Meet the young Indigenous organizers working to bring together ceremony and activism in Alberta

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Veronica Fuentes, a 20-year-old organizer with the Beaver Hills Warriors, says it’s important for Indigenous activists to “recenter the narrative and take hold of the narrative” when it comes to advocacy on land and climate issues. Photo: Abdul Malik / The Narwhal

For Indigenous activists in Amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), a change in government doesn’t necessarily mean a change in tactics.

When Alberta premier Jason Kenney was elected in April, many local activists kicked into high gear.

A public inquiry into the funding of environmental groups, a war room, scrapping the carbon tax — all of these policies seemed to many activists to be an onslaught of worrying government policies.

But for Edmonton organizer Veronica Fuentes, it seemed a bit like more of the same.

Fuentes, whose father is Salvadoran and whose mother is from the Yellow Quill First Nation in Saskatchewan and a survivor of the sixties scoop, is an organizer in early her early twenties who is part of an Edmonton group called the Beaver Hills Warriors.

The colonial violence inflicted on her family members by past governments is part of the reason, she tells me, that she doesn’t feel all that different under Jason Kenney.

“That’s the difference when it’s Indigenous-led organizing,” she says. “The faith you have in your government is already skewed.”

When I meet Fuentes, she’s just handed in her last assignment for her second year in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta.

In addition to her studies, she works a number of jobs and spends as much time as she can organizing with the Beaver Hills Warriors, an Indigenous youth collective that advocates for Indigenous rights.

She focuses her energy on Indigenous-led activism — for her, that’s activism that centres ceremony, self-care and community building.

She also believes engaging in electoral politics has its place. “We’re all well aware of it, we follow it, we all just sit in our seats just, like, facepalming,” she says. She believes centring Indigenous ceremony and building relationships among Indigenous people is also powerful — if not more so.

“That’s not to say we don’t understand the significance of engaging in electoral politics, but a lot of us don’t feel safe in those spaces,” she tells me.

“The reality for my community in El Salvador and in Saskatchewan — [my family is] from the Yellow Quill First Nation — is very, very different from the reality that’s centred in white climate justice,” Fuentes, who identifies as Anishinaabekwe tied to Treaty 4, says.

“A group of Indigenous folk took note of that and wanted to recenter the narrative and take hold of the narrative.”

The Beaver Hills Warriors was born out of this Indigenous-led movement in activism and community organizing.

‘It’s all interconnected’

Nigel Robinson, another member of the Beaver Hills Warriors, was 24 when he first took out a weathered copy of “The Fourth World: An Indian Reality,” by George Manuel from the Edmonton Public Library. “I read the first 70 pages of that and it blew my mind,” he says.

For Robinson, those pages put words to feelings he had not seen in print before. He remembers reading about how “the common perception that Indigenous people are inherently inferior … and that the colonizer uplifted us,” and it struck him that there must be a persistent belief in inferiority in order for a society to dispossess Indigenous people of their land.

Indigenous activism Alberta climate justice

Nigel Robinson is a member of the Łuéchogh Túé First Nation near what is now called Cold Lake, Alta. In his lifetime, he’s already seen changes in the lake, which has been part of his motivation to advocate for climate justice. Photo: Abdul Malik / The Narwhal

Robinson had been thinking a lot about the larger forces at play in society since his father’s death in 2010, at the age of 48, when Robinson was still a teenager. He says he heard terrible sentiments at the time, with people saying, “he’s just an Indian.”

Robinson says that was when he “started to think critically” about some of the issues he saw in his community. He began to realize they were “methods of dispossession.” He says residential schools and “imposed alcoholism,” both at play in his father’s death, were tools of colonialism.

“It’s all interconnected,” he says.

Robinson’s family has a history of advocacy. He says his uncle was of particular inspiration to him, and was a mentor until his death earlier this year.

He’s been asked to present to local high school classes and prefers to steer presentations away from what he calls “tokenizing” performances, toward discussions about modern, nuanced Indigenous life.

When we meet, he’s on contract with the Blue Quills language program, and is passionate about the importance of Indigenous languages. He’s working toward fluency in Dene and Cree. “Indigenous languages are the first languages the land has given us,” he says.

And he’s a mainstay at Beaver Hills Warriors events.

Indigenous activism Alberta Greta Thunberg

Nigel Robinson on the megaphone at an October climate rally in Edmonton — in which Indigenous activists led the march — joined by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Photo: Sharon J. Riley / The Narwhal

‘Life-sustaining nature to our worldviews’

Robinson is a member of the Łuéchogh Túé First Nation near what is now called Cold Lake, Alta.

He never drank the water from Cold Lake, but his grandparents did. He grew up swimming in the waters, but that’s now discouraged too.

“The lake is easily impacted,” Robinson says, and his own observations of its changes were part of what led him to his work advocating for climate action. (Robinson recently attended the climate summit in Madrid.)

Robinson has been very involved in the group’s recent actions to push for the federal government to reject proposals for Teck Resource’s Frontier Mine project —  a massive new oilsands mine proposed in northern Alberta.

Indigenous climate justice Madrid

Robinson (centre) at a Reject Teck rally at the climate summit in Madrid. Photo: Allan Lissner / Indigenous Climate Action.

climate justice Indigenous Madric Frontier mine

Indigenous activists have called on the federal government to reject Teck Resources’ Frontier oilsands mine project in Northern Alberta. Photo: Allan Lissner / Indigenous Climate Action.

There’s a “life sustaining nature to our worldviews,” Fuentes says. “And I think that’s something we can teach the Western world something about.”

This is something Fuentes is conscious of — and conscious of who is centring the narrative.

“Energy solutions without free, prior, informed consent of Indigenous communities — this replicates colonialism, which I think is something that we that we have to be constantly pushing [back against],” she says.

That’s part of why the “Reject Teck” campaign has been conscious of amplifying Indigenous voices.

Indigenous activism Alberta climate change

There’s a “life sustaining nature to our worldviews,” Fuentes says. “And I think that’s something we can teach the Western world something about.” Photo: Abdul Malik / The Narwhal

Indigenous activism Alberta justice colonization

Robinson first read George Manuel when he was 24. He remembers how it struck him that there must be a persistent belief in inferiority in order for a society to dispossess Indigenous people of their land. Photo: Abdul Malik / The Narwhal

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‘Unfairly paints us as militant natives’

Fuentes is concerned with the way Indigenous activism is often portrayed in the media. “It unfairly paints us as militant natives,” she says. “And that’s exactly what makes us unsafe.”

One of the first actions Fuentes remembers with the Beaver Hills Warriors was anything but militant.

“We occupied 104th and Jasper [in downtown Edmonton] for about 45 minutes with a round dance,” she remembers. The action was in “solidarity with the Gidimt’en check point raid and the Wet’suwet’en at Unist’ot’en Camp.”

“We’d like to move f