Honouring Fire

Mother Earth has bestowed the gift of fire to her children and provides warmth and energy.  The gift of Fire is believed to be the giver of new life and is often associated with fertility.  Fire is the element that requires the utmost care and attention since it can bring new life and take life away.  Fire can devastate land during times of drought but can also provide a natural cleansing of Mother Earth.  The element of fire provides the gifts of all sources of energy to her children.  

Oil and gas are aggressively being sought to satisfy ever growing worldwide energy needs.  The extraction of oil and gas occur on many First Nations’ traditional territories and has far reaching repercussions to Mother Earth’s gifts.  Extractive industries have also exploited First Nations with activities like exploration, mining and the building of pipelines across our traditional territories.  Many First Nations’ communities have undergone dramatic change and their traditional ways of life have been forever altered by these activities.   

The extraction of uranium and its associated nuclear waste have been highly contentious to First Nation communities.  Indigenous peoples of North America share similar stories regarding the extraction of uranium and the devastating effects on their traditional territories.  Uranium waste from open-pit mining is radioactive and the material, or tailings, remains hazardous for centuries making the land unusable.  This affects all of nature including our water and health.

The unrestrained and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources has created numerous social problems leading to environmental health concerns.  Although many communities have seen natural resource extraction as an economic advantage, they were not prepared for the consequences and are now dealing with the aftermath.  It is time that the knowledge of our ancestors is shared with industry to find alternative sources of energy and provide long-term sustainable energy for future generations.   


Chemicals Management 

First Nation communities are increasingly concerned about the degradation of their lands, water, air and natural resources.  Some of this degradation can be attributed to industrial activity and natural resource extraction which may produce air, land and water pollution that can affect communities near and far.  It has been well known that some chemicals found in industrial effluent can be found far from where they were originally produced and energy production from coal fired power plants can result in mercury pollution halfway around the world.  The use of synthetic chemicals in many household and industrial products, such as flame retardants, is being found in the home and environment in increasing amounts.  Chemical substances can be dispersed in the environment where they may find their way into food webs and bioconcentrate up the food chain.  Environmental monitoring has shown that many types of chemical substances, both natural and synthetic, often end up in the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, in our homes and in our bodies.

Although First Nations have long held a worldview that recognized the links between a healthy environment and healthy people, they are experiencing first-hand the effects of poor chemicals management.  Although many First Nations want to take a more active role in addressing their environmental concerns, they are hindered by a lack of knowledge of the issues; inadequate resources to deal with the problems; poor or missing infrastructure; and a lack of capacity to effectively respond to emergencies.  The use of chemicals is meant to improve quality of life and while many are not of concern if properly managed, some have negative health effects even at very low levels.  First Nations require information on the types of chemicals that may pose a direct risk to their health, where they are found and how best to manage and reduce exposure, protect health, and prevent environment contamination.

Estimates vary, but anywhere between 78,000 and 100,000 different chemicals are in use in Canada today.  The Canadian Environmental Protection Act of 1999 requires that new chemical substances that are made in Canada or imported from other countries must be assessed for toxicity to health and the environment, persistence and bioaccumulation to determine risk.  Health Canada and Environment Canada are working together on the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP) to address this significant gap by conducting risk assessments of approximately 4,300 chemical substances that have been identified as priorities by 2020.  These assessments take into account quantities produced, concentrations, how it is used and effects upon the environment and health. However, the distinct realities of life in First Nation communities and First Nations’ close relationship with the land means they may be exposed differently than the general Canadian population.  Therefore, different risk assessment considerations and risk management strategies may need to be developed.

The Government of Canada has also committed to improve product labeling programs, enhance monitoring of consumer products and when the assessment warrants it, conduct risk management activities.  However, these activities must include First Nations to ensure that hazardous chemicals are used, handled and disposed of properly and in a way that they do not pose a risk to First Nations health or the environment. Gaps continue to exist where solid data is needed on First Nations’ exposure to chemical substances.

There are three critical areas that need attention with regard to risk assessment and chemical management:

  • Understanding the risks associated with misusing chemicals, particularly those that are hazardous to public health;
  • Information on which foods and consumer products may contain chemicals that are hazardous to health; and,
  • Awareness of how to manage the risks posed by chemicals in the environment.


