direct violation of human rights laws. In other words, there is a hierarchy of rights that favour corporations (nationally and internationally) over the lives and wellbeing of land and water defenders, even if those same corporations are responsible for human and environmental injustices. Thus, the resource extraction sector is undeniably linked to the violence against, and in many cases the deaths of, Indigenous women.
Why do you think that women continue to face these disproportionately high costs associated with activism? What’s being done wrong?
Indigenous women know the importance of the food and water, and both are involved in ceremony. I think as a society we have to question the [growth] of megacorporate sectors without considering gender impacts, and just as importantly, the environmental impacts on the very lands and waters that inform Indigenous worldviews and lifeways. I have argued and written about how there is something fundamentally wrong when corporate rights and law supersede human and Indigenous rights, and the rights of Indigenous women in particular. Instead, law works to criminalize land and water defenders, while the acceleration of unsustainable natural resource commodification is facilitated by law.
Even in the era of climate change which we are all being forced to take responsibility for, the corporatization of natural resources that contribute immensely to climate change in the first place are moving full steam ahead. Take the current pandemic we are experiencing. In Canada, the recommendations from the National Inquiry’s Final Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls were put on hold, yet extractive industries are being considered essential and continue unhindered despite the spread of the coronavirus.
Many people are now beginning to recognize the link between race and environmental injustice, but gender frequently still gets left out of those conversations. Why is it important to address the intersection of all of these issues?
In Canada, Indigenous women, girls, and gender diverse persons go missing or are murdered four to six times more than other women in Canada (and these rates are accelerating in many other parts of the world). If we do not address gender and its intersections to environmental injustice, that rate stands at risk of accelerating upwards, and opportunities to learn and restore gender roles in Indigenous governance and decision-making processes become even more limited.
What is one thing about your work that you hope people will take to heart?
I hope people consider the intersections of environmental and gender injustice that transcend geographies such as those that occur with Canadian mining companies. I have been working with KAIROS through the MERE project in advocating for accountability and [for a more substantive, authoritative role for] the recently appointed Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, a position that basically remains advisory. My concern is this: There is evidence that Canadian mining companies have frequently and knowingly violated the rights of Indigenous women and their communities in other parts of the world. If Canada enables this, then how can we as Indigenous women expect our rights to be respected and upheld at home?
I hope that more people actively participate in campaigns to raise awareness of, support, and bear witness to Indigenous women’s existence and stories.
While Sherry often speaks about resource extraction violence in Canada, these events and her work in preventing them are not isolated to just one country. The fight that water and land defenders face is one which not only impacts individuals currently on the front lines, but which will also have profound effects on the health of ecosystems and human communities for generations to come.
Through her work with the MERE Hub, Sherry is building a network of international support at the critical intersection of environmental, racial, gender justice. If you, like me, were inspired by Sherry’s mission and want to read about the work of Indigenous land and water defenders, here are some links where you can learn more.