Every Day Eco-Heroes: Melina Laboucan-Massimo

Shining a spotlight on those that make every day, Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! As we began preparing to celebrate today, we created our Every Day Eco-Heroes series in collaboration with Earth Day Canada, which shines a spotlight on Canadian environmental activists who make every day Earth Day. So far we’ve had an article about the incredibly inspiring Autumn Peltier, as well as one about the equally inspiring Shefaza Esmail. The final eco-hero we would like to shine a spotlight on is Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a long-time Indigenous and environmental activist who has been a vocal advocate for renewable energy, but more importantly, an advocate for a just transition towards green energy.

A ‘just transition’ is defined as ‘a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy’ by the Climate Justice Alliance. Just transitions take a holistic view of where we are going, as well as how we get there. When thinking of a just transition towards green energy, one of the groups that will be disproportionately affected is Indigenous communities. This is a direct result of a disproportionate dependency on fossil fuels to fuel both energy needs and daily life requirements. Additionally, these communities are also likely to experience the effects of climate change much more than others due to these changes impacting many aspects of their lives. Some of these changes can include loss of land and resources, extreme weather events impacting agriculture, future supply chain issues, and more. As a result of this, it is of paramount importance that for these indigenous communities, we ensure the transition to green energy is a just one.

This is where Melina Laboucan-Massimo saw an opportunity to make a difference. Laboucan-Massimo is Lubicon Cree, from the community of Little Buffalo, located in Alberta, Canada. Little Buffalo is an oil sands region, and as a result, Laboucan-Massimo grew up witnessing firsthand the negative impacts that oil sand development has had on the environment, as well as the development of her Indigenous community. To put into perspective how little the oil sands have done for Indigenous communities, Laboucan-Massimo states in this article with the Nobel Women’s Initiative that since 1978 over $14 billion had been made off of her family’s traditional territory, yet they still don’t have running water. She goes on to say that the more than 2600 oil wells on the land make it impossible to live sustainably, to make matters worse, almost 70% of Lubicon territory has been leased for future development without the consent of the Lubicon people, directly violating their charter rights.

Laboucan-Massimo has been attending protests about this matter since 1988, at the tender age of 7 years old. This first protest was in her Lubicron Cree community of Little Buffalo which held a 6-day protest against oil and gas drilling on their land. While her parents and grandparents were part of the blockade, Laboucan-Massimo watched from the safety of their car, with this experience having a profound impact on her. This protest in 1988 was a whole 34 years ago, yet oil and gas drilling continues on this land, much to its detriment. If the community of Little Buffalo sounds familiar, then you were probably paying attention to the news in 2011. This is because in 2011 the Rainbow Pipeline spill occurred on this land, causing a total of 28,000 barrels of oil to be spilled – the largest oil spill in Alberta in three decades. This spill is still impacting the community to this day, and those responsible for it, Plains Midstream, were only fined a measly $1.3 million two years after the spill. Were those funds used to clean up the area or were they enough to cover the costs of those cleanup efforts? No and no. After this spill, Laboucan-Massimo felt even more inspired to take action, saying in an interview with Mongabay, “Wow, I need to really start building: What does transition technology look like? What does a just transition look like in our communities? That’s why I founded Sacred Earth Solar, which began with my Master’s thesis…”

The creation and inspiration behind Sacred Earth Solar are why I find Laboucan-Massimo to be so inspiring personally. Sacred Earth Solar was born out of their Master’s degree thesis in Indigenous Governance, with a focus on energy which was completed at the University of Victoria. As part of her thesis, Laboucan-Massimo proposed building a solar-powered center in her hometown of Little Buffalo, in order to ensure just transition to green energy. This proposal was not without resistance, with Laboucan-Massimo recalling in an interview with Fashion Magazine, “One of my professors actually tried to dissuade me from doing it—he said ‘It’s too big of an undertaking, you’re not going to finish in time.’” Despite these concerns, Laboucan-Massimo decided to go ahead with the project due to her determination of creating a just transition for her community, as well as wanting to inspire others to do so. This was completed in 2015 and since then, the project has provided power to the community’s health center. This project, now known as the Piitapan Solar Project, involved the installation of 80 solar panels resulting in a 20.8kW renewable energy project – not only does this provide green energy, but also creates jobs in the community, and provides a template for other communities to follow. How inspiring is that? Despite even professors voicing their concerns, and having no experience directly in that field, Laboucan-Massimo followed through on her mission of creating a more sustainable future for her community.

