The Cree Nation Government and the Quebec government have officially designated 23 territorial reserves in Eeyou Istchee for inclusion in the Quebec Register of Protected Areas. These selected areas were first announced in December, almost doubling the legally protected portion of the territory from 12% to 23%.
With the new protections announced May 21, Quebec has now met the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity target to preserve 17% of its land area. Establishing a network of biodiversity conservation zones is also integral to the Grande Alliance development partnership between the Cree and the province.
“These areas, carefully selected by community members and land users, bear witness to the importance given to prioritizing social and environmental protection within the wider framework of the Grande Alliance,” stated Grand Chief Abel Bosum. “Community engagement and inclusion of these exchanges, as we continue to protect Eeyou Istchee, remain fundamental for designing a potential development scenario that accounts for the practice of traditional activities.”
The accomplishment is a more than a decade in the making. It follows the adoption of a Cree Regional Conservation Strategy in 2015 by all communities, the Cree Youth Council and the Cree Trappers’ Association. Through extensive consultation, nearly 400 land users helped to identify priority areas for protection.
“We were able to gather a lot of data very significant to the Cree,” said Deputy Grand Chief Mandy Gull. “Areas where tallymen had identified wildlife activities like calving grounds or fish spawning, areas where people had hunted a long time, sites that had historical importance like traditional portage areas, summer sites where families had storytelling attached to them. We even looked at cool information like areas associated with Cree legends.”
Gull made the protected areas file a priority for her term as Deputy Grand Chief, which ends this year. She worked alongside an all-women “dream team” comprised of Chantal Otter Tetreault, Lindsay Notzl and Flora Weistche. Despite their tiny budget, the team gathered partners and developed a proposal for Canada’s “Challenge Fund” that was chosen as the country’s best project.
“We received the most funding in Canada and took almost half the funding in Quebec,” Gull told the Nation. “We did so well that in the end when Quebec was missing area to reach their 20%, they asked the Cree because we had documented everything. We established our own model to create this protected area. It was completely unique, the first of its kind, and custom designed for our needs.”
With the support of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, computer modelling software incorporated Cree cultural features and various scientific data to identify and prioritize potential protected areas. Watershed-based planning focused on headwaters to reduce the risk of pollution from development outside protected regions.
“We were looking at projected data 300 years into the future,” Gull shared. “How climate would affect us, where there was projected flooding or risk of forest fires. We took all of this information and fed it into two computer models – looking at the industrial impact for the northern part of the Cree territory, and then in the south we took into consideration previous and projected forestry activity.”
The priority was to choose pristine areas with high biodiversity and cultural significance. As other types of protection exist for areas already impacted, the team strategically selected zones that could permanently maintain their natural state.
“This 20% is just the beginning of protection for Eeyou Istchee,” emphasized Gull. “The goal was also to make them into living spaces that showcase who the Cree are and what we do with our territory. We asked regional entities: if these protected areas were set aside, in what ways would you make use of them? It was such a long process but so beneficial.”
Discussions are underway on identifying more areas that would meet a target of 30% protection by 2030, and on which kinds of non-industrial development will be allowed. In the meantime, the $5 million obtained during the fundraising process is supporting various conservation initiatives, including wildlife and water studies.
“We’re even doing an ecotourism study to see what potential we have to invite people to the protected areas,” Gull said. “The goal is to make these areas Eeyou parks – not national or provincial parks. Parks for Crees to manage and invite visitors to enjoy the beauty of Eeyou Istchee.”
The resources employed to achieve the new protections will also simplify the establishment of future biodiversity and aquatic reserves, Category III land protections and Indigenous Self-Protected Areas. As the province pursues an ambitious goal of protecting 50% of northern territory by 2035, excluding Nunavik, ensuring Cree priorities are met is always a struggle.
“Quebec could have given more on their side, especially in the Broadback,” said Gull, however. “That’s an area that has been subjected to so much logging and mining activity. We tried to support the community as much as we could. I wish there would have been more dialogue at the local level – that discussion needs a little more steam in it.”
Although an additional 959 square kilometres of the Broadback River Forest are now secured, certain key areas remain unprotected in one of the world’s most carbon-rich areas. Gull would like to see Waswanipi members leverage existing policy and paperwork to push for these protections, which she said Quebec must respond to.
“Sending that message out into the world is how you get Quebec to realize the expectations of the Crees,” Gull asserted. “We need to legislate more in the environmental domain. In my term, I had hoped to see the development of protocols that define Cree activities in the territory and expectation in terms of development. I’m sure this is something we’ll see in the future.”