Canada gambles with Aboriginal forests and economies

WINNIPEG, Manitoba - Eight First Nations young adults sit at a picnic table in a quiet garage on the outskirts of Winnipeg. They listen to an elder speak about how traditional values can still apply in their new lives in the city.

Young people like these arrive daily in cities throughout Canada, driven from reserves where forest-based economies and subsistence have been ruined by irresponsible logging, watershed poisoning, and non-recognition of treaty rights and Aboriginal title to traditional lands.

"When I have stood in those places that have been clear-cut," the elder said slowly," I can almost hear the trees, crying for their brothers."

First Nations reserves are now a concern of the global environmental community as treaty rights cases and land claim settlements are making Aboriginal socio-economic conditions as integral to the high-stakes game of preserving Canada's forests.

In October, Global Forestwatch Canada, a project of the World Resources Institute, will release for the first time a report on the socio-economic conditions in Aboriginal forest communities. This is an adjunct project to their main report on Canada's Intact Forests to be released this month.

"This is the first time we have looked at these demographics," said Peter Lee, national coordinator for Global Forestwatch Canada. We have a mandate to see who benefits and who does not benefit. Many of the Supreme Court decisions are affirming their rights. It's an evolutionary process, but it seems to be pointing in favor of increased rights."

The rapid pace of court decisions and land claim settlements continues as evidenced by the recent court rulings in New Brunswick and Ontario, and the Dogrib land settlement.

A New Brunswick court found for the Mik'maq treaty right to harvest timber on traditional lands. The decision stated that Aboriginal title to the Miramichi area in New Brunswick was never extinguished.

Joshua Bernard, of the Pabineau First Nation, was acquitted in late August on the charge of illegal possession of Crown timber after cutting down 23 trees on traditional lands. Any appeal has been stayed for a one-year period pending consultations between First Nations and the province on access to forest resources.

In Ontario the court has ruled against Grassy Narrows First Nations' effort to expedite a stop to clear-cutting on their 2,500-square-mile traditional lands, an operation of the Abitibi-Consolidated of Montreal.

In the Northwest Territories, the Dogrib have been granted substantial rights to the resources of a territory the size of Belgium.

Global environmental community attention is intensifying on these events because of the damages to Canada's forests caused by government contracts with resource extraction companies, including forestry operations.

Canada contains more than one third of the world's boreal forest, one fifth of the world's temperate rainforest and one tenth of the world's the total global forest cover, according to the Global Forestwatch.

Eighty-five percent of Canada's reserves are within the boreal region.

The organization estimates that in 1996, the forest industry generated more than $68 billion in sales and $11 billion in wages from the industry's key sector, logging, which is based on frontier forest harvesting and clear-cutting.

The October report's analysis of Canada's 1996 Census statistics shows that the wages of reserve Aboriginal people in forested regions averaged only around $13,000 per year.

Only 5 percent of Aboriginal people were involved in forestry jobs in 1991, according to Statistics Canada.

There are tremendous pressures on Aboriginal communities to increase their participation in this sector, according to Jeff Quail of the Grand Council of the Crees. Populations are increasing rapidly and even lands won through settlement claims cannot traditionally support them entirely.

"Everyone wants to sell lumber to the U.S.," he said. "We need to get beyond that, be more creative. In Quebec, it's all down to economies of scale."

Companies are merging and the players are too big now to get in on the game, he said.

Aboriginal people with independent small mills have little chance of success. Business grants and timber licenses are not given to First Nations people unless they are partnering with an established timber company. Even then, Aboriginal mills close when the market is down.

Within this Catch-22, development marches on, fueled by the high consumption of the U.S. market.

In July the Ontario Ministry of Environment announced that it would not consider protection of roadless wilderness and eliminated upper limits to clear-cut areas, according to the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, despite hundreds of letters in protest. Ninety percent of Ontario's logging is clear-cutting.

In June, the British Columbia government approved the Interfor Company's removal of 20,000 truckloads of logs from Clayoquot Sound's coastal temperate rainforest, perhaps the rarest type of woodland in the world.

Provincial carte-blanche to multi-national corporations has backfired in the recent Softwood Lumber Dispute. The U.S quota and tariff backlash to Canada's subsidized wood exports has prompted the provincial government to diversify tenure of timber holdings, offering a small percentage to British Columbia bands, who are demanding much more and have asked the U.S. Department of Commerce to consider licensing of their non-ceded territories as an integral basis of these subsidies. Canada-wide, Aboriginal influence on the use of public land will increase under provincial consultation processes, increased control over reserve land, increased territory, increased capital from settlements, and persistent encumbrances by legal and civil actions, according to a 2000 National Aboriginal Forestry Association report.

Non-timber forest products are also facing the same over-harvesting pressures by commercial companies.

These diversified products are also being rejected by First Nations communities.

"Selling traditional goods won't work because there is too much pressure from the community for real jobs," said Quail.

Deputy Chief Steve Fobister of Grassy Narrows still has hope for a diversified economy, including tourism and forest products, despite the debilitating mercury poisoning his band is suffering from.

There are numerous government initiatives in this sector, with the usual lengthy studies and surveys of academics and marketing professionals, and bureaucratic hoops to jump through.

But the deep pockets required for entry into the timber industry are not always necessary.

Arctic Wild Harvest of Yellowknife is a mail-order and Internet retailer of food delicacies. Owner Karen Hollett uses Inuit and First Nations suppliers of smoked salmon, caribou, and reindeer, and of birch bark syrups and wild rice.

Hollett started with two products working out of her kitchen five years ago. She has just opened a retail store, employs three people and now sells 200 gourmet foods. She seemed puzzled when asked on whose land she gathers her berries.

"We get our berries from the bush," she said.