Erica Violet Lee's tongue became a signal of resistance at the Paris Climate Conference.
The 25-year-old Nehiyaw (member of Canada's Cree Indigenous people) philosophy student from the University of Saskatchewan pissed off a lot of people in her home province after she posted a photo online where she playfully stuck out her tongue at Premier Brad Wall while they were at a celebration for Canadian delegates at the Canadian Embassy in Paris. Lee was part of the Canadian Youth Delegation at the Conference of Parties (COP21) where, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, world leaders actually crafted a historic agreement on climate change with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C [3.6°F] above pre-industrial levels.
It was a completely different experience for Lee, who grew up in inner-city Saskatoon where she saw the effects of colonization everyday. She refused to accept ingrained prejudices, becoming the driving force to change her high school sports team name from a racist stereotype to the Red Hawks, and was involved in Idle No More. She's not afraid to call bullshit, and that's exactly what she did in Paris. After posting the infamous tongue photo, Lee started to get threats online calling her a whore and a slut, to which she responded on Facebook saying, "think of my photo as counting coup." "I don't have a chance in hell at taking on the power, privilege, and resources of governments and corporations. Not in the venue of a ritzy celebration for Canadian officials. Not when there are gendarmerie (military police) with rifles and riot gear lined up along every wall. Not while the format of this conference is designed to be a photo op for 150+ world leaders, designed to keep people like me out."
On December 3, Lee, along with her youth delegate counterparts, stood in front of the international media and protested Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his platitudes instead of action. Holding signs which read "youth want to be heard, not just seen," Lee argued they deserve more than photo ops with Canadian government and that youth aren't just props.
VICE spoke to Lee in her final days at the climate summit to talk about using her platform to point out hypocrisy.
VICE: How did you get involved with the youth delegation?
Erica Violet Lee: I heard about COP21 and talked to some of my friends who work with Indigenous rights and environmental rights, we were talking about the need to get Indigenous people to Paris, to be involved in this type of negotiations. The Canadian Youth Delegation was one of the groups that was offering accreditation, passes into the negotiations. Normally I wouldn't identify as Canadian anymore since my work with Idle No More and thinking about what it actually means to consider myself Indigenous to this space in a colonial country, but I decided to come with the Canadian Youth Delegation.
What were your expectations before you went?
I have no idea. When I started reading about COP21 and the United Nations climate negotiation spaces I was thinking this is the highest level of importance in talking about making legal the rights of indigenous people and it's one of the best platforms and opportunities we have to ensure that our sovereignty is respected, to ensure that the world isn't destroyed by corporations and greedy governments.
To sit in these negotiations with countries from all over the world is strange and it's totally different scope than anything I've ever done before. I find it overwhelming but was also feeling pretty excited to be here just realizing what a privileged position it is for me to be able to come from inner-city Saskatoon and to try and represent people who these spaces aren't meant for. The United Nations is such an elite space and I realized there are people who have spent their whole lives negotiating in United Nations sessions. But understanding too that even the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People hasn't been fully implemented in a meaningful way even though Canada is a signatory. So, in one sense it's the peak of power in the world but in another sense it's still not enough and it does nothing for us on the ground so far.
You've mentioned the UN is a space not meant for you, so how does it feel being in that space?
Strange but exciting because I want to be able to bring all of the stories I've heard over the past few years working with Idle No More and working with different communities across Canada and the world. You hear so many stories of people who have lived off their lands for decades and centuries, who can't eat the fish anymore because they're covered in cancerous tumors. Those people who can't drink their own water out of the streams that their ancestors drank out of for centuries. So those are the kinds of stories that I wanted to bring here.
Something else I found out in the United Nation spaces is that there is a real tokenization of Indigenous people. Like there is a very select few who are repeatedly held up, while a lot of voices are excluded—particularly those of us who come from poverty or smaller communities, or especially prairie communities. We are not held in esteem, we are not allowed access to many other spaces that other people might be.
A lot of people from other countries have an idea of Canada as idyllic, what do they think of the stories you are bringing from the Indigenous communities you've been to?
That's a rhetoric that we've heard over and over and as the Canadian Youth Delegation. We have been trying to disrupt that because Trudeau gets on the platform and says, "Canada is back." So what does it mean when we say that Canada is back? More than anyone, the folks who work with Idle No More understand the damage that Harper and the Conservative government did to us and did to the land in the past decade and the fact that we are still not out of that. It will take decades to recover from what happened just with the destructiveness of the policy and the rhetoric that they were spewing. But also recognizing that the Liberal Government is already doing a lot of the exact same things but under the banner of "a good Liberal Canada."
We were able to meet with the Minister of Environment's staff [on Friday]… It was really hostile and mostly what the Liberal Environment Minister staffers were saying was, "We need to have something that benefits everyone," and wanted us to use the hashtag #allinthistogether, which includes for them having Enbridge, Cenovus, Suncor, and all of these companies that are destroying our lives at the table.
The fact that pipeline projects and tar sands projects are going forward is a violation of treaties and our fundamental rights, so we are not ready to negotiate or reconcile with extractive corporations.
What made your group decide to protest at COP21?
Well, the weirdest part about the United Nations and the climate forum is that you have to fill out an application to protest. You [have to] say: this is our protest, this is the exact space it will take place in, this is the exact time it will be, this is our messaging. You are not supposed to name a country, you are not supposed to name a politician or a person, you are not supposed to name a corporation or a company. So, basically, even that protest we did, we had to fill out an application for it, and we ended up getting scolded for it after because we weren't clear enough in explaining what our message would be and the fact that we named Canada as a country was a problem.
