When a Bill Passes in the Wilderness, Does Anyone Hear?

07 September 2010 | News story

Iain Davidson-Hunt and Peggy Smith, CEESP Vice-Chairs, North America, Catie Burlando, CEESP Member The North American boreal forest is home for many Indigenous Peoples and has become a highly publicized contested ground in the international debate on conservation versus development. Some private sector companies are pursuing potential wealth from natural resource extraction and development (e.g. timber, minerals, tar sands, hydroelectric development) while Environmental Non-Government Organizations (ENGOs), with significant funding from private foundations, are pursuing a “protectionist” agenda that is well publicized internationally.

In 2007, 1500 scientists from around the world signed a petition sent by the International Boreal Conservation Campaign, asking Canadian government leaders to “protect” at least 50% of the boreal forest. In 2008 the Premier of Ontario got on board by announcing the protection of 50% of the Far North part of the province, and is poised to seal it into legislation in September 2010.

Yet, the aspirations of boreal communities, most of them Indigenous, and the initiatives they are undertaking with a diversity of partners, have largely gone unnoticed. Interest in “the boreal” as the so-called last wilderness of North America has largely silenced these local stories and they are notable in their absence from the global conversation.

One such story is currently unfolding in Ontario where new legislation is set to pass in the fall of this year which will roll back the ability of Indigenous communities to make land use decisions. In 2001 the Ontario government announced “The Northern Boreal Initiative” that adopted Community-based Land Use Planning as a way to enable communities interested in new land-based resource development to work in partnership with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The goal was to access the appropriate licences for much-needed development to alleviate the poverty so common in Indigenous communities. The Elders from the community of Pikangikum First Nation in northwestern Ontario, for example, created the first Indigenous community land use plan for a portion of their traditional territory, reflecting their cultural tradition of “keeping the land”, and are in the process of developing management plans for forestry and protected areas (http://www.whitefeatherforest.com).

In spite of designating more than 35% of their traditional territory as “protected area”, this did not meet with ENGO and conservation biologists' calls for 50% of the far north to be set aside. The former target of 12% “protected areas”, set by the World Wildlife Fund's Endangered Spaces campaign, was met in Ontario in the 1990s. However this amount is no longer enough with the Canadian Boreal Initiative, funded largely by the Pew Charitable Trusts, setting the new target of 50% in 2003 through the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework. This led to sustained national and international pressure on Ontario and other provincial governments to pass new policies that would provide for a minimum of 50% to be set aside for protection. The result in Ontario was Bill 191, “The Far North Act,” which emerged without the participation of Indigenous Peoples.

The far north of Ontario is the homelands of 49 First Nation communities who are represented by their treaty (Treaty #9 and Ontario portion of Treaty #5) organization Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN). When Bill 191 was tabled, the Grand Chief, Mr. Stan Beardy, asked the government to live up to recent Supreme Court of Canada rulings on “meaningful consultation” to take place with Aboriginal Peoples prior to implementing land use policy decisions. In spite of the NAN Chiefs' concern with the far reaching implications of the bill for the future of their 49 member communities, as expressed to the government in July of 2009, the Bill proceeded through first and second readings. As the date for the third reading of the bill is approaching in September of 2010, the NAN Chiefs again passed a resolution stating their opposition to the Bill. NAN Grand Chief Stan Beardy stated in an August 2010 press release that “First Nations must have a say in how and when our land will be developed. Bill 191 takes away that right for our remote communities in the Far North. There's no other alternative for the McGuinty Government than to scrap this Bill and we will be ramping-up our efforts to ensure that message is loud and clear.”

We encourage members of CEESP to begin finding out more about what is occurring in the boreal forest of North America. There is a diversity of stories and they are not all about oil and climate change! We need to more critically examine the impacts of top-down decisions by international ENGOs, other non-governmental organizations and the private sector on local communities to ensure good intentions and the resulting policies are not contributing to the further impoverishment of local communities and their exclusion from decision-making. We plan to have a workshop session at the Sharing Power Conference in January with a panel of Aboriginal leaders. In the meantime you can support NAN in their struggle to ensure that Aboriginal voices are not silenced during this period of rapid policy changes by going to www.nan.on.ca.