AFN’s involvement:

  • The AFN sits on the CMP Stakeholder Advisory Council.
  • The AFN conducts ongoing communications, monitoring, research review and outreach regarding Canada’s action on the CMP and to assist First Nations in becoming better informed about chemicals management.  
  • The AFN will continue to advocate for the CMP to develop risk communications tools that are effective for First Nations in order to reduce exposure issues and contamination problems in First Nation communities.  
  • The AFN works to support First Nations which are concerned about chemical contamination through primary research, advocacy and initiatives like the First Nations Environmental Health Innovation Network that seek to empower First Nations to address their environmental health concerns.


The CMP is an important initiative to assess and manage the potential health and environmental risks posed by certain chemicals.  But is it enough?  Long-term partnerships between First Nations and federal government departments are required to support development of sound strategies to eliminate the sources of contamination, for proper chemicals management and remediation of contaminated sites.

More information on Canada’s Chemicals Management Plan is available here:

Technical Backgrounder: Canada’s Chemicals Management Plan


Factsheets on Chemicals and the CMP:

Hazard and Risk
Vulnerable Populations
Persistent Organic Pollutants
Dioxins and Furans
Contacts and More Information


Corporate Social Responsibility 

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is an essential element of responsible natural resource harvesting.  It is an approach for industry to integrate environmental, social and economic imperatives into their business practice.  First Nations’ rights are threatened by socially and environmentally irresponsible business practices.

  • The ESU is committed to working with industry in Canada to ensure that First Nations’ social and environmental imperatives are met through business activities.
  • The ESU makes it a priority to remain abreast of national and international discussions that pertain to indigenous rights and corporate social responsibility, especially with respect to practices conducted by mining operations located in First Nations’ traditional territories.

Since contact with Europeans, First Nations have suffered as a result of irresponsible harvesting of resources by newcomers to the continent.  It is essential (now more than ever) that responsible and sustainable practices are developed and adopted to ensure the health and vitality of ecosystems and the sustainability of all natural resources.

  • First Nations’ enjoyment of their Aboriginal and Treaty Rights is often infringed upon by irresponsible use and extraction of natural resources.
  • In the near future, climate change will create new pressures on already stressed natural systems, exacerbating the negative impacts that First Nations are already experiencing.
  • It is essential that industries adopt sustainable practices now. 
  • The principles of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) can provide useful guidelines in shaping those required changes.



Clean energy comes from renewable sources such as wind, water, solar and biomass. It is important that these sources are harvested and used in ways that do not damage and/or significantly alter natural systems.  It is becoming increasingly important to meet our energy needs with clean power sources as greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced in the coming months and years.

  • The ESU has been actively involved in promoting opportunities for energy efficiency and use of clean energy sources in First Nation communities.

First Nation Clean Energy Projects

Environmental Assessments 

An environmental assessment (EA) is a process used to assess and predict the environmental effects of a proposed project or activity. An EA may consider direct or indirect impacts on environmental, health, social, economic, or cultural factors. The benefit of undertaking an EA is that environmental effects may be identified, minimized, mitigated or avoided. Each federal and provincial governing body has its own requirements and process when undertaking an environmental assessment (EA). There are some cases when federal and provincial or territorial governments work together to conduct environmental assessments.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) sets out the responsibilities for the EA of projects where federal government decision-making is involved. An EA is generally triggered by the application of a particular piece of federal or provincial legislation.  The Minister of the Environment is responsible for the implementation of the Act and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is responsible for administering the federal environmental assessment process.

AFN is involved in the creation of an Ontario version of the First Nation’s Environmental Assessment Toolkit that was developed by the British Columbia based First Nations’ Environmental Assessment Technical Working Group. First Nations Environmental Assessment Technical Working Group (FNEATWG) has developed a First Nations Environmental Assessment Toolkit. This toolkit provides information and practical advice that will assist First Nations in the EA process.

