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Many Things to Many People: Aboriginal forestry in Canada is looking toward balanced solutions.

Until recently, it was possible to envision Canada as an endless expanse of trees stretching from sea to sea. Today our forests are in jeorpardy. For the Algonquin Indians of Barrière Lake in Quebec, for the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en Nations in British Columbia, for the Nishnawabe-Aski Nation in Ontario, and for many other First Nations throughout Canada, forest management has become a synonym for community and cultural survival.

For many of Canada's aboriginal peoples, the forests are our home, our hunting grounds, our ceremonial lands. Forests have sustained and engaged us for centuries, but they are falling with unprecedented speed - at the hands of industry and due to short-sighted government policy. It is in this milieu of diminishing resources and increasingly entrenched interests that aboriginal forestry is unfolding.

One thing sets aboriginal forestry apart: a deeply rooted land ethic that has evolved over millennia. Every person on this earth has a land ethic, a relationship with the land, whether based on carelessness or love, apathy or respect, domination or spirituality. For Canada's aboriginal peoples, the ethic "is the fundamental essence of the people's understanding of who they are as individuals, families, and communities," says Garry Merkel, a Tahltan Indian and registered forester. "The people see themselves as a small and very dependent part of a larger web. With this perspective one quickly develops a direct understanding of action and consequences with respect of land use."

Practices emananting from this belief embody respect for the elders and embrace freedom of choice and strong relationships within the family and community. Ideally, in the case of aboriginal forestry the practices would require sustainable community development and balanced use of resources. In reality, our approach to forest management and development is complex. Given often overwhelming economic and social challenges, aboriginal communities in Canada are struggling to preserve our traditions on a shrinking land base dominated by profit-oriented forest companies.

The responses are numerous. In Canada's westernmost province of British Columbia, notes a 1992 World Wide Fund for Nature report, trees are being toppled "perhaps faster than anywhere else in the world." But in the community of Tachie in the north-central part of the provide, members of the Tl'azt'en Nation own and operate Tanizul Timber, Ltd., a budding forestry company. In 1981, Tanizul outbid its competitors to secure a 25-year government license to harvest and manage almost 125,000 acres of forest. As the largest aboriginal forestry operation in the province, Tanizul provides much-needed jobs for local aboriginal people and boosts the community economy.

Tanizul is regarded as a showpiece for aboriginal forestry in Canada, yet even its president, Ed John, wonders about the cultural costs of the fast pace of change the business has brought to Tachie and the Tl'azt'en. "How will we as aboriginal peoples manage these changes?" he asked at a 1990 conference. "As our lifestyle changes, what values of our people will survive?"

Many aboriginal peoples believes that engaging in forestry demands searching for a middle ground between the tug of each community's profound need to preserve traditional culture and the pull of economic need. George Erasmus, former Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the Canadian organization of chiefs, has expressed this sentiment well:

Conservation and development, policy-making and planning often seem to assume that we, the aboriginal peoples, have only two options for the future, have only two options for the future: to return to our ancient way of life or to abandon subsistence altogether and become assimilated into the dominant society. Neither option is reasonable. We should have a third option: to modify our subsistence way of life, combining the old a new in ways that maintain and enchance our identity while allowing our society and economy to evolve.

Within the framework, the National Aboriginal Forestry Association has identified several goals for aboriginal forestry. In a 1992 draft discussion paper, NAFA calls for processes and structures that allow our full participation in forest management, planning, and economic development. Not only that, forest management process must recognize and protect the special aboriginal cultural, social, spiritual, and heritage values that we place on our natural resources, and facilitate access to, and comanagement, of government-controlled and other forests. Finally, forest management should encourage aboriginal people to become professional and technical fosters, natural-resource managers, business leaders, and workers in all aspects of forestry.


Out of Canada's forest industry, one of the largest in the world, come products valued at some $48 billion each year. The forest industry and related businesses employ, directly, up to 900,000 people.

The economic and employment benefits accruing to aboriginal people are dismally low, however, even though many Indian communities are in close proximity to the forest resource. Forestry in Canada has developed largely without our participation and without consulting us about our traditional territories, our places of cultural significance, or the roots of our economic subsistence.

