The intersection of colonization, climate change and mental health

Prairie Climate Centre adds new content to Canadian Climate Atlas

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

The University of Winnipeg’s Prairie Climate Centre (PCC) released new content regarding the intersection of climate change and mental health in the Climate Atlas of Canada on Oct. 10 – also known as World Mental Health Day.

The new content is a collection of videos and articles that share stories about how the climate crisis has impacted people. Additionally, there are resources that discuss possible coping strategies for those facing challenges due to the impacts of climate change.

“An increasing number of people in Canada are experiencing mental-health impacts from climate change – whether from direct experience of extreme events or from broader climate anxiety,” Laura Cameron, research associate with the PCC, says.

“These new resources aim to help people better understand these impacts and how to cope with them, which is essential to ensure well-being and sustained engagement with the issue in the long term.”

On a global scale, many important dialogues are being had about the health impacts of climate change. However, mental illness and distress are often stigmatized, and conversations around health tend to focus on physical ailments like heatstroke, dehydration and respiratory issues.

“With an increasing number of people affected psychologically by climate events and experiencing climate anxiety, the intersection of mental health and climate change is gaining visibility,” Cameron says.

When discussing climate change in Canada, it is important to turn to those with experience, who can teach people about patterns, histories and necessary next steps. Considering the fact that Indigenous people have already lived through intense climate and ecological change upon this land, many Indigenous communities and elders are experts in this area.

Indigenous people who have lived on this land for “many thousands of years have had our world turned upside down in a mere 150 years,” Brett Huson, research associate and media specialist with the PCC, says in an email to The Uniter. Huson is from Gitxsan Nation and also known as Hetxw’ms Gyetxw.

“Perhaps a good connection for many youth, who are just now beginning to experience climate anxiety, would be to connect with (I)ndigenous knowledge- keepers, ceremony leaders and communities near them to help them better understand the shock they are only now starting to experience.”

“Everything that is my culture, my identity, my language and my physical being is from Gitxsan lax yip (Gitxsan Territory),” Gyetxw says. “Git means ‘people of,’ and xsan is a variation of a word that means ‘river of mists.’ So in our name itself, there is a direct link to the land we come from. If you travel to other nations along the coast, you will see that their names are directly tied to the land they come from.”

European colonists forced a separation between Indigenous peoples and the land, which still is taking place today upon treaty and unceded territory. Canadian governments continue to perpetuate barriers for Indigenous peoples, further developing climate-related mental-health struggles.

“Canada focuses on the land as being a possession to be sold and commodified as they so choose,” Gyetxw says. “Indigenous communities view the land as a life support system that we are spiritually and biologically connected to.”

The Canadian Climate Atlas is a tool for researchers and storytellers that “carries with it many vibrant and rich stories and articles that express the impacts of climate change from the perspectives of all Canadians,” Huson says.

“We have worked with many knowledge keepers and elders from different nations who have requested that we develop a dedicated space for (I)ndigenous knowledge,” Huson says.

This informed research has guided the ongoing development of the soon-to-be-launched Indigenous Climate Atlas, which will create a dedicated space for articles and videos about Indigenous knowledge, stories and research regarding climate and the environment.

Published in Volume 76, Number 08 of The Uniter (November 4, 2021)

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