ESU Resources:
Environmental Assessments Fact Sheet
Environmental Assessments Process Fact Sheet

For more information about the First Nations Environmental Assessment Technical Working Group (FNEATWG), please see their website at:

Metal Mining Effluent Regulations 

In 2002 the Federal government amended the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations (MMER) under the Fisheries Act to allow natural bodies of water to be reclassified as “tailings impoundment areas.”  In January of 2008, the Ministry of Environment announced that 11 mining companies will be seeking permission, via amendment of Schedule 2 of the MMER, to use a natural water body (lake, pond or stream) for the disposal of toxic mining waste.  Once a lake or river gets listed, it is no longer considered a natural water body and no longer protected by the Fisheries Act, a violation of our treaty rights regarding fishing.  A mining company can use the water body as a dumping ground for millions of tonnes of tailings and waste rock.  It is evident that the disposal of toxic mine tailings will irrevocably destroy sensitive aquatic ecosystems and poison our dwindling fresh water resources, a precious resource Environment Canada is charged with protecting.  

  • The ESU has been actively lobbying against this practice.
  • Although expensive, there are other more environmentally friendly ways to dispose of mine tailings.
  • Handing over our precious fresh water ecosystems as a subsidy to the mining industry amounts to corporate control over our precious resources.
  • Approving the use of natural water bodies as tailings impoundment areas is unsustainable and unconscionable, particularly when the world is dealing with a freshwater crisis and recognizes that clean water is becoming a scarce and valuable resource that must be protected.
  • The economics of metal mining extraction should not now or ever take precedence over the protection of Canada’s pristine lakes and streams.



The Environmental Stewardship Unit (ESU) shares the mining file with the Economic Development Unit at the Assembly of First Nations.  The ESU recognizes the important role that mining plays in First Nations’ communities as an economic driver.  However. mining can also play a destructive force that needs to be balanced with respect for Mother Earth.  The AFN encourages economic development in the mining sector while exercising sustainable development practices.  

Majority of the ESU’s work falls under Metal Mining Effluent Regulations (MMER) as well as Corporate Social Responsibility.  

Nuclear Waste Storage 

Nuclear fuel waste storage presents a unique set of concerns for First Nations.  There is considerable fear associated with radioactive contamination, the effects of long-term exposure and the permanency of containment facilities.  First Nations’ people are also concerned about having nuclear waste transported through their communities, neighbouring streets and highways.  It is imperative that radioactive leaks and contamination are avoided in transportation, short and long-term storage of nuclear waste.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is responsible for the long-term management of Canada’s used nuclear fuel waste.  The NWMO is currently seeking to implement its Adaptive Phased Management program.  Successful implementation of this program must make security of First Nations’ interests and traditional territories a priority.

  • Safe transportation and storage of nuclear fuel waste must be the top priority when considering both existing nuclear waste requiring long-term storage and production of new waste through ongoing use of nuclear power.
  • First Nations’ traditional territories must not be seen as dumping grounds for nuclear fuel waste.
  • Security of First Nations’ lands must be ensured through in-depth consultation with and participation by First Nations in determining the outcome of nuclear fuel waste issues.

Proper consultation must be a central tenet of the NWMO’s implementation of its Adaptive Phased Management program.  Consultation with First Nations will include First Nations’ full participation in decision-making processes.  Such consultation is not currently occurring.  The ESU is deeply concerned about this.

  • The complexity and number of issues that need to be addressed around nuclear fuel waste storage do not currently permit First Nations’ to participate fully in decision-making.
  • First Nations are unable to ensure that their needs, rights and interests are respected in the development and implementation of federal policies, programs and initiatives. 
  • The Nuclear Waste Management Organization is unable to fulfill its mandate to conduct thorough consultations without the informed participation of First Nations’ communities.

In response to the above concerns, the ESU has entered into talks with the NWMO in an attempt to facilitate better engagement of First Nations’ communities on nuclear waste issues.  The ESU is committed to working with the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) and other parties in the nuclear waste arena, as well as with First Nations’, to ensure the security of First Nations’ lands through increased participation in the processes through which the outcome of nuclear fuel waste issues are determined.

  • The ESU has proposed that the NWMO partner with and support the AFN to assist in the design of the long term storage plan, in consultations with First Nation communities.
  • The ESU has also proposed to partner with the NWMO in developing culturally appropriate public education tools.
  • The ESU proposes to assist the NWMO in its decision-making on the selection of a storage site by providing a First Nations’ perspective into the process that is mindful and respectful of First Nations Aboriginal and Treaty Rights.
  • AFN-ESU participation will help to ensure that First Nations’ communities participate in the NWMO’s consultation processes in a meaningful way.  

ESU Resources:



Top of Page

Environmental Stewardship Homepage

Angie TurnerHonouring Fire