JP Gladu is a senior researcher at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and an Aboriginal business leader. Ken Coates is a Distinguished Fellow of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan.
Sometimes the smallest stories foreshadow the greatest transformations. A decade ago, Saulteaux First Nation, West Moberly First Nation, the University of British Columbia and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative formed a partnership to protect the Klinse Za herd of mountain caribou in central British Columbia. The herd population had almost completely collapsed, to less than 40 animals, but has since over 110.
Caribou hold a special place in many Indigenous cultures, providing a primary source of food and playing a vital role in community life. They are also a touchstone species – when threatened, a decline in their well-being is an early indicator of impending ecological collapse. Across North America, once-large caribou herds are now in grave danger. In some areas, caribou hunting has been shortcut considerably to protect herds, and indigenous peoples were the first to be affected by these ecological changes.
In many areas, native caribou food production has fallen precipitously. But this is only the beginning. Prohibited from hunting, fishing or trapping due to other pressing conservation imperatives, indigenous peoples are increasingly losing crucial traditional rights. learning opportunities and vital access to land. When hunting is restricted, young Aboriginal people are not introduced to the harvesting practices that have sustained their communities for thousands of years.
Indigenous peoples bear most of the burden of ecological deterioration; environmental restrictions can cause cultural decline in ways that few or no non-indigenous people enjoy. Although forcing a commercial fisherman to reduce operations can be devastating, and non-Indigenous hunters can be deeply upset by hunting restrictions, the consequences fall far short of the impact on First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.
Losing access to land is equally destructive. When separated from their lands, indigenous peoples lose access to key elements of their culture, including their languages, traditional place names and family activities. Indigenous knowledge is also essential to help fight climate change; by separating communities from their lands, we unnecessarily endanger an essential knowledge system.
In response, Indigenous peoples have stepped forward to take on a greater role in environmental stewardship in Canada – the collaboration of the Klinse-Za caribou herd is an example. The governments of Nunavut and northern Quebec have found ways to share information and authority over natural resource management. Modern treaties negotiated between governments and Indigenous communities in yukonthe Northwest Territories and British Columbia have transformed top-down environmental management regimes into co-management regimes with high-level Indigenous participation (treaties remain work in progress; merging Indigenous and Western scientific knowledge is an invaluable but challenging process).
Equally important is the growing number of indigenous communities claiming their rights to manage their traditional territories. In the Yukon, for example, the Carcross-Tagish First Nation declared in March that any new development on their territories must go through their approval process. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc of British Columbia are setting up a resource law guarantee their involvement in all development activities in their territory. And the Mi’kmaq First Nations of Atlantic Canada use their set by court rights to assert their independence in the management of their fisheries.
In Northern Ontario, a more complex scenario is unfolding. The Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry is embarking on a major transformation of the region’s wildlife, reducing the moose population by issuing more cow moose tags and bringing caribou back to the area. These developments can, in the long term, be good for the environment and even for regional residents. But they are happening without extensive collaboration or approval from First Nations in the region. If government agencies wish to move forward in collaboration with Indigenous peoples and communities, they must do so throughout the process and transparently share their jurisdiction with First Nations.
The ongoing struggle with stocks of salmon, herring and other marine species on the west coast highlights the intensity of these problems. Each year seems to bring more fishery closures and more evidence of the inability of the Western scientific tradition to maintain well-managed fishery populations. And so the First Nations took a step forward.
The Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nation on Vancouver Island recently said they control fishing in their traditional waters. Their rejection of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was downright voiced by former chief Paddy Walkus at a ceremony in March: “We have to take back control, take back what was rightfully ours, because at no time have we given any agreement to anyone to manage or take care of our resources, especially the fisheries resource We all know what has happened recently, the decimation of all species of fish in all of our waters…the damage caused by DFO’s mismanagement.
Similar steps have been taken by First Nations wishing to assert a greater role in the management of forest industries. Aboriginal assertiveness grew rapidly. For the most part, resource developers understand the new realities. Mining, oil and gas companies operating in Canada have assumed their obligations to involve Indigenous peoples in environmental management.
Indigenous participation in environmental affairs must be accepted, not rejected. Indigenous engagement provides a valuable counterbalance to traditional ecological management by governments. First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples have a huge interest in protecting and enhancing their natural environment. Cultural survival demands it, but asserting Indigenous rights is also in the collective interest of the environment and all Canadians.
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