As the original inhabitants of this vast land, we have begun to aggressively exercise our rights to manage and benefit from the forests and its resources. Today, aboriginal peoples see forestry "as one of the main ways out of economic depression and as a vehicle for job creation, community stability, and environmental and cultural enchancement," according to a study conducted by the Intertribal Forestry Association of British Columbia (IFABC) in 1990. "For these reasons, forestry in the broadest sense of economic, social and environmental development is especially important to aboriginal people."

Since the mid-1980s, the surge of aboriginal interest in forest management has been reflected in the emergence of provincial, territorial, and national aboriginal forestry organizations. A consensus is emerging on the urgency of establishing strong collective voices on forest management to reform and assert our treaty rights and inherent aboriginal rights to manage our traditional territories.

Established in 1987, the IFABC was Canada's first province-wide aboriginal forestry organization. The IFABC has advanced the aboriginal forestry agenda in British Columbia, chairing a provincial Task Force on Native Forestry and conducting a landmark review of aboriginal forestry and forest management.

The IFABC was also instrumental in founding the National Aboriginal Forestry Association. Since 1989, NAFA has taken part in national policy discussions, participating in the drafting of a sustainable forest strategy, nurturing consensus among aboriginal communities on forest strategy, and forming a code of practices for aboriginal forestry. NAFA is committed to holistic - or multiple-use - forestry, a concept that implies sustainable developing resources to meet diverse community needs.

Aboriginal forestry organizations in Canada are gaining ground, and our numbers are growing. The First Nations of Saskatchewan Forestry Association and the Territorial Forestry Group, Inc., have emerged in the past two years. At the same time, existing organizations, such as manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, Inc., have become active in integrated forest management. MKO operates on behalf of the 23 northernmost First Nations on Manitoba.

In some provinces, First Nations lay claim to vast areas of land, and we are increasingly winning court battles and entering into successfully negotiations to reestablish our rights to exercise more control over our traditional territories. Without increased access to and control over resources in our traditional territories, our options for exercising true aboriginal forest management will be minimal. According to the IFABC's 1990 study, in the opinion of many aboriginal people in British Columbia, "only with land claims and increased access to resources on traditional territories would real economic and cultural opportunity begin to flow back to Native people."

The pursuit of a land claim is a time-consuming process that can generate a climate of uncertainty that stifles development prospects for both aboriginal peoples and industry. And questions remain: how many decades will the claims process take? Will significant forests remain for our grandchildren?

Regardless of how the claims proceed, aboriginal peoples in Canada will doubtless play a more prominent role in resources management in traditional land-use areas. Therefore, the various levels of government should focus on providing our nations with financial resources to manage our forests and to develop the human resources in our communities that are vital to achieving this goal.

A further target for reform are provincial and territorial land-use systems. Current land-use arrangements do not accommodate the idea of integrated forest management, forcing many aboriginal-run operations to put cultural needs on the back burner. For example, existing tenure systems place too much emphasis on timber production. When a First Nation forest enterprise enters into a tenure arrangement or obtains a license to harvest timber, it must conform to a system of forest management that does not accommodate traditional use. Furthermore, the provincial timber-royalty systems perpetuate an orientation to harvesting wood, thereby jeopardizing the potential for other uses of the forest and compromising the principles of aboriginal forestry.

Moreover, provincial land-tenure systems recognize neither aboriginal and treaty rights nor the local economic benefit of subsistence activities. Canada, its provinces, and its territories, should create forestry policies that reflect the economic potential deriving from such activities as cultural tourism and producing Native-made forest products.

Another option aboriginal peoples are pursuing in engaging in collaborative processes among the many stakeholders in the forest. For example, the Prince Albert Model Forest Project in Saskatchewan in a $5 million initiative developed by industry, government, and aboriginal interests. This effort is part of the Model Forest Program, a five-year, $54 million federal initiative to establish working models of sustainable forestry in each of Canada's 10 major forest regions. Proponents say the program can help fill the research gaps needed to practice sustainable forestry on a large scale, although critics fear it may put a hold on real change in the industry.

The Prince Albert Model Forest Project encompasses almost a million acres in Saskatchewan, most of which falls in territory Weyerhaeuser has a license to harvest. The balance is in a national park, a provincial park, and two Indian reserves. The partners hope the project will promote future cooperation on a large scale in the province's forests.


