In Quebec, Cree tallyman Don Saganash has been hunting in the province’s boreal forests for years. His father, grandfather, and other relatives had done the same. The family lineage was embedded in these woods long before the first European settlers arrived in Canada. The changing climate and industry have threatened it and, in turn, the livelihoods of the Cree people. However, the Canadian government has a plan: empowering the Tribe to protect the land from encroachment.
The Broadback forest where Saganash hunts is a part of one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. Essentially, 3.2 million acres of trees and moss sequester up to 208.1 billion metric tons of carbon gas, along with the rest of Canada’s 1.4 billion acres of boreal forests.
Protecting these areas has never been more critical in the fight against climate change. Being one of three nations containing 70% of the world’s untouched forests — Brazil and Russia are the other two — Canada’s leadership has recognized the need to keep loggers away from boreal lands. The woods contain 70% of Canada’s Indigenous population, and they have called them home for centuries and rely on them for economic opportunity.
For this reason, in 2021, the Canadian government passed a massive economic assistance package for Native peoples in forests like the Broadback. A $340 million investment supports Tribes like the Cree to help sustain the Tribal economies and preserve the forests.
“Indigenous peoples are key partners as we work to protect more nature, conserve biodiversity, and combat the worst effects of climate change. We understand that Indigenous peoples have a deep knowledge and understanding of land management,” said Jonathan Wilkinson, Canadian minister of natural resources and the former minister of environment and climate change. More than 50 Native communities have received funding to oversee conservation efforts.
What are some of the economic benefits of boreal forests? Not only are they perfect for sequestering carbon, but they purify air and water and help regulate the natural climate of Canada. The idyllic waterways that connect the different parts are ideal for hydroelectric power, mineral and energy resources, and eco-tourism. These types of industries benefit Indigenous communities and Canadians everywhere.
This effort is creating a new understanding among non-Native Canadians about the pivotal role Indigenous people play in protecting the environment. It’s all about harboring a better future for new generations.
“We’re thinking three generations ahead,” Saganash said about teaching younger Native people about hunting in the boreal forests. Without them, a tradition passed through many family lines would be gone.
“Programs like the Indigenous Guardians initiatives help support Indigenous peoples in protecting and conserving the environment, and help all Canadians to learn more about Indigenous ways of knowing for this generation and seven generations to come,” said Carolyn Bennett, former minister of crown-indigenous relations.
The Cree Nation has advocated heavily for federal protection of boreal zones for years. With the funding, the Tribe can protect animals like woodland caribou.
In addition, the waterways the Cree use to travel around the forests will be even further protected.
Since they have such a deep-rooted knowledge of the land, it makes perfect sense for people like Saganash to become “guardians” of the woods. They can shield it from natural threats like wildfire and against human interference.
Still, challenges remain for the Cree community in Quebec. Logging companies are testing the limits of where they are permitted to conduct operations. Some Cree members think the Quebec provincial government isn’t doing enough to enforce conservation efforts. While the Canadian government funding is helping, more vigorous policy enforcement will be needed to keep logging out of the Broadback and other boreal zones.
The Tribe has the backing of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The protection of boreal forests is critical for the Tribe’s ancestral homeland and the entire world. As stated by Chief Marcel Happyjack, they are “a shield against climate change.”