When seven Kahnawa’kehró:non touched down in Egypt last month for the COP27 conference, they weren’t quite sure what to expect.
“It was kind of a culture shock, being in Egypt,” said Sha’teiohseriio Patton, one of the delegates who attended. “There were different types of regulations involved in this COP that weren’t necessarily involved in other COPs. We weren’t allowed to do as many protests at the conference, and there were people’s badges being taken away. That does happen at other COPs, but I think it was happening more so at this one because it’s a more conservative country.”
The COP27 conference, which refers to the annual Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, took place in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh from November 6-20.
Patton, Carlee Kawinehta Loft, Ohontsakehte Montour, Sage Karahkwinehtha Goodleaf, Iotshatenawi Reed, Dawson Aronhiakons Horne, and Brandon Montour were the seven delegates comprising the Iakwatonhontsanonhsta’ts delegation, a name they collectively chose that Patton explained means “we are safeguarding or protecting the earth.”
The journey to Egypt was a long one. Though the conference itself was two weeks long, the Iakwatonhontsanonhsta’ts delegation had to partake in a 10-week training program two or three times a week in the lead-up.
“We’re the largest group to date who went from Kahnawake – Carlee Loft went three years ago, alone, and she was the one who kind of started all of this amazing work getting youth involved,” Patton explained. “Her hopes for the group were for it to just keep growing, and we want to get more and more youth involved in these kinds of spaces.”
Patton noted that Loft was instrumental in securing funding for the delegation, ensuring that every single thing was covered through stipends, honorariums, and grants. Funding was provided through the David Suzuki Foundation and the Muskrat Collective, which both support youth efforts in climate activism.
The conference boasted a huge range of panels and workshops, but one that particularly stuck out was a panel on queer changemakers, which Kahnawa’kehró:non Ohontsakehte sat on.
“It was a bit of a controversy to do the panel at this COP, because the human rights violations are really high in Egypt regarding queer people,” explained Patton. “But our delegate, he did absolutely amazing. It was nerve-wracking, because we just wanted him to be safe and everything like that, but it ended up being one of the most amazing panels.”
Patton explained how the panel highlighted the intersectional nature of environmental justice and noted that discussions recognized the impacts that discriminatory policies can have on an individual’s ability to enact change.
“I think that really empowered a lot of queer youth too, at the conference, to kind of feel more comfortable in their skin and that they do have a voice,” said Patton.
Though Patton and her fellow delegates were excited to engage in these types of the discussions, they also witnessed a lot of action they perceived as performative, particularly from larger state organizations and ministers.
“I almost feel like they used the image of Indigenous people as a promotional item,” she said. “They talked about how Indigenous issues are at the forefront of the movement, and how Indigenous solutions are the most viable answer, but then they continued to talk about policies that oppress us, and literally go against what we’re trying to push forward. It was really ironic.”
Patton also noticed that every time a question from an Indigenous youth or Indigenous leader was asked, specifically from delegates representing the Canadian pavilion, responses were dismissive.
“They just kind of told us that our questions couldn’t be answered, because they’re just one person in this play,” she said. “I don’t really feel like their words held significant meaning in prioritizing Indigenous solutions.”
Ohontsakehte, who had previously attended COP26 in Glasgow, felt that the outcomes of the conferences prove that the UN is ineffective in making change. “The reality I learned is that true change does not occur in these spaces,” he said. “It happens at home in our communities.”
Loft, who coordinated the trip, agreed. She recalled particularly disappointing responses from the Canadian minister of environment and climate change, Steven Guilbeault. When Goodleaf asked Guilbeault why there were more oil and gas lobbyists represented at the decision making table for Canada than there are Indigenous youth, his answer was non-committal.
“He pretty much went on a rant about how Canada is a democracy and he can’t arbitrarily decide who can and can’t show up to these meetings,” Loft said. “We told him, ‘We’re not asking you to arbitrarily block people from coming to the table.’
“We’re asking, ‘Why, why are you giving priority, more seats, more power, more decision-making ability to oil and gas lobbyists instead of Indigenous youth?’ He just doubled down and said, ‘I do, I do sit here with you guys.’ The answer was so weak.”
Some of the members of the Iakwatonhontsanonhsta’ts delegation now turn their sights to COP15, the United Nations Biodiversity Conference currently happening in Montreal. They also plan to continue empowering youth locally to make a change.
“We’re trying to establish the group more formally, so we can get more funding for more opportunities,” said Patton. “We also want to start mentoring people who are interested in this and do more events in Kahnawake.”