[Boreal Forest Agreement] First Nations caught in ‘the big (land) squeeze’- Peggy Smith (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal-April 9, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario. This letter to the editor was originally published on April 9, 2011. 

Conservation has become a new form of development and
colonization that further restricts and ignores First
Nation rights to land and a way of life.
(Peggy Smith-Thunder Bay)

I have to disagree with Stephen Kakfwi (Boreal Forest Agreement: It’s Time to Forgive and Move Forward). First Nations in the boreal region of Northern Ontario are not in control of their lands.

The Province of Ontario has long ignored the treaties that First Nations signed over 100 years ago. Those treaties (Robinson-Huron, Robinson-Superior, Treaty 3, Treaty 5 and Treaty 9) were, in First Nations’ view, about sharing lands and resources.

While colonizers got rich on extracting resources from First Nation lands, First Nations were excluded from those benefits and spiralled into poverty and alienation from their lands — up until recently First Nations were not even allowed to cut firewood on Crown land without a permit. Even on federally-owned reserves, historically First Nations had to ask the Minister of Indian Affairs for permission to cut green wood.

And now, we not only have the province continuing to dole out the resources on publicly-owned land to mining, forestry and energy developers without consulting First Nations (as they have been directed to do by the Supreme Court of Canada to protect Aboriginal and treaty rights), but we have conservationists coming from the other side — what I call “the big squeeze” — to “take up” more land.

The treaties talk about the province having the right to take up land from time to time for resource extraction, but who could have foretold 100 years ago that all of the land would eventually be taken up and First Nations would have no access to their traditional territories. And that taking up land would include not only resource extraction, but “conservation.”

Conservation has become a new form of development and colonization that further restricts and ignores First Nation rights to land and a way of life.

The mantra of “accept-the-apology-and-move-on” for excluding First Nations from the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement does not solve the problem of conservation organizations deciding what is best for First Nations and imposing their views of “protection.”

Do First Nations have anything to teach us about land stewardship? Why do we not seek out that wisdom, and celebrate and accept First Nation leadership?

The CBFA is one of many steps that began with the launch of a campaign in 2002 to impose an approach to conservation that is unproven, negotiated in secret between non-governmental players with no accountability to the broader public or First Nations (environmental groups and the forest industry), and financed by private foundations, like Pew Charitable Trusts in the U.S., who have poured over $60 million into the so-called boreal conservation movement in Canada over the past 10 years.

It’s difficult to argue against “protecting nature” and endangered species like the caribou.

But we should learn that “nature” and people are inextricably connected, and that real “protection” will happen only when we respect the leadership of those living on the land.

A good first step in a productive discussion about land stewardship in the boreal is for the signatories of the CBFA to rescind the agreement and invite First Nations — especially those in Manitoba and Ontario who are in the middle of “the big squeeze” — to lead the discussion on how they want to look after their homelands.

Peggy Smith

Thunder Bay