It was a meeting of minds as over 280 people gathered at the 6th annual UQAT First Nations Symposium to talk about the environment May 28.

Hosted by the Universite du Quebec en Abitibi-Temiscamingue (UQAT), the Val-d’Or conference brought together representatives from the Cree, Algonquin, Innu, Mohawk, Atikamekw and Quebecois communities, ensuring a cultural diversity that conference organizers highlighted as key to the realization of the goals of the event.

“The event was a real success,” said Johanne Lacasse, President of the First Nations Advisory Committee. “The large number of participants and the various regions from which they have travelled is proof of the importance that those in the region place on the quality of relationships and in the creation of partnerships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in the Abitibi-Temiscamingue region.”

Suzy Basile, coordinator of the symposium, further explained the significance of the annual event to the region. “It’s a day to say to First Nations, here is the network of the university to inform and educate the people – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, but principally non-Aboriginal.”

This year’s conference, titled “Our Relationship with Mother Earth”, provided a forum to share Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal perspectives and knowledge of the environment.

One of the presenters was environmental activist Bertie Wapachee, Policy Advisor to the Cree Nation of Nemaska Working Group on Energy and Sustainable Development. His presentation, “The Historical Relationship between Mother Earth and Aboriginal Peoples”, gave an overview of the Native perspective on the environment from pre-contact to modern times.

Wapachee explained to the audience that respect is at the centre of First Nations’ relationship with Mother Earth. “We understand that our cultural, spiritual and emotional well-being and health are intricately linked to that of Mother Earth. If she suffers, we suffer.”

He also described how it has been difficult to hold on to that tradition, in the face of modern industrial practices. “It hasn’t been easy to maintain our knowledge, our practices, our responsibility and our relationship with Mother Earth, while watching the rest of the world stripping and destroying what we as Aboriginal people considered sacred.”

Wapachee commended the new-found environmental concerns of non-Aboriginals, despite people taking so long to come to their senses. “I am tempted to say ‘It’s about time!’, but instead I am thankful of the fact that many are awakening, thinking green, taking action and realizing that this planet is our only home and we need to take care of it.”

In order to respect the green principles talked about during the conference, organizers decided to make it a zero-waste event. Different methods were employed to realize this goal, from placing recycling boxes throughout Hotel Forestel -the venue where the conference was taking place – to minimizing packaging on the foods used. Even the presentations were made available by email only, thus allowing the symposium planners to use less paper.

Basile commended the Hotel Forestel for its help. “We had a great collaboration with the staff at Hotel Forestel. They were very open to assisting us, because it takes a great deal of effort to do a zero-waste event. Each person has to make a minimum effort because we cannot do this alone. At the same time we have to respect the hygiene standards of the hotel.”

Other highlights of the conference included a presentation by Lynn Jacobs from the Kahnawake Environmental Protection Office, a lunch-time concert from Chisasibi’s Melissa Pash, as well as exhibitions from artist Margaret Sam Cromarty, the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association and a display by Archeo-08 showing various Native artifacts from the local Val-d’Or area.

Wapachee finished his talk on a positive note. “Recently, other cultures have begun walking on common ground, reaching consensus that now is the time to make the important turn in our history. The effort we see today to go green is exciting. People around the world, even a good number of corporations are starting to live under the same principles as our people have for generations.”

Symposium organizers will start planning themes for next year’s conference by September.