As federal and provincial governments struggle to meet promised conservation targets, the Cree Nation is filling the void by proposing areas protected from development in Eeyou Istchee. It reflects a growing recognition that conservation efforts are frequently more effective when led by Indigenous peoples.
After more than a century of a “fortress” model of conservation, in which Indigenous people and their territorial rights were removed in the creation of national parks like Banff, last year Canada allocated $2.5 million to bring together Indigenous groups with academics to better protect traditional lands and waters while pursuing UN biodiversity commitments.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about protected areas, that we need to let them sit there and nobody is allowed to go,” said Deputy Grand Chief Mandy Gull, who leads many CNG environmental files. “It’s actually quite the opposite. These are areas we want to keep pristine while carrying out cultural activities and being a baseline for monitoring changes in the Cree community.”
The pandemic has slowed negotiations on Quebec’s Grand Alliance agreement to protect 20% of its territory north of the 49th parallel under the Plan Nord development strategy. But Gull is confident that including the protected areas file in the process will help Quebec meet its goal before the agreement’s deadline at the end of 2020.
The Cree proposal identifies 30% of Eeyou Istchee for conservation, a result of years of analysis and consultation with local communities and tallymen. CNG Protected Areas Coordinator Chantal Otter Tétreault collaborated with the Nature Conservancy of Canada using an advanced computer model that layered cultural information with various watershed, geological, climate and wildlife data.
“This model allowed us to incorporate so many types of data, reflecting our needs and different impacts projected up to 300 years into the future,” Gull told the Nation. “We wanted to make sure the areas selected were protected from environmental changes and had high levels of cultural significance.”
Gull promotes this work in exchanges throughout North America and in forums such as the United Nations Climate Summit, gaining insights from other First Nations and vital funding resources along the way. She says the dialogue produced key proponents for their successful proposal to the Canada Nature Fund.
“Our team gained national recognition for work carried out in the Cree territory,” Gull enthused. “It was recognized as one of the most viable proposals submitted and we took 50% of what was distributed in Quebec.”
Gull and others insist that collaborative initiatives must be led by Indigenous groups. Environmental groups increasingly realize that strengthening relationships with First Nations is crucial.
“If we are going to be successful in conservation, we have to unreservedly support Indigenous nations that are interested in protecting land and water,” said Megan Leslie, head of World Wildlife Fund Canada. “We look at where we can achieve our goals by helping a community achieve their goals.”
WWF Canada is increasingly focused on supporting Indigenous conservation efforts. A recent project led by the Wemindji Youth Department is a baseline study of the community’s key freshwater sources, which will then become an annual activity.
“We just signed an agreement with Mushkegowuk Council in southern James Bay,” Leslie said. “This is their work, but we can bring some particular mapping expertise and demonstrate why carbon locked in those lands should be protected.”
In the Broadback Forest, Cree conservationists are working to protect the forest’s endangered woodland caribou population by building community awareness – while collaborating with universities on population studies and range plans.
To slow the herd’s declining population, the CNG closed sports hunting in 2008. It also developed a harvesting understanding with the Naskapi, whose hunters are also accustomed to accessing these animals.
“We wanted to make sure the herd was abundant enough to undertake such sharing agreements,” said Nadia Saganash, CNG wildlife management administrator. “Migration patterns can change so next year they could end up in another part of the territory. If Cree want to hunt in the Naskapi area, they would have the same protocol to respect – when we go to someone’s house you don’t want to offend them.”
While Saganash is also concerned about the region’s moose population, the fact it hasn’t been declared a species at risk makes funding for an aerial survey difficult to obtain. However, the federal government was quick to intervene when lake sturgeon were recently listed as a “species of special concern”.
“We are defining a collaborative agreement with [Fisheries and Oceans Canada], so Cree will be leading the management plan in the territory,” Saganash told the Nation. “If you want to talk about fish, we’ve also collaborated with Concordia and Laval [universities] to develop a research project defining where populations come from to better protect important river habitats.”
To this end, a video on the CNG website details best practices for fishing derbies, including the importance of boat-washing stations to prevent the spread of invasive species from other lakes.
As well, a new Land Keepers program will further empower conservation efforts. The CNG plans to hire 19 wildlife protection assistants as “eyes on the ground” to monitor ecological health, report suspicious activities and promote cultural awareness.
“Throughout the years, a lot we’ve done to protect the land and wildlife populations is thanks to our trappers present in the territory,” Saganash observed. “Land Keepers provides a career opportunity for tallymen and land users to continue practicing traditional activities and protect the land at the same time. Hopefully this will lead to more governance over wildlife in the territory.”