Indigenous climate activist, writer, and filmmaker Clayton Thomas-Müller was raised in Winnipeg, a city named after the Cree word meaning “muddy waters.” His memoir, Life in the City of Dirty Water, published in August 2021, recounts his early years of dislocation growing up in the core of the Manitoba capital—from the domestic and sexual abuse he endured to the drugs he sold to survive (his first job was managing a drug house for the largest Indigenous gang in the country).
Clayton’s early struggles are only the beginning of his remarkable story, however. Years later, his immersion in Cree spirituality and reconnection with the land and his home territory of Pukatawagan led him on a personal healing journey that saw him become a leading organizer on the frontlines of environmental resistance, opening new pathways against the extractive forces perpetuating climate breakdown.
Indigenous rights, worldviews, and self-determination are medicines for the climate crisis, what Clayton might refer to as a “bush pharmacy.” These medicines were threatened by European colonial and economic systems like capitalism and residential schools. Since contact, Indigenous peoples have resisted—from the fur trade centuries ago to clear-cut logging and the tar sands today—and they continue to do so despite surviving a genocide that sought to eradicate their languages, ceremonies, traditional knowledge and philosophy.
Life in the City of Dirty Water chronicles both Clayton’s past and current work as a campaigner for the international climate justice organization 350.org, as well as his two-decade-long work as a campaigner for Indigenous peoples struggling against resource extraction projects. And the memoir is personal: it reads as if you’re at a coffee shop with Clayton discussing strategies about how to heal yourself and Mother Earth.
In this interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, Canadian Dimension sat down with Clayton to talk about his work as an activist, his journey of healing, and the importance of invoking the sacred.
Matteo Cimellaro: Can you explain your own process of healing and how that has informed your work as an activist?
Clayton Thomas-Müller: That’s been an arduous journey over the years. I’ve relapsed with alcoholism and drug abuse and self-destructive behaviours, usually in time of burn-out. Right out of working for the Manitoba Warriors, I went straight into the frontline doing gang intervention and decolonization work with young people in the inner city and on reserves. This crew I was part of was the Native Youth Movement; we would go into communities just with our bundles and pipes and open up with a pipe ceremony and have conversations about decolonialism and about prophecy. We talked about the seven-generation prophecy, where Indigenous youth and allies will come together to enact a new age of healing and rebirth for Native people and Turtle Island.
MC: In the book, you constantly invoke love, care, and joy as essential parts of your healing process. Do you think it is necessary to have that love, care, and joy in your activist work? To transform the anger and resentment in the work into a project, an ethic, of care?
CTM: Anger makes sense; it’s a reality. Anger and fear and shame are words that pop into mind that our people carry disproportionately. And there’s also under-resourcing. What feeds into that anger is all of the stereotypes that come from a very well-funded campaign from the colonial state, from corporations, from the private sector, and white supremacist social movement vehicles. They’re all focused on one thing: to keep the Canadian economic engine going. And even though that engine’s success is rooted in the dispossession of our people from our homelands, and the disenfranchisement from our collective right enshrined in section 35 of the Canadian constitution and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These are inalienable rights that corporations, provincial governments, and federal governments aren’t supposed to interfere with—they are Creator-given rights. And our people would refer to them as responsibilities as stewards to the land, air, water, and climate.
Anger is self-destructive. I write about this in the memoir. I used that little ball of condensed anger—it’s like having a black hole inside of your belly—and I used the energy of that to strike out against our enemies, those people that would sacrifice our communities at the altar of irresponsible policy. Most of the time it would be our own Native people: Indian Act chiefs and councils who would be sitting across the table from government liaisons. Now that I’m a bit older and had a few battles, and have a few battle scars, I recognize how working from a place of anger and resentment and hatred and fear and shame, leads to you beginning to cannibalize yourself, and falling into negative patterns with yourself and others.
MC: Canadians might see a lot of Indigenous activism, especially blockades and pipeline protests as radical, perhaps even dangerous. Do you think there will be a time where the majority of Canadians will follow Indigenous leaders on issues like climate and self-determination?
CTM: First off, I’m not interested in trying to appeal to the conservative voter who lives in the 3,500-square-foot house with a three-door garage, the pool in the back, and a cottage wherever. Because for the most part, when they hear about change, decolonization, human rights, white privilege, and dismantling white supremacy, they get scared. All they hear is you’re trying to make my life less prosperous for me and my family.
The reality is Canadians are card-carrying, law-abiding citizens; if we change the system, if we change the law, Canadians will follow it, and will see how a lot of the problems that exist in society dissipate when we prioritize the most marginalized segments of society—when we prioritize First Nations, immigrants, migrants, and brown and black people in this country. Problems exist because 80 percent of Canada’s population is white presenting; until white supremacy and colonization becomes a white problem, problems will continue to exist, because these are the people that are benefiting from systems of oppression.
When a segment of society has control of the military, the police apparatus, economic things like mortgages and tax write-offs, and all the capital you’ve inherited, it’s easy to not see what everybody else is going through. That’s why you have labels on First Nations, but in reality, Natives have been subsidizing wealth in this country since its inception.
MC: That’s putting it lightly.
CTM: Yeah, and I think Native peoples are sick and tired of that. And white people are starting to fall through the cracks of the social safety net, and young people are woke nowadays, and even elementary kids have an analysis. One of the things I get optimistic about now is that 70 percent of the Native population is under the age of 30, so what we’re going to witness over the next decade is this entrance into Canada’s labour economy of workers that are Indigenous.
MC: Indigenous people prioritize their own form of reconciliation: reclaiming their lands, returning to ceremony, returning to forms of being on the land that honours the Creator. Can you speak to the journey from oppressive colonization to a healing predicated on the reclamation of Indigenous spirituality?
CTM: Colonialism is the cause of our existential threat of climate change. We have CEOs in black suits coming into our communities promising quick-fixes and changing our relationship to the sacredness of the Earth through mass extractivism. Instead of Catholicism being the religion of the day, now it’s capitalism.
But for me healing is a constant thing, like education, it’s something you revisit; it’s a well you draw from not just when you are in crisis, but also in celebration. When somebody is born, married, it’s important to invoke the sacred. And that’s something I still struggle with to this day: learning to be in balance and having an ongoing conversation with the Creator because that’s something everybody should do and can do.
Matteo Cimellaro is a poet, writer, and journalist. His work focuses on policing, Indigenous issues, climate, and the arts. He lives and writes on unceded Algonquin territory (Ottawa).