Earth Week speaker urges solutions

Mount Holyoke’s Earth Week observation included a keynote speech by Melina Laboucan-Massimo, who called out environmental racism in the U.S.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo, founder of Sacred Earth Solar and co-founder of Indigenious Climate Action, gave a virtual lecture on developing renewable energy systems in Native communities. On April 21, Laboucan-Massimo was the keynote speaker for Mount Holyoke College’s Earth Week, organized by the Miller Worley Center for the Environment.

For nearly two decades, Laboucan-Massimo has been a leader in social, environmental and climate justice issues impacting Indigenious communities, including her own Lubicon Cree community of Little Buffalo, located in the heart of the ecologically devastated tar sands of Northern Alberta, Canada.  

From pollution of the glacially-fed water systems used by Indigienous peoples from time immemorial to the dwindling populations of caribou in the region, Native peoples and their traditional way of living are being impacted every day by environmental racism, Laboucan-Massimo said.

Sacred Earth Solar’s mission is to develop solar projects for Indigenious communities impacted by fossil fuel extraction, such as the creation of a 20.8 kW solar project in Little Buffalo, she said. 

“For me, it’s trying to figure out how we live Earth Day every day and how we can bring about solutions, even if we’re surrounded by the monstrosity of problems,” Laboucan-Massimo said. 

She said the Alberta tar sands are the direct result of fossil fuel extraction and fracking, which, in a matter of decades, turned the once thriving boreal forests of Northern Alberta into one of the most ecologically devastated regions in the world.

“A lot of times when we talk about environmental racism, we don’t even know what’s in our own backyard. For a lot of Americans, a lot of oil comes from this area — from our homelands,” Laboucan-Massimo said. “The [results] that come from the largest industrial extraction zone on the planet have a massive impact on the climate as well as water, land, air, deforestation and extinction of species.” 

In 2011, there was a massive oil spill near Little Buffalo by the Rainbow Pipeline  that resulted in about 28,000 barrels worth of oil being discharged, making it one of the largest oil spills in the region during the past 40 years. 

Laboucan-Massimo was there in the aftermath, digging up oil and fossil fuel sludge as well as seeing “dead zones in our territory” after ineffectual cleanup efforts were made by the pipeline company. 

“This is essentially a microcosm of what’s happening around the world to Indigenious peoples [and] territories when our ways of life are being replaced by industrialized landscapes, drained and polluted watersheds and contaminated air,” she said. 

Decolonization is a personal, systemic and collective process, Laboucan-Massimo said. But ultimately, it’s a first step toward creating a more equitable society. 

“Even a land acknowledgement is a first step [toward] what decolonization means,” she said. “Understanding your positionality within these systems. Understanding the history of society that we live in, especially invisibilized history.” 

From an early age, she learned that “all life is sacred” — a worldview taught to her by her Indigenious elders. She believes that there needs to be a “critical paradigm shift” toward this worldview, not just once a year on Earth Day but as a consistent, lifelong practice. 

“As with any relationship, with the earth or another person, [it] comes with responsibility and accountability,” Laboucan-Massimo said. “What is your sacred responsibility for protecting Mother Earth? All of us benefit, even if we [don’t] think we’re in relationship with her. We drink her water. We breathe her air. There comes a sacred responsibility to protect her.”