Decolonizing my Definition of Sustainability

Written by Renmart Buhay, a Biomedical Physiology Student and Sustainability Peer Educator. This blog post is part of the Sustainability Peer Reflection Series where members of the current Sustainability Peer Program discuss the different topics they explore and how it connects to them on a personal level. This post acknowledges that it was written on the Traditional and Unceded Lands, of the Musqueam, Skwxwú7mesh, Tsleil-Waututh and Kwikwetlem Nations.

“Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.” – (Tuck and Young, Decolonization is not a metaphor”

The Sustainability Peers had the privilege of beginning their fall workshops on the topic of Anti-Oppression and Decolonization, facilitated by Anna Soole. Before I came into the workshops, I felt uncertain in my ability to contribute to decolonization. This helpless feeling stems from the impact colonization has had in the life of my family and ancestors in the Philippines. Now as an immigrant and settler to Canada, I struggle with my own accountability to settler colonialism. That is why my understanding of sustainability requires some unpacking. I have always defined sustainability as the capacity of the environmental, social, and economic systems to endure and thrive without compromising the needs of the future. Upon further reflection, my initial definition misses a human rights element. This gap neglects the connection of sustainability to Indigenous peoples, social justice and equity in our communities.

Coming to the workshops, I have been challenged to think about sustainability from a holistic perspective. This is exemplified by the Indigenous way of life which involves the interconnection of humans and nature, through stewardship and relationship with the land. From this framework, the human rights element of sustainability stood out for me throughout these workshops. Humans are a part of nature - even inseparable - thus any definition of sustainability needs to account for the human needs and the sustainability of people. The plight faced by Indigenous communities, migrants, refugees, the homeless, and all disenfranchised by oppressive systems is an unsustainable reality. As I am learning to come to terms with my complicity to settler colonialism, I feel it is important to reflect on these feelings, in order to move forward in sustainability and decolonization.


At the beginning of the workshops, everyone would gather around in an open circle. This gave each person the opportunity to look at each other’s eyes and foster inclusive dialogue. This helped our group open up and be vulnerable with our own stories and identities. We further explored vulnerability and our personal intersectional identities throughout these workshops. These explorations would lead to the questions, ‘how did we get here?’, ‘how are we implicated in colonialism?’, and ‘what can we do about it?’. The topics brought up in our dialogue were unsettling and uncomfortable. This would lead to a discussion of shame and guilt, the major barriers that prevent us from confronting these issues. However, these conversations are necessary, requiring empathy and room for constant learning and reflecting of our settler accountability and intersectional identities. This requires an exploration of identity, privilege and values. Each peer brings a different perspective of sustainability and life; the values we share, however, are common and give rise to the issues we find meaningful. The reflective atmosphere we created as a group in these workshops set our hopes for this program, and the challenges we see happening in our communities.

Content Credit: Anna Soole

Throughout the workshops, we explored the themes of circles, through body-based movements with each person moving in different directions around a circle. These movements were based on our use of the senses, from imagining ourselves as an animal in a forest, to walking on hot surfaces. We performed activities such imitating the sounds of rain through our hands, imagining our bodies moving through the self, planet and the universe, and using a talking stick to check in on our needs; sharing our thoughts and stories in a circle. These activities allowed me to fully take in the diversity of perspectives in our group and helped me learn to listen, empathize and reflect better with my peers. We also explored the steps to oppression that begin with dehumanization and perpetuated by different oppressive systems through power and privilege. We explored the intersectionality that we see in our everyday lives and the implication of our own privileges from our intersecting identities.

By the end, as peers we came out with a better understanding of how our own passions and identities intersect learnings from these workshops, to tackle the sustainability challenges facing our communities. We examined new ways of taking action through a rehumanizing circle. This begins by acknowledging our personal privileges and bridging the gaps with those who have less privilege so that we may stand together equitably. Through this process we can create justice and build community, eventually bringing about a liberation from oppression and colonialism.

My Key takeaways:

  1. Rehumanizing involves solidarity with our Indigenous and marginalized communities. This means standing with these communities in the frontlines to resist pipelines, the Site C Dam and the fish farms, and fight for equitable human rights.

  2. Any projects the sustainability peers plan should keep in mind the interests and needs of our Indigenous communities.

  3. Any anti-oppression approach requires a perspective of Intersectionality and examination of personal privilege.

  4. Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization means returning the land and resources back to the Indigenous communities. The conversations we have about decolonization need to be about restoring the relationships between the Indigenous people and the land. Actions speak louder than words.

Why does this matter?

While I will always be worried about environmental issues like climate change, consumer waste, and unsustainable food systems, it is just as important to acknowledge the reality of people’s lived experiences. These environmental and social issues have human implications. To truly build resilient, healthy and sustainable communities requires a consideration of how we humanize or dehumanize, people.

Moving Forward

For families and communities to thrive, they need land and resources. Without land, we have no schools, hospitals and community centres. So any talk about “Decolonization” must about returning land and its resources to Indigenous communities through shared friendship and relations between settlers and non-settlers.

Changing our thoughts by “decolonizing our minds” is a great first step in reconciliation. But, it must not stop in the confines of our minds. Just as sustainability cannot just be kept within our own minds. Through our voices, we can engage our communities in dialogue and public discourse about decolonization and anti-oppression. Through action, we can stand in solidarity with our Indigenous communities and support them in the front lines against corporate projects reliant on stolen land. We can stand together with our marginalized communities disadvantaged by oppressive systems in power, to push forward social justice. Ultimately, for social sustainability and human rights, my definition of sustainability has a new step forward to reach.

I look forward in the upcoming months, in collaborating with my fellow Sustainability Peers to tackle sustainability issues within campus!

All my relations.



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