A man is holding a drum and a fur-covered stick facing a forest and a river.

Equity, Indigenous Learning, Sustainability

Indigenous Justice Means a Sustainable Future for All

We all have a role in realizing this future

When I think about the necessary steps to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, Indigenous rights and justice come to mind immediately. To me, it is clear that there can be no sustainable world without creating the conditions that allow Indigenous people to thrive.

Many of the objectives of the SDGs (such as a sustainable world for future generations to inherit, responsible practices of consumption, strong partnerships, etc.) already align with the values and practices of most Indigenous nations, which, according to a 2018 United Nations report, make up only five percent of the global population, but protect more than 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity (Raygorodetsky, 2018). Not only this, but the emphasis that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development puts on reducing inequalities “is of particular relevance to Indigenous peoples, who are almost universally in situations of disadvantage vis-à-vis other segments of the population” (United Nations, 2018). In Canada, Indigenous people are grossly overrepresented in every area of inequity.

Despite these clear points of connection, I think for some people, and certainly for many environmentalists, policy-makers, and educators I have known, emphasizing Indigenous people’s role in the SDGs is approached as an afterthought rather than as a necessity. This line of thinking and inaction is something we must change, especially in Canada, as progress on the SDGs lags – incredibly so when it comes to the state of Indigenous communities.

This is not to say that there has been a complete failure in the conversation about Indigenous people and the SDGs. Indeed, in Canada’s 2018 Voluntary National Review of Implementation, Indigenous people were mentioned under the progress reports for almost every one of the SDGs to date (Global Affairs Canada, 2018). However, I have long maintained that the degree to which Indigenous people are centred in conversations about the SDGs is insufficient. Moreover, I believe the approaches Canada and Canadians have taken to collaborate with Indigenous people thus far, are the wrong ones.

As of 2019, the primary approach Canada had taken to addressing Indigenous concerns regarding the SDGs was to “invest in existing Indigenous-focused programming relevant to each SDG and aim for greater consultation and collaboration with Indigenous people in every sector(Yesno, 2019). None of these approaches are transformational. Consultation and increased dollars are not enough to bring about the changes Indigenous communities deserve or the impact the 2030 Agenda seeks to achieve; these types of changes necessitate a restructuring of power and jurisdiction; a provision of tools and capacity so Indigenous people can chart their own paths to self-determination.

Why self-determination? Because Indigenous people cannot protect the land if it is always under threat of seizure. They cannot pursue sustainable development practices if threats of mining, damming, pipelines, and other forms of extraction loom without consent. Indigenous people already have the knowledge to uphold sustainable relationships between ourselves and the natural world; we had been in harmonious relationships with the environment for a millennia before colonization. It is hard to pursue those ways of living though, ones which would benefit all people living in Canada, when we have to fight for basic rights at the same time. This is where education plays a critical role. As current and future generations navigate sustainability crises into 2030 and beyond, it is important they, too, see Indigenous rights as central to a sustainable world.

One of young people’s greatest strengths, I believe, is their ability to seek and embrace radical change – a skill that can be increasingly challenging for people as they age. Transforming Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people in the ways I have described above is a truly radical and momentous change. It will take an entire coming generation fighting for, and believing in, this change in order for it to be realized. It is up to current generations of educators, parents, thought-leaders, and policy-makers to help them understand this, emphasize the importance of building strong relationships with Indigenous people, and ultimately, guide them in this fight.

The SDGs offer a great entry point for discussions about the specific ways Indigenous people are left behind in this country, and how that might be able to change. Discussing SDG 5: Gender Equality? Highlight Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). There is a whole list of action items necessary to address this inequality. Tackling SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation? Identify the dozens of Indigenous communities who lack reliable, clean water and the many Indigenous voices finding ways to overcome this challenge. Let young people know that Indigenous people all around them are fighting for their future as well as our own.

I should note that there are individuals all over the country, including educators, who are leading by example and already sharing this information in and out of the classroom. I know this because I have been lucky enough to be taught and mentored by such people. For those who have the essential job of educating and shaping young people, and want to do more to bring Indigenous justice to their work, the resources are already there – they are just waiting for you to embrace them. (See OISE, 2001; Gamblin, 2019; Yellowhead Institute, 2019, for starters.)

Overall, Indigenous rights and justice, especially the right to self-determination, needs to be a major priority as we collectively tackle the SDGs and address what feels like an increasingly precarious world; not only because it’s the moral thing to do, but because it is a critical part of the path forward. It is long time we realize that, ultimately, there is no sustainable future without Indigenous rights, and that we all have a role to play in ensuring that these rights are realized.

The United Nations (2015) said it well when they stated: “The future of humanity and of our planet lies in our hands. It lies also in the hands of today’s younger generation who will pass the torch to future generations. The road to sustainable development is already mapped; it will be for all of us to ensure that the journey is successful and its gains irreversible.”

Indigenous people have long been ready to embark on that journey; it is my hope that we can work together so the next generations will be ready too.

Photo: Adobe Stock

First published in Education Canada, March 2021

Read other articles from this issue


Gamblin, R. (2019, November 4). LAND BACK! What do we mean? 4 Rs Youth Movement.

Global Affairs Canada. (2018). Canada’s implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (pp. 1–148). Government of Canada.

Deepening Knowledge Project.(2001). Best practices for teaching Aboriginal students. Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Raygorodetsky, G. (2018, November 19). Can indigenous land stewardship protect biodiversity? National Geographic.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2015). Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. United Nations.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2018). Indigenous Peoples and the 2030 Agenda. United Nations.

Yellowhead Institute. (2019, October 29). Land Back: A Yellowhead Institute Red Paper

Yesno, R. (2019, June 11). UNDRIP and the SDGs: There’s no sustainable future without Indigenous rights. Alliance2030.

Meet the Expert(s)

Riley Yesno

Writer/Researcher/Public Speaker, Yellowhead Institute / University of Toronto

Riley Yesno (she/her/hers) is a professional researcher, writer, and public speaker with expertise in Indigenous and youth affairs and climate justice.

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