On November 16, McGill University’s Aboriginal Sustainability Project and the Canadian Boreal Initiative hosted a conference celebrating the successes and the challenges facing the Aboriginal communities in conserving the boreal forest as well as personal stories regarding their experience on the land.

Speaking at the conference, titled “The Boreal Forest: our land, our stories, our responsibility”, were Grand Chief Mather Coon Come, Waswanipi Chief Paul Gull, and former premier of the Northwest Territories and former Dene Nation President Stephen Kakfwi. The event’s host was Valérie Courtois, the Canadian Boreal Initiative’s senior Aboriginal advisor.

Canada’s boreal forest is one of the largest tracts of forest in the world rivalling that of the Amazon rainforest in South America. It covers 53% of the land in Canada and is home to over 500 Indigenous communities as well as countless species of plants and animals.

Due to its massive size, the boreal forest provides many economic opportunities to the rural and Aboriginal communities of Canada, such as the natural resources, recreation, hunting, fishing and tourism. Many of the towns in and around the forest have their economies based on the forest industries like logging, mining, oil and gas drilling as well as tourism.

As peaceful and undisturbed as the forests may seem from afar, that is not the reality of what is going on. The effects of a resource-based economy have consumed vast sections of the forest in order to obtain the precious commodities that it holds.

Logging as well as mining companies have been exploiting the southern reaches of the boreal forest, scarring the land with clear-cut forests, mines and an ever-expanding network of roads. This has put pressure on the communities in the area to work on better conservation techniques in order to protect the boreal forest.

The main point that the speakers wanted to convey to the McGill students was this: environmental protection is only one part of preserving the boreal forests. The greater problem is finding a way to balance the use of the forests to make sure future generations can have a fair use of it as well. It’s all about sustainability. We must be able to sustain our communities using all the bounty that the forests have given us. All the while we must be giving back so as not to leave our mark on the land.

Coon Come brought up an experience highlighting this difference. While in Europe to explain why the European Union should not ban seal pelts, he ran into a Greenpeace activist, who asked him why Natives are allowed to go around killing animals and harming the environment. Coon Come laughed and told him, “Your organization is the one backed by those massive corporations that go and destroy the land. You have never been out on the land with your own two feet. I don’t work for the corporations, I work for my children so that they can hunt and live off of the land.”

Kafkwi commented on the differences between Native and European cultures by saying that we are not working on building the largest monuments or the greatest cities. The mountains are our monuments and our ability to leave them as they are is our greatest gift to our young who can experience it as their Elders had.

He spoke about how the system we have is one of bullying. The big guys bully the small communities, taking their resources at a high cost to the locals and leaving scars on the earth. What the system lacks is a sense of love for what we have been given and who we are. In our efforts to preserve the boreal forests, we must work together because we all affect each other.

The tar sands in British Columbia pollute the rivers, which flow up to the communities in the Northwest Territories affecting the locals and no one is being held accountable. This example shows how even industrial action in one part of this vast country can affect distanct communities.

Coon Come related a story about a vision his grandmother had while standing by a river facing a mountain before any of the development even began. He said, “She saw that in the future the mountain would be clear-cut by massive machines, the river would start flowing backwards, and her descendants would have to pay to drink water.”

It was only in the 1990s when Coon Come saw her vision come to pass. “I stood by the river and saw that the mountain was clear of trees, the rivers flowing backwards because of all the hydroelectric projects, and the water is so polluted by the industries that we have to either boil our water or pay for it.”

The challenges that face the Aboriginal communities in preserving the boreal forests were brought up by Gull. As long as the industries aren’t kept in check they will only take from communities and leave once they take everything. If the corporations work with the communities, listen to them and learn what is sacred and what they can develop then sustainability can be achieved.

Another challenge facing them is unemployment. Gull said, “From now until the next five years, I’m going to be having in my community 100 teens turning 18 and employing them is a top priority.”

In the end without those industries moving further north, it is hard to see how the youth will be able to be employed. The Plan Nord is the new economic development plan that encourages the companies to work together with the Cree thereby ensuring dialogue as well as a mutual respect where both sides benefit.

Performing at the conference was Innu singer/songwriter Kathia Rock. Her voice filled the auditorium with the beautiful sounds of her Native tongue. She spoke of her youth, how she came to love music and how Claude McKenzie (of Kashtin fame) taught her a few songs when she was younger. She got the whole audience stomping their feet and clapping along for her last song.

The natural life cycle of the boreal forest, prior to the colonialist period, happened once every 100 years. Forest fires, insects and diseases clear large sections of the forest that need to be renewed. When a forest fire occurs, the seeds of certain species of trees are sealed by a resin that melts when it is heated. The seeds open and begin to re-grow the pine forest which would take two decades. Although forest fires continue to be the biggest destroyer of trees, their function is part of the ecosystem, whereas logging and industrialization are not and can create an imbalance if not done correctly.

Coon Come shared some advice with the McGill audience that his grandfather gave him. He said, “One stick can be broken easily, but if you hold a bundle of sticks together you will find they are much harder to break.” In order to get the sustainable future we want for our future generations, we need to work together so that we can overcome this great challenge.