Articles, English

Crown, Carbon, and A New Canada: My Time With Future Earth

By Ryan Collins


Reading time - Temps de lecture: 4 minutes

Summary: The complexity of the project that I interned with suited my generalist disposition. I am grateful for the opportunity to use my political science education in the service of making a better world.

When I graduated from the University of Ottawa in 2013 with a degree in political science, I had no idea what I wanted to do with the knowledge that I had gleaned. For the last four years, I made graduation secondary to simply taking the classes that most interested me, with the unintended effect of making me interested in a huge collection of different pursuits. How does an interest in provincial/federal jurisdiction, the seemingly timeless debate over governmental responses to anthropogenic climate change, and the then-emergent Idle No More movement connect to any one project? With my internship at Future Earth, I found a place that allowed me to use my political science skills in the service of my interest in the broader climate crisis. Working with the potential of Indigenous-led nature-based solutions to anthropogenic climate change to create a green, circular economy allowed me to be part of a team that learned from one another. 

Graphic explaining Nature-based Solutions in Canada

The promise of Indigenous-led nature-based solutions is apparent. Conceptually, the idea of the nature-based solution sounds simple enough: monitor a patch of land over time, calculating inflows and outflows of common greenhouse gases, and use those numbers to then sell emissions credits to polluters to, at least in principle, create a zero-carbon circle of emissions and captures. The proceeds of the credits, when created and sold by Indigenous Peoples, could then fund Indigenous communities while also deploying their unique knowledge and traditions to preserve and promote ecological restoration. Canada’s vastness could thereby transform the country into an ecological powerhouse with a robust system of Indigenous-led carbon capture infrastructure providing the cornerstone for a circular, green economy.

The internship ultimately centered around a handful of needs: understanding the challenges and opportunities of nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, connecting Canadian land policy to those opportunities and challenges, and figuring out how best to communicate the needs of those trying to advocate for a fairer, more coherent climate response to the general public. I spent my time researching provincial regulations around the use of land, writing out explanations of important developments from the Supreme Court, and recapitulating the language of a finished report for the website, in the process learning more about nature-based solutions and how challenging their goals can be to realize.

I successfully pitched my involvement in the project by connecting my political science background to the jurisdictional challenges that the project would entail. During meetings, I would mention the quirks of Crown lands, a settler-created land tenure system whose provincial managers hold vast tracts of land with specific restrictions for use and sale of that land. This land system adds several wrinkles to the hope of realizing Indigenous-led nature-based solutions in Canada. Much to my pleasant surprise, the conversation about a somewhat esoteric piece of Canadian legal practice elicited curiosity from my colleagues. Trading knowledge made me feel valued, an experience I am deeply grateful for.

While I learned more about how carbon uptake can be measured and interpreted from my colleagues, I continued to work on the question of how to politically realize our lofty goals. Seeming contradictions emerged immediately. Accurate readouts of captured carbon currently rely on the concept of private property. Private property, with its metes and bounds and legally binding boundaries, very much grate against an understanding of land rights that does not rely on individual possession, like those of many Indigenous communities in Canada. Many of the traditional lands of Indigenous Peoples are currently administered under the Crown land regime, a system of enclosure that inhibits Reconciliation. The idea of an Indigenous-led nature-based solution thus touches the very heart of Canadian sovereignty.

So, our goal requires a fundamental shift in how Canada understands and manages huge portions of its claimed territory as part of a broader effort to elevate and respect Indigenous knowledge. Decades of civil and criminal law have eroded some of the barriers between Indigenous Peoples and their rights to deploy their ancestral knowledge. Legal action, however, is both expensive and unproductive for those pursuing cases against the Canadian state. How, then, do we make this project happen? My colleagues’ use of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and a major project involving town halls with Indigenous leaders could be one way to further erode the barriers erected by the Canadian state. As the Canadian context continues to change, Future Earth and its global network of experts will be there to evaluate and to collaborate on next steps.

LEADS logo over the top of a faded background with a LEADS zoom workshop with lots of video participants.

Ryan Collins is a Master’s student in the Climatology, Hydrology, and Paleo-Environmental Lab (CHAPEL) at Concordia University. His research seeks to use lake core samples to reconstruct the climate of pre-Contact New Brunswick.