Indigenous families and the climate crisis

St Jude’s Cathedral in Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the Anglican Diocese of the Arctic. Photo by Ansgar Walk / CC BY-SA (

Mark MacDonald, National Indigenous Archbishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, describes how Indigenous Canadian churches are ministering among families affected by the climate emergency.

In recent years, the living relationship of Indigenous Peoples to the Land has been recognised, in many ways and in many places, as a prophetic word of correction to a world on the verge of ecological collapse. Pope Francis, for example, gives special notice to this in his 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’.

This recognition of prophetic ecology is coupled with a growing awareness of the historic global phenomenon of Indigenous Peoples’ vicious dispossession from the Land by colonialism. Though lamented in its historical manifestations, the global community shows little will or effort to disrupt its contemporary manifestations, witnessed in the crisis of the Amazon, as well as in the worldwide conflict between Indigenous Peoples and extractive industries. These historical and contemporary experiences of dispossession are the background of the present day crisis of global climate disruption and injustice.

The dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from the Land has had a catastrophic and, at times, genocidal impact on Indigenous family life. This is, to Indigenous Peoples, so stark, so immediate, and so destructive that Indigenous elders have called colonisation a war to destroy Indigenous families.

The scope of the problem is too large to treat here comprehensively. We can say, however, that the colonial churches, government, education, and even so-called social services have, knowingly and unknowingly, damaged and defiled the structure of family and clan in Indigenous life.

These family and clan structures are so important to Indigenous life that it is an essential and primary element of both traditional Indigenous ethical and spiritual practice. The spiritual practice of Indigenous Christians, despite the efforts and teaching of the colonial churches, shows the greatest of respect and reverence for traditional extended family and clan structures and has resisted attempts to damage them. The dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from the Land and its massively corrosive effects on families has accelerated under climate disruption. Ever adaptable, Indigenous wisdom and technology is stressed as it meets the avalanche of change that accompanies global climate injustice.

In the Arctic, for example, the pace of climate change is two to three times faster than elsewhere on the planet. This is making living on the Land increasingly difficult, disrupting culture, family life, and forcing Indigenous Peoples into urban life where their clan and family-based social structures are not recognised and, for the most part, not tolerated.

More and more, the Anglican churches that serve in Indigenous communities are under Indigenous leadership or making a transition to Indigenous leadership, both in personnel and in cultural approach. They now play a pastoral and prophetic role among and for Indigenous families. Pastoral care is offered directly to the poor and displaced. Once a partner in the attempt to disrupt Indigenous extended family systems, the churches are generally now a place where Indigenous family structures are affirmed and strengthened, both in the delivery of the rites of the Church and in the preaching of the Church.

It could be said that, in all of their ministries, the Church now puts its highest priority on the affirmation and protection of Indigenous family life. Churches have developed a number of vehicles for the support of Indigenous family life. Gospel Jamborees, generally three nights of music, healing prayer, and teaching, have been a popular way of speaking to and including all the generations and all family members.

Teaching gatherings in the summer include all family members. Regular Sunday liturgies and teaching around the sacraments throughout the year are all sensitively aware of the importance of Indigenous family life. Some communities have developed events that focus on life on the Land, promoting survival knowledge and food gathering skills. The latter is important, since the high cost of food in stores in these communities is an issue for all. Finally, especially in remote areas, the churches are well aware that they are the only social service agency in the community that is available 24/7.

At the level of advocacy, the churches and their diocesan leadership have worked with other groups to change public policy and create more Indigenous friendly infrastructure in remote communities and among Indigenous Peoples in urban areas. This has included promoting Indigenous authority over extractive industry projects in their territories. It has been a struggle, but churches have tried to educate their members and the larger society on the culturally distinctive aspects of Indigenous life, both in its extended family structures and in the way Indigenous communities view the Land and all its aspects as a part of the family. This has proven to be prophetic and positive in the contemporary context of stressed families and a troubled environment.


This article is reproduced from IAFN’s March 2020 newsletter.