After the establishment of this solar project, Laboucan-Massimo created the aforementioned Sacred Earth Solar. Sacred Earth Solar has now branched out to create projects outside of the Piitapan Solar Project in Little Buffalo. In all of its work, Sacred Earth Solar ensures that a just transition, as defined earlier in this article, can take place. According to their website, Sacred Earth Solar currently assists Indigenous communities in exploring renewable energy within the broader context of antiracist climate work, ensuring that these communities are given priority in keeping their communities safe and healthy. A just transition is one that Laboucan-Massimo is very passionate about, and in addition to setting up Sacred Earth Solar, also sits as the Senior Director of Just Transition at Indigenous Climate Action, an organization that aims to integrate Indigenous rights and knowledge into developing solutions for the climate crisis. Other initiatives by Sacred Earth Solar, and as a result Laboucan-Massimo, include the solarization of the art studio at Nimkii Aazhibikong with Onaman Collective in partnership with Indigenous Climate Action, which will serve as a centre for the language revitalization, transmission of indigenous knowledge, and communal space for Anishinaabek and surrounding Indigenous communities to have a communal space to share teachings. Another initiative included sending several sets of solar panels to Indigenous youth who were protesting at Ada’itsx/Fairy Creek. These solar panels were used to power the kitchen and charge devices so that they could have communication, but also record the police brutality that was on display. Laboucan-Massimo in addition to sending these panels also joined Indigenous leaders, environmental activists, and other celebrities in the condemnation of the logging at Ada’itsx/Fairy Creek. Sacred Earth Solar has continued to provide green energy for those fighting for climate justice by solarizing three homes at the Gidimt’en checkpoint in Wet’suwet’en Territory. This was done so that families could have access to their territory as the Gidimt’en checkpoint is directly in the path of the proposed Coastal Gas Link pipeline. Additionally, Sacred Earth Solar has been creating tiny homes that run off of solar energy to assist those protesting the Trans Mountain pipeline. These tiny homes are set up directly in the path of the pipeline, acting as both an act of resistance, but also a symbol of how green energy can be used for a just transition.

As you can see, Laboucan-Massimo’s Master’s thesis has grown a movement towards a just transition outside of her home community of Little Buffalo. Sacred Earth Solar may, in my opinion, be one of her most notable initiatives, however, Laboucan-Massimo has done much more than this. In addition to being the Director of Just Transition at Indigenous Climate Action, she was appointed as the first Indigenous research fellow at the David Suzuki Foundation where she has continued her research on Climate Change, Indigenous Knowledge, and Renewable Energy. In order to disseminate the message around green energy in Indigenous communities, Laboucan-Massimo created the Power to the People series. This series takes a look at the renewable energy revolution in Indigenous communities around Canada and the world, showcasing how a just transition may occur. This series found many different projects from wind farms, to solar plants, to tidal electric projects, and serves as a showcase for how other communities may become self-sufficient. Laboucan-Massimo has also worked alongside icons such as Jane Fonda, David Suzuki, and Naomi Klein to help build a better future for not only Indigenous people but the planet. She has also given many speeches which have inspired many, some of these including US Congress, the Harvard Law Forum, in British Parliament, and numerous international organizations like Amnesty International, allowing for her message of equitable climate justice to be heard around the world.

If you did a thesis, I implore you to think back to it. I can remember the thesis I completed in my undergraduate degree very well. Now, prior to this, have you thought about your thesis since completing it? Furthermore, has your thesis been of use? For some of you I’m sure that answer is yes, but for others like myself, not so much. It is of such great inspiration that Laboucan-Massimo took an issue that was so dear to her, and despite resistance from even her own professors, turned this thesis into a project that has since spiraled outwards, creating a movement. It is a great message of being the change you want to see, no matter how big the mountain you must climb is. Laboucan-Massimo could have stopped there, feeling that by improving her community she has done enough, but instead she has since campaigned to create a just transition to green energy for Indigenous people and communities around the world, and also acts as an example of how the entire world must act. It is for these reasons that Melina Laboucan-Massimo is an Every Day Eco-Hero.

Alex has a background in Environmental Science holding an undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies, and a Masters of Environment and Sustainability (MES) from Western University. Alex was born and raised in Barbados, a small island in the Caribbean, and has spent the past seven years attending school in Canada, while returning to Barbados for the summer and Christmas periods. Alex is passionate about the environment as he has been able to witness firsthand the effects of climate change on marine and tropical environments, and hopes to spread awareness about these issues.