Cheryl Chetkiewicz writes about First Nations in Northern Ontario and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada

09 January 2012 | Article

Cheryl Chetkiewicz is the Landscape Leader for WCS Canada's work in Ontario's Northern Boreal in Ontario, Canada. She is working on a variety of activities to address development and conservation activities that affect species and ecosystems and developing approaches to support First Nations management, research, and conservation needs in this socially and ecologically unique part of the world.

Cheryl completed a PhD on large carnivores, connectivity models, and corridors in the Canadian Rockies after working with WCS on regional conservation programs for jaguars in the late 1990s. She is based in Thunder Bay on the north shore of Lake Superior. She can be contacted at cchetkiewicz@wcs.org.

Established in 2004, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada is a new environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) in Canada, and is affiliated with WCS conservation programs in more than 55 countries. WCS Canada is a science-based research organization that focuses on Ontario's Northern Boreal (“Far North” as defined by Ontario's Government) in addition to a number of other areas in Canada ( www.wcscanada.org). Northern Ontario's complex social-ecological systems include globally significant peatlands and wetlands and are home to numerous species, some of which are identified as at risk by Provincial and Federal Governments, including woodland caribou, wolverine and polar bears, as well as a number of coldwater fish such as lake sturgeon. The species and ecosystems in this region are ecologically “intact” due to the millennia-old relationships between First Nations and their environment and a limited industrial footprint.

The relationships between First Nations and land have manifested themselves in the biodiversity and ecosystems services valued by WCS Canada, provincial Governments, and the world. In Northern Ontario the region is a source of sustenance and livelihood, cultural identity, and well-being for First Nations. Interactions of First Nations with this land have been historically guided by a set of cultural rules or social institutions supporting and defining peoples' roles, obligations and responsibilities to each other, other living beings, ancestors, and the land. The fundamentals of these traditional institutions continue to support and define First Nations' ethical and moral responsibilities to their land, and the future of this region is inseparable from the resilience of these institutions. In Northern Ontario, creating processes that acknowledge and support these traditional institutions in policy and decision-making about species, ecosystems, and research are vital if the resilience of Ontario's northern boreal forest is to be maintained. First Nations relationships to this land are also recognized as rights, entrenched in the Canadian Constitution and supported by various Supreme Court decisions that charge Federal and Provincial Governments with the duty to “adequately consult and accommodate” their concerns in decision-making about land and resources. As well, the Federal Government signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). Regrettably, there have been serious conflicts regarding land and resource management and conservation from both industrial activities like mineral exploration and mining and government-led initiatives on land-use planning, protected areas, and parks, and decision-making processes such as environmental assessment.

In the northern boreal of Ontario, WCS Canada has led field studies on wolverine and woodland caribou and has a freshwater fish conservation program addressing human-induced changes, including climate change and hydro-development. We have used this information to address policy, legislation, and land use planning efforts that affect these species and provided this scientific information to decision-makers –Federal, Provincial and First Nation Governmentss – and other stakeholders as requested. We have worked with First Nations on individual research projects, including wolverine and caribou surveys, the documentation of wolverine harvest and trapping information and traditional knowledge, approaches to integrating Aboriginal or Traditional Ecological Knowledge and western science, and providing comments and reviews, at the request of communities, on environmental impact assessments associated with mineral exploration and mining activities. Currently, we are looking to support a First Nation-led discussion about conservation and development, working towards co-creating research with First Nation communities, particularly climate change adaptation, and exploring opportunities to support and create Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs).

As an organization that wants to continue working on conservation in this complex social and political landscape, what mechanisms and best practices should we follow? UNDRIP provides the gold standard for working with First Nations and other Indigenous Peoples in Canada. As part of the Conservation Initiative for Human Rights (CIHR) (http://www.iucn.org/about/work/programmes/social_policy/scpl_cihr/), WCS helped develop common principles on human rights and conservation and has adopted a set of principles and implementation measures based on the Conservation and Human Rights Framework. Implementation of these principles will depend on the social, environmental and political context in the countries where WCS is invited to work on conservation. Currently, WCS Canada is determining how to implement these principles within our programs, projects, and policies given Aboriginal and treaty rights and UNDRIP.