via YouTube
Performer and activist Ta'Kaiya Blaney, 14, speaks at a Vancouver climate rally in 2015.

Ta’kaiya Blaney at COP21: Heritage, Reconciliation and Environmental Redemption Are All One

Dominique Godrèche

Ta’Kaiya, whose very name means “Special Water,” grew up in Vancouver, raised by her mother, a teacher, and her father, a social worker for Squamish youth.

“My family has always been inspiring and supportive,” she confides. Her work with the Salish Sea Youth Foundation takes place in her community around Vancouver. “I hope to bring the whales, sea otters, orcas, salmon and herring back. Our goal is to restore wildlife populations throughout the Salish Sea.”

In 2014 she received the United Religions Initiative award (URI), a recognition of youth leadership in improving the lives of Indigenous Peoples, and the John Gibbard Award of Canada for her contribution to indigenous rights and the environment. She is a Youth Ambassador for Native Children’s Survival, (NCS), an organization founded by musician Robby Romero. And when Enbridge planned the construction of a pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to Kitimat, in British Columbia, bringing oil tanks to the coast, she wrote, at the age of 10, the song “Shallow Waters,” about the effect an oil spill would have on the pristine waters. Now 14, she recently discovered Paris, “a beautiful city” as she called it, as a participant in the COP21 climate talks.

RELATED: Young Sliammon Actor/Singer Campaigns Against Pipeline

When did you first become interested in environmental issues?

It started when I was six years old. I was not exposed to any environmental propaganda or agenda to preserve nature; but the sadness in my Elders’ eyes, or asking them about our culture, history, territory, and listening to their memories about the former beauty of a mountain destroyed by mining, is how I decided to become an activist, and empower the people: we need to remember the sense of identity. As an indigenous, my culture is a central and grounding part of my identity that makes me feel proud and alive. I could not access that identity without addressing the shadows of substance abuse, residential schools and how they affected generations of families, not being aware of this tragedy. And the environment that we could not have access to—trees we used for canoes, boxes, sacred objects—environmental activism was my entry into feeling empowered as an indigenous person, and protect my territory.

Why do you associate residential schools and environmental damage? How did you get to know about those schools?

So many of my relatives went, and people in my community, that I learned about this tragic history and how it correlates to colonial endeavor, the impact of the residential schools, watching the profound sadness in the people, and wondering if that survivors’ sadness will ever be erased. I was also cast in films about residential schools, so I heard about that reality, reenacting it in movies. And we can, collectively, create effective innovations for a transition to a conscious environment, by being involved in activist communities, or through art. For me, it was very important to involve music in activism, because of my passion for singing.

How long have you been singing?

I started singing lessons at four years old. I was singing all the time, it was my passion, so my parents decided that I might as well learn to sing properly! [Laughs]

Where were you raised, and how did you learn about environmental issues?

I grew up in Vancouver; my community, the Sliammon nation, is located a hundred miles away, so I traveled back and forth. I have been home schooled since I was eight years old. It is great, as public schools are focused on memorizing a topic and forgetting it, rather than processing it and using it in the “real world.” I intend to go to university and am learning my language. There is an urgency, as the language will be extinct within the next generation if nothing is done. I learned about environmental issues listening to my grandparents talking about their upbringing, their culture, how they would go out at low tide to eat shellfish, and when the tide was up, the table was set. Listening to those stories, that place of cultural belonging, I felt a sense of loss, as I could not do what they were talking about. It’s because of our territory’s destruction. Environment and culture are so interrelated that you cannot thrive as indigenous without standing for the environment.

At what age did you start to make speeches about environmental issues? Have you been listened to by adults as much as young people?

I started at ten, when I wrote the song “Shallow Waters,” based on the future of the coastline where my people live, and the Enbridge pipeline project, which was endangering our Native communities. About the talks, I noticed adults have a tendency to internalize, and reflect on the information, but youth would rather process it into action. I am also connected to a network of activist kids, Native Children Survival, so that the voices of indigenous youth on climate change are heard.

So how was COP21?

A lot of what happened at COP21 was celebrating not going backward. So we remembered where we are, what we belong to, and our movement to construct a better reality for the climate in our communities to the official organizations: We need to be regarded as a strong, connected group, who will be hurt first, so that the solutions proposed at COP21 include us. I am grateful for the discussions, the sense of solidarity and support among allied groups. Every successful transition, innovation, has been an invention, a blueprint, a naïve unreasonable idea, to correct where we have gone wrong. We are taking steps in the right direction, but we cannot afford to just take steps. We have to move forward.

What is your feeling on Justin Trudeau’s election in regard to Indigenous Peoples?

Steven Harper was not progressive, and not the best to advocate the rights of indigenous. So any changes, with Justin Trudeau, inspire hope. But we are in the honeymoon phase of the election. Time will tell if he is consistent.

Do you see the effects of climate change in your community, and do you have any projects related to this issue?

Yes, as coastal peoples we have a cultural fishing tradition. The salmon is one of our main foods, and is sacred. It appears in our art and stories. But with the hot summers, the salmon cannot make it up the rivers, and they die in the bay. It is tragic. So I am involved in the Marine Sanctuary, training indigenous youth from mid-teens to early twenties to be cultural ambassadors of the Salish Sea area, and protect our environment. Changing the world can mean just changing your province, country or community. I work around Vancouver.

How do you see your future?

My activities will always gravitate around pioneering biodiversity and empowerment, making sure that cultural diversity is safe among our communities. And whatever I decide, it will be centered around that mission: my consciousness for protecting the earth and the indigenous communities.

RELATED: World Water Day: Young Sliammon Activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney Invokes Prayer for the Sacred

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