I'm thinking a lot about protest and disobedience and the ways that, even within the United Nations space and the atmosphere in Paris, disobedience and protest are turned into props as well. They say we are allowing you to dissent but you have to do it within these strict confines. I think it was still a great action but I guess a lot of it too, is that it still feels orchestrated by these massive powers.
What kind of response did you get from it?
It was a good response. When you do a protest in a space like that there's tons of media coverage and tons of people supporting us. But it was, like I said, it feels tokenistic and I have been struggling with finding ways with actually disrupting the power structure from within it.
When you are in a place like the United Nations and you have to fill out a form to have a protest, is that really taking down the system? So many people talk about getting involved in politics or getting into the system to change it from within but so often I have seen those people become coopted and really comfortable with the system.
With the Youth Delegation, did you feel like you were expected to be a prop?
We have really been pushing back against that. We are the only Canadian Youth Delegation here. Trudeau wouldn't meet with us, wouldn't even acknowledge us. Meanwhile he is tweeting about the youth and taking pictures with people.
So 'tongue-gate' and Brad Wall. How was it in that room and what made you decide to take that picture?
We were at this celebration for Canadian delegates which was at the Canadian Embassy on a really fancy street in Paris. It's this big beautiful building.
Even just walking through Paris as an Indigenous person from Canada and recognizing all of this, the reason that Europe is so wealthy is because it stole land, it stole people, it stole objects. So it's just being in this space as an Indigenous person, and one of the few Indigenous people there, and seeing all of this power in one room.
We were just standing there, as young people, and thinking, how do we even start to do something that will translate to change? We've already learned that in most cases you can't just go up to these people and talk to them from your world view because they just don't understand. They see it in terms of dollars. They see it in terms of profits and of economy. So we just stood there overwhelmed and frustrated at the situation we were in.
It's like… coming face to face with all of this power and realizing that nothing I could say in that moment will change the power structure that is propped up.
It wasn't actually a selfie. It was my friend taking the picture. But people think of youth as shallow and, "Oh let's just take a selfie," but it was just the only reaction I had at the time to stick out my tongue. I had no idea it was going to get so much attention. I thought it was really funny the reaction for people saying, "That's all she can do?" At the same time people don't usually listen to my words as an Indigenous woman, as a two spirit person, they are more interested in calling me disrespectful or calling me juvenile.
Anyway, Brad Wall was in the room schmoozing with a bunch of oil executives and selling away our province. I thought of all of the people that I work with everyday in my community who are saying we can't have nuclear storage facilities in our communities up north, we can't continue to lose all of our land to pipelines and to oil industry. And recognizing the real human and land costs of these policies and these deals he's so casually making while sipping champagne in Paris.
Do you think the act of resistance becomes more threatening when it comes from an Indigenous woman?
So often in Canada and all over the world, too—I've experienced this in Paris at COP—people are fine with images of Native women standing around in regalia, or powwow dancing, but they don't actually want to hear our voices. They don't want to hear us being political and calling out the colonial violence that we face… They just care about us as props, as a way to uphold this vision of Canada as a multicultural country that they want to believe exists, that for us still doesn't exist.
You speak about the colonial violence that Indigenous women face, so were you shocked by the violence you faced on social media?
I don't think I'm shocked anymore just because of how common it is. I got called a cheap whore—that was kind of interesting. It's always interesting when it's sexualized, and so often the critiques and the attacks we get as Indigenous women are to call us a whore, to call us a slut, all gendered and sexualized insults. So much of that goes back to the way Indigenous women are viewed as conquerable. The key part of the narrative of Canada and conquest, is that Canada wants to view us as property, as something that can be taken, as something that can be controlled. By resisting and fighting back and not being silent, we disrupt that and it really unsettles people.
One of my friends in the Canadian Youth Delegation used the hashtag #upsettlers meaning when settlers get really upset because Indigenous people aren't being silent.
So what have you taken from the experience at COP21?
Well we are looking at the text at one of the agreements and seeing countries, the EU, remove the rights of Indigenous peoples from the document text, which is a huge problem. They actually took out the rights of indigenous peoples form the climate change document they produced here so people are trying to get it back in right now.
So I guess it's recognizing that what if our rights as Indigenous people aren't protected anymore in the climate change protocols that come out of Paris? What does that mean? I think that's a big step back. I think, more than anything, this has reaffirmed my belief that the most important and revolutionary organizing around indigenous people's rights, migrants, racialized people, women, all takes place in our communities and doesn't come from the top.
But I also found that there is a lot of power in being an Indigenous young person and mostly that power comes from a recognition that I don't have anything invested in this system so I don't care if it falls. Frantz Fanon, an Algerian French philosopher, talked about that saying those of us who have the least invested in these systems, who constantly face violence from colonial countries, we have the most to gain from toppling these structures of power.
What is the strangest moment you have had so far?
Just the the banality of sitting in negotiations as men in suits—it's overwhelmingly men in suits—look at screens of texts and casually say, "I think we should take rights of Indigenous people out because whatever…" Just realizing what a disconnect there is from sitting in a room and going over a text and striking out the rights of millions of people in the planet… Realizing that disconnect from the grassroots struggles and trying to get get people to recognize our humanity, when they are going to strike it out with a pen in a minute.
It's just the weirdness of going from the climate negotiation space where they just took my rights as a human being out of a document, now I'm going to go eat a chocolate crepe because it's going to make me feel better. International policy negotiations are kind of like living in sci-fi world but it's reality.
I guess my biggest thing I've been thinking about in all of my activism, all of my years of working in communities, is that we need to stop being obedient to people who don't care about us. We need to recognize the seriousness of this struggle. This isn't a game. That's what I've learned talking to some of these big, important people is that they think it's politics and they can walk away from it when they leave the conference room, but that's not the case.
This interview has been edited for style and length.
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