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Just Transition explainer human, workers’, and Indigenous rights

Just transition explainer: human, workers’, and Indigenous rights

After years of relentless pressure on government from The Council of Canadians, labour unions, allied organizations, Indigenous leaders, and the public, 2023 is set to see the introduction of just transition legislation. This hard won legislation is likely to be a major victory for all involved, as it will start Canada on the long road to a more just, sustainable, and equitable future. In our petition for just transition legislation, we laid out seven demands we know are essential steps along this path.

One of our demands for a Just Transition act is that this legislation should protect and strengthen human rights and workers’ rights, respect Indigenous rights, sovereignty, and knowledge by including them in creating and implementing this legislation, ensure migrant justice, and emphasize support for historically marginalized communities 

Protecting – and strengthening – the rights of workers, Indigenous peoples, migrants, and other historically marginalized communities is critical to the work of a just transition. For a transition to be truly just, these groups must be part of every aspect of the transition. It cannot be dictated and imposed from the top down and instead must be driven for and by those impacted. 

Workers’ rights 

The term “just transition” emerged from the labour movement. While transitioning off fossil fuels and an extractive economy is urgent, in the past, such economic transitions have often meant the destruction of entire communities, which are left behind when industry pulls up stakes in their region. Through past industrial transitions, workers have often found themselves behind, the skills and abilities they’ve honed in the sectors they work in no longer needed as technology and industry shifts with the time.

Justice for workers and communities means looking at the places and people that will be impacted by the shutdown of the fossil fuel sector and working collaboratively with them to determine what they want and need for their communities to remain viable. It means giving workers the opportunity – and the funding – they need to retrain for jobs that are fulfilling and interesting. It means looking at fossil fuel workers who are nearing retirement and ensuring that they have the resources necessary to live with dignity after their working days are over.

In the past, the loss of fossil fuel industry in a region has meant devastation. Workers and their families move to where there are more opportunities, ancillary businesses close, schools and hospitals are shuttered, and ultimately entire communities are broken up and scattered, while the corporations that exploited them are unscathed. In a just transition, the dismantling of the fossil fuel industry must be done consciously and intentionally, with a focus on ensuring that as many communities as possible remain viable. Fossil fuel companies must pay for the cleanup of their operations. Many fossil fuel workers take pride in the work they do. These workers should and will have the opportunity to retrain in new sectors, to do work that they value and that is valuable to their communities.

Indigenous rights 

The extractive economy that we are transitioning away from is one that has been built on the displacement and genocide of Indigenous peoples. The systematic destruction of Indigenous communities and knowledge systems is an integral part of the path that has led us to the environmental destruction, ecosystem collapse, and climate crisis we now face. The impacts of ongoing and longstanding resource extraction are viscerally felt in Indigenous communities near extraction sites. These communities experience high rates of health, social, and spiritual challenges as a direct result of the presence of extractive industries. For these reasons, there can be no just transition without the recognition and affirmation of Indigenous rights and their duties to the lands they belong to. That means respect for, and restoration of, Indigenous rights and sovereignty.

The restoration and reinforcement of Indigenous rights, land stewardship duties and sovereignty are necessary for social justice and are also critical for environmental justice. Indigenous ecological knowledge and science are critically necessary for the protection of biodiversity and the environment in general. Indigenous lands make up 20 per cent of land on Earth, and contain 80 per cent of the planet’s remaining biodiversity as a result of traditional stewardship practices on those lands. Indigenous peoples have been caretaking, stewarding, and studying the lands of what is currently called Canada since time immemorial. Their voices must be heard and respected. As our regional organizer for the prairies, Wendy Lynn Lerat, notes: “Indigenous knowledge carries a unique perspective from that of Western knowledge. There is an urgent need for collective acknowledgment that the knowledge used to guide our way forward can no longer be exclusively determined by Western science and settler leadership. Indigenous peoples have significant expertise to contribute to the growing global crises of climate and biodiversity, and this contribution must be recognized and welcomed.” 

Migrant rights 

Migration due to climate change is already happening. Crop failures, territory lost to wildfire, flood, and sea level rise, diminishing reserves of fresh water, and other climate disasters are pushing more and more people from their homelands. Most, though not all, of these climate migrants are from the global south. Though their activities contribute the least to the climate crisis, they are among the first to experience its disastrous effects. Many of these migrants, especially those who are racialized and/or undocumented are systematically discriminated against and even criminalized by the nations where they seek refuge. They frequently end up working for low wages in dehumanizing and even dangerous workplaces.

A just transition must recognize that in the years to come, the number of migrants will only increase, and it is urgent that countries in the global north act immediately to ensure that these migrants are not denied their human rights or forced to exist as a legal underclass. Guaranteeing status for all migrants (meaning that their presence is not deemed “illegal” and that they have access to health care, education, and housing) is essential. Many people are migrating because they have no choice. They do not want to leave their homes, but they can no longer survive where they once lived. Imposing draconian sanctions on migrants, criminalizing them, imprisoning them, forcing them to the margins of society does not address the root causes of migration. A just transition must institute policies that ensure the dignity and security of those forced to flee their homes.  

Other historically marginalized communities 

Racialized people, queer people, women, poor people, disabled and chronically ill people, children, and the elderly already experience significant barriers in our society. Many of these groups experience state violence in the form of over-policing, mass incarceration, institutionalization, houselessness, and carceral health and school systems. They are also more likely to experience interpersonal violence from both strangers and relatives and intimate partners. They are more likely to experience negative health effects from climate issues like smog and pollution, heat waves, and other disasters. As the climate crisis worsens, it is these groups that will bear the brunt of displacement, property loss, and mortality. A just transition must place the health and safety of these groups at the forefront.

A just transition is an economic transition, but it is simultaneously a social transition. Moving towards a just transition means moving away from a system that disregards the lives of those who cannot work. It is a transition away from a society that places the “rights” of corporations and property ahead of the rights of human beings. It means the end of a system that defines our value in relation to our wealth and property, and the beginning of a system of equity, inclusion, and mutual respect and care. When people’s basic needs are provided for, when our economic system is rooted in community, not capital, it will move us all towards a world that is safer, freer, and more sustainable. Channeling the wealth hoarded by a handful of individuals into guaranteed housing, health care, child care, and the other necessities of life eases the burden of exclusion and oppression that historically marginalized peoples who share this land have carried for far too long. Extractive capitalism cannot continue to exist without the exploitation and exclusion of the people who belong to these social out groups, and so ending the exploitation and exclusion of these groups is necessary for ending extractive capitalism.

Find out more about our vision for a just transition here.  

Alex Birrell

Alex Birrell is one of the Council of Canadians Communications Officers, specializing in Research and Analysis.

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