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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

UN conference in Montreal advances ambitious conservation goals

BY Ben Powless Dec 30, 2022

Quebec Premier François Legault committed his government to protecting 30% of the land in Quebec by 2030 during the opening of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) conference in Montreal on December 6. 

The plan would almost double the amount of protected territory from the current 17%, putting the province in line with a global coalition of countries – including Canada – that are pushing to ensure 30% of all lands and marine areas remain protected. 

Legault said the “Nature 2030 Plan” would give Quebecers more access to nature, protect threatened and vulnerable species, and support Indigenous leadership in biodiversity conservation. 

The plan would have a budget of almost $1 billion over the next 11 years. “Quebec is lucky to have a vast, magnificent territory. It’s very precious,” Legault said. “And we have a duty to bequeath the beauty of this territory to our children.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated the federal government’s plans to protect 25% of all of Canada’s land and oceans by 2025, and 30% by 2030. He also said that 120 countries had agreed to the ambitious target.

Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty told the conference of the Cree Nation Government’s aim protect 50% of Eeyou Istchee by 2035. Currently, 23% of the territory’s 400,000 square kilometres is protected after Quebec and the CNG announced an additional 39,000 square kilometres would be protected in 2020. 

This prohibits industrial development in these areas, including forestry, mining and hydroelectric dams. 

After engaging with communities and tallymen, and cataloguing data such as wildlife areas, spawning and calving grounds, watersheds and headwaters, the information was tallied in a computer program that provided the CNG with options for protected lands. But Gull-Masty made clear that Cree authorities intend to protect more. 

When the CNG made their proposals to the provincial government in October 2019, their data sets nearly matched Quebec’s, which showed her that Indigenous knowledge was on par with Western knowledge.

“We were able to get 23% protected, but we want to build on that and get another 30% set aside,” Gull-Masty said in her presentation. “It may allow non-industrial development – we’re still arguing with Quebec about that.”

She said she thinks this could serve as a model for all 11 Indigenous nations in Quebec. However, she was still concerned about what Quebec means by protected areas in its statement. 

“Indigenous Peoples want a very high level of protection, while the government wants more flexibility,” Gull-Masty explained. She wanted to make sure the Cree Nation ends up with 30% of its territory protected, not just receiving a portion of the 30% of Quebec’s commitments. 

Asked if the Crees could self-declare a protected area, as other Indigenous communities have, Gull-Masty said they had looked at that option when establishing the first 23%, but decided they wanted government recognition. 

She said though that this was not off the table if Quebec doesn’t protect the areas the CNG deems as high priority. 

“If we need to, we have the guts to declare areas set aside and ensure we have a strong voice to let industry know there is zero acceptability in these areas, they’re precious to us,” she told the Nation. However, she said the success in obtaining the first protected areas gives the CNG the confidence it neeed to continue the partnership.

The Cree received $5.4 million in federal funds in 2019 to sustain conservation efforts through 2024, with contributions from the province and philanthropic groups. Gull-Masty said that money was going towards protected areas and several baseline projects and studies.

These include studies that monitored marten populations around Waswanipi and Waskaganish in winter 2022, moose population surveys planned for winter 2023, recording units deployed for breeding bird surveys near Mistissini and Wemindji, and environmental DNA research into yellow sturgeon and other at-risk and culturally significant species. 

They also include Cree culture baseline studies to help develop a cultural resource management policy, define ethical research guidelines, digitize archival archeological material, and create an Elder-youth video series on Cree culture and environmental values. 

The CNG also began a feasibility assessment on establishing a National Marine Conservation Area in eastern James Bay. 

Part of the CBD negotiations revolve around how contributions to the Global Environmental Fund would work, and if Indigenous communities would be able to have direct access to those funds. 

In that same presentation, it was revealed that the CNG is looking at collecting industrial land taxes that normally go to the federal and provincial governments. They are also looking at carbon offsets, green banks, establishing Indigenous Land Trusts, while seeking more federal funding. 

Gull-Masty said the CNG expects a part of the “huge financial announcements” made at the negotiations, which include Canada’s commitments to a new First Nations National Guardians Network.

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.