Honouring Air

Air is a life giving force and necessary for survival. The element of Air stands for the life force that brings all people into existence from their first breath.  The ancient ones have long understood that the wind is the intermediary plain which connects the spirit world to our own.  Air also symbolizes the mental and spiritual process which brings understanding and inspiration through thought and form.

Clean air is important to all forms of life.  In the modern age, air pollution has become an increasing concern for society and government. Air pollution is a result of the disturbances to the composition of compounds in the atmosphere through: excess emission of gases; saturation of chemical compounds and particulates; and the emergence of new chemical reactions.  In addition, air quality is also damaged by excessive noise.  Global warming, acid rain, smog, ozone depletion are some effects of air pollution.

Air pollution stems from many sources including factories, coal fired plants, automobiles, incinerators and forest fires to name a few.  Air pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen oxides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and sulphur dioxide have harmful effects on natural ecosystems.  They can kill plants and trees by destroying their leaves, and can kill animals, especially fish in highly polluted rivers.

Air pollution is responsible for major health effects and can affect many body organs and systems.  Different chemicals in the air affect the human body in negative ways.  Children, elderly and Indigenous people are highly vulnerable to diseases induced by air pollution.  Because people are exposed to so many potentially dangerous pollutants, it is often hard to know exactly which pollutants are responsible for causing sickness.  Also, because a mixture of different pollutants can intensify sickness, it is often difficult to isolate those pollutants that are at fault.

Our actions today will determine the quality of air for the next seven generations.


Acid Rain 

Acid rain is a form of air pollution.  Acid rain is composed of the compounds sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.  The transformation of these compounds into acidic particles and vapours occurs as these pollutants are emitted in the atmosphere and mix with water vapour. The vapour falls to earth in the form of rain, snow, sleet or hail.

The majority of acid rain is generated by the burning of coal in coal fired plants and other industrial sources.  Acid rain can have detrimental affects on animals, plant life, and waterways.  Acid rain particles, in the form of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, are a key element of smog and are a significant health hazard. These particles lodge deep within the lungs and can cause inflammation and tissue damages, resulting in long term breathing problems.

Air Pollution 

Air pollution is a common concern for First Nations that live both on reserve as well as those living in urban settings.  Northern First Nation communities are often the recipients of air pollution from that originated from industries and cities in southern regions of North America.

Air quality can adversely affect ones’ respiratory and overall health.  Some of the challenges and considerations for First Nations include:

  • Pollution and smog are concerns for First Nations given the proximity of many industrial plants to their communities.  Since industrial pollution does not respect geographic boundaries, communities located near to or down-wind from industrial facilities face increased exposure to air pollutants.

ESU Resources:


Climate Change 

The changing climate is at the very core of First Nations’ concerns, affecting their ability to access their traditional foods, medicines and territories.  First Nations are more directly and immediately affected by environmental change because they live closer to the land.  However, the fate of the First Nations is linked to the fate of non-Aboriginal peoples and none are immune to environmental damage.  Recognizing the negative health and lifestyle impacts of climate change on First Nations and acting swiftly to ameliorate them will serve the interests of all peoples

The ESU’s climate-related work focuses on research and policy development, both domestically and internationally.  Much of the mainstream climate change research fails to account for the unique impacts of climate change that will be experienced by First Nation communities.  The ESU strives to fill this gap by reviewing existing literature and providing a unique First Nation perspective on various climate change issues.

Climate change fact sheets

Climate Change Research Papers


At home, the ESU advocates for programs that will assist First Nations’ communities in dealing with climate change.  One such program is the Climate Change and Health Adaptation in Northern First Nation & Inuit Communities Program.  This program funds community-based research into climate change and health related issues.

Application guide; poster; climate change & health fact sheets

Internationally, the ESU participates in the work of subsidiary bodies of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol to help bring First Nations’ voices to international discussions on climate change policy.


Indoor Air Quality 

Indoor Air Quality
Indoor air quality can present some significant challenges for First Nations.  Exposure to poor indoor air quality can affect the respiratory system and have impacts on overall health.  Some challenges that First Nations may face with regard to indoor air quality include:

  • Mould
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Asbestos
  • Lead
  • Particulate matter
  • Improper ventilation through the home
  • Radiation/radon
  • Second-hand smoke

The Environmental Stewardship Unit (ESU) has completed the First Nations Indoor Air Study (FNIAS) in partnership with Health Canada. This study sampled indoor air for chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), nitrogen dioxide, and parameters such as particulate matter and relative humidity.  The study also tested the effectiveness of portable consumer air filters on short term health effects.  

The FNIAS found that:

  • Indoor air filter use can improve indoor air quality by reducing levels of particulate matter;
  • Reducing indoor particulate matter can improve lung function; and
  • Choosing to keep a smoke-free home has a greater impact on indoor air quality than using an air filter.

FNIAS sampled from 20 homes in a First Nation community and AFN is advocating that this study be replicated in a number of First Nations communities across Canada to gain a more complete picture.  Follow up proposals are being developed.

The Housing Unit at the Assembly of First Nations has been involved in the development of the National Strategy to Address Mould and Indoor Air Quality.  This strategy has been a collaborative effort by the Assembly of First Nations, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), Canadian Mortgage and Housing Canada (CMHC), and Health Canada to determine a First Nation-driven solution that can be supported by all parties.

Please see the Housing Unit’s website for more information on Indoor Air Quality and the National Strategy to Address Mould and Indoor Air Quality.

AFN Housing Unit



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Angie TurnerHonouring Air