On many of these issues, a key to advancing aboriginal forestry is the reform of legislation and policies that affect First Nation reserves and traditional territories. First Nations in Canada are currently bound by an antiquated federal system they did not set up and do not control. There is a critical need for amended and new legislation and policies to grant First Nations more power over forestry matters. Otherwise, our forests will continue to suffer serious environmental, cultural to suffer serious environmental, cultural, and economic degradation. On many reserves, most of the prime timber has been logged, with little attention to reforestation or management, with a devastating impact on our traditional way of life.

We now operate within the confines of the Indian Act of 1876, which has dictated how we conduct our affairs for over a century. The act is woefully inadequate when it comes to forestry, since it covers only the cutting and sale of timber on reserve lands. It makes no provision for forest management, nor does it clearly delineate federal fiduciary responsibilities related to First Nations.

Accompanying the Indian Act are the Indian Timber Regulations, enacted in 1954. In his 1992 report to the House of Commons, Canada's Auditor General found these to be "Silent on virtually all of the modern forestry practices that would ensure harvesting of Indian timber on a sustained-yield basis." The Auditor General's indictment of federal mismanagement went on to observe that Canada's Indian Affairs Department has neglected aboriginal forestry affairs and not acted with "professional and due care."

Some First Nations are calling both for significant changes in federal policy on aboriginal forestry and for the federal government to devote significant funds to developing aboriginal forest-management capabilities. In particular, the IFABC and NAFA are drafting a First Nations Forest Lands and Resources Act. This proposed law would offer First Nations a policy framework for management resources and a workable alternative to the Indian Act and Indian Timber Regulations.

IFABC and NAFA are building support among First Nations for the legislation and have initiated discussions with federal officials. While passage of this initiative will require the political will of the federal government and First Nations, in could pay huge dividends over the long term. The legislation would faciliate new relations among First Nations, government, and industry - alliances that would give aboriginal people more access to, and a more equitable share of, natural resources.

In a parallel effort, federal, provincial, and territorial forestry ministers, forest-industry, representatives, and aboriginal forestry, environmental, and labor organizations adopted a new national forest-management strategy in 1992. Embodied in a document entitled "Sustainable Forests: A Canadian Commitment," the strategy echoes the legislative proposal's call for strong partnerships among aboriginal peoples and others. It lays out four principles for aboriginal forest management: * Forest management practices in Canada should recognize and make provision for the rights of aboriginal people who rely on forests for their livelihood, community structure, and cultural identity. * Self-sufficiency of aboriginal communities through economic development requires increased access to resources and business development support as well as the preservation of traditional activities. * Aboriginal people have an important and integral role to play in planning and managing forest resources within areas of traditional use. * A stable environment for long-term, sustainable forest management requires a cooperative resolution of land claims and aboriginal self-government in an honorable, fair, and timely way.

It remains to be seen how this strategy will be implemented. In any case, it signifies progress for aboriginal peoples, since it was the first time we had a hand in formulating national forest management priorities.


No matter what the means for change-whether a land claim, new laws, aboriginal business development, a forest co-management agreement between governments and aboriginal peoples, or a partnership between First Nations or with industry - the success, or failure, of these initiatives will be felt most strongly at the community level. Up and down the roads of aboriginal communities and in our traditional forestry laws and policies will resonate as Canada's aboriginal communities follow the road to self-determination and self-reliance.

In this pursuit, Indian peoples can draw on a wealth of knowledge and experience as we take our rightful place at the forestry table. As Peggy Smith, an aboriginal forester from Ontario, told Native Women, Inc. magazine this past October, "Aboriginal people who remember and respect the traditional ways can provide leadership in building a new way to steward our forests, one that respects all forms of life and all people who rely on the forests."

Achieving ecological, economic, and cultural sustainability is a challenge to aboriginal foresters. As we take up this challenge, we remember those who have gone before. In deference to those of the Seventh Generation, we also look to the future for our descendants to come.


Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, Sustainable Forests: A Canadian Commitment, 1992.

George Erasmus, "A Native Viewpoint," in Endangered Spaces: The Future for Canada's Wilderness, edited by Monte Hummel, Key Porter Books, 1989.

Intertribal Forestry Association of British Columbia, Lands, Revenues and Trusts Forestry Review, 1990.

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