Breathing Lands

It’s time to permanently protect 1.3M hectares of ‘breathing lands’




I’m willing to bet most of those living in southern cities are completely oblivious to how the land protectors of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation have been working hard to keep the planet healthy.

Well, now it is time to take notice, give a bit of thanks to the Oji-Cree community and help protect the northern land — for the health of all of us.

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug — KI for short, and also known as the Big Trout Lake First Nation — is about 600 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, high in the boreal forest region of northwestern Ontario. It is one of the largest intact examples of what scientists call “carbon storehouses” left on the planet. The people of KI call it the “breathing lands.”

KI has sent Environment Minister Catherine McKenna a proposal to make a 1.3-million hectare swath of that land into what’s known as an Indigenous Protected Area. If the proposal is accepted, it will be a “gift to the world,” the community says. They are now waiting to hear if their $1.2 million, four-year, proposal — made in partnership with the neighbouring Wapekeka First Nation — is one of 27 Indigenous-led protection plans announced by the minister on Monday. And KI is also waiting to see if the Ontario government will step up by refusing to allow mining and development in the protected area.

KI Chief Donny Morris told me on Tuesday that he expects the community’s plan to be federally approved but he “hasn’t seen any documentation” yet from Ottawa.

And he hasn’t heard anything from Ontario. Morris says he wrote to Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford on June 26 to ask for the province’s support after hearing nothing from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry about the plan. Currently, KI says 47 per cent of the watershed does not permit mining or forestry; under the protection plan, the remaining territory would be withdrawn from mine staking.

If all three governments were to agree to this — KI, Ontario and Ottawa — it would be a step toward reconciliation as it would affirm the “leadership role Indigenous people have within our homelands,” Morris said in the letter. This would also help Canada and Ontario reach a goal of protecting 17 per cent of land and water by 2020, as agreed to in the global Aichi Biodiversity Target.

“I don’t know what is going on with this Ontario government,” said Morris, who added the community’s history with Rickford stretches back to before his days as the MP for Kenora in the Harper government. In fact, people in KI first knew the current MPP for Kenora-Rainy River as a community nurse and a lawyer.

“He is pretty well known,” said Morris. “I thought he’d be more responsive to our needs in the north.”

Maybe Rickford’s response got lost in the mail. His office told me it did get back to Morris on Aug. 19, only to tell him that the “Crown land” in the Far North isn’t his ministry’s responsibility — it’s managed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

“They have to understand we are the government of this land in the north. We have a treaty with two governments — Ontario and Ottawa. We want to protect the water, the land. Why can’t I be part of the decision-making process? Work with us, and we’ll work with you,” Morris said.

KI has a history of being a fierce protector of the land. In 2009, it cost the McGuinty government $5 million to settle litigation involving KI and a mineral exploration firm after a tense dispute that led to the jailing of six KI community members.

In 2011, the people of KI issued a watershed declaration covering the Fawn River and their home lake of Big Trout, protecting it through KI First Nation traditional knowledge and authority, laws and protocols. That protection also extends to boreal caribou, wolverine, moose, a variety of fish and countless migratory birds.

Elders have taught us that if you take care of the land, it will take care of you. We know this and so does the United Nations, which noted in its recent report on climate change that lands and rivers under Indigenous ownership and protection are simply healthier.

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