Canadian First Nations Seek to Protect Forest Homeland

By winning protection for their boreal forest, indigenous peoples help slow global warming.

He didn't mention his name, only that he was 62 years old and belonged to the Poplar River First Nation, indigenous people who live on the east shore of Lake Winnipeg, in Manitoba.

Then he talked about his childhood. When he was seven, he was separated from his family and sent to a Christian boarding school far from his village. He wasn't allowed to speak Ojibwa, his native language, and risked punishment for so much as mentioning a traditional prayer or ceremony.

At the mercy of the teachers and administrators, he says, he was beaten and abused. He endured cold, hunger, medical neglect. Only when he was 14 did he see his parents again. Everything that had stood for home was now foreign.

"I didn't recognize my mother," he explained. "I stayed with my auntie."

Such stories are common  among indigenous peoples of Canada, known as the First Nations. In recent years they have begun to talk openly—through an official truth and reconciliation process—about the effects of a long-standing national assimilation policy.

Between the late 19th century and the mid-1990s, when the last "residential" school closed, tens of thousands of indigenous boys and girls across Canada were routinely abused—to "kill the Indian in the child," as one official had put it.

The truth and reconciliation process is part of a larger movement among the First Nations of Canada to force the government to honor treaties relating to indigenous sovereignty and to return control of ancestral land taken away during colonization. Much of the land in contention is wild, as well as rich in timber, oil and gas, and minerals. The traditional territory of the Poplar River First Nation, for example, is the size of Yellowstone Park and mostly undeveloped. Like other First Nations, the people of Poplar River want it to stay that way.

Consequently, the effort to regain control of ancestral land has become a potent environmental strategy, especially as the world's industrialized countries go to ever greater extremes to satisfy their appetite for natural resources. (Related: "Naomi Klein on How Canada's First Nations Can Take on the Oil Industry and Win")

Renewing ties to the land, says Sophia Rabliauskas, of the Poplar River First Nation, is the only way "to keep the heart going, to keep the flame from dying out." The way that aspiration has played out in the Poplar River and neighboring communities east of Lake Winnipeg—the Bloodvein First Nation, Little Grand Rapids First Nation, and Pauingassi First Nation—has inadvertently placed them in the vanguard of the definitive environmental battle of our time.

That's because that territory encompasses a vast section of unspoiled boreal forest—a crucial front in the campaign to slow climate change. If the trees are left standing, and the soil undisturbed, the immense amounts of carbon they contain won't be released into the atmosphere as heat-producing carbon dioxide.

But becoming part of a global campaign wasn't on the minds of Sophia Rabliauskas and other Poplar River leaders when they started trying to reclaim the place they simply call the "bush."

Their aim was as simple as it was bold—to become the guardians of their traditional territory. To that end they created a land management and conservation plan while recruiting their First Nations neighbors to join them in what has been a decades-long endeavor.

Eventually, in 2011, the provincial government relented, giving the Poplar River First Nation control over an area known as the Poplar/Nanowin Rivers Park Reserve.  

The reserve, home to most of the band's 1,700 members, covers only 3,800 acres, but the Poplar River First Nation's historic territory stretches eastward from the lake almost to the Ontario border—about two million acres of lowland forest and bog, or muskeg, that the provincial government officially considered unoccupied as recently as the 1990s.

Now the people of Poplar River and their three neighbors in southeastern Manitoba— along with Pikangikum First Nation in northwestern Ontario and representatives of two provincial parks—are pressing UNESCO to designate their combined territory as a World Heritage site.

They call the region, which is the size of Belgium and straddles the Manitoba-Ontario border, Pimachiowin Aki—"land that gives life."

If approved, Pimachiowin Aki would be recognized for its world-class significance as both a cultural site and a natural site—a rare distinction.

The Spark for Action

"We had to prove we're here," Rabliauskas says, referring to the challenge of winning a measure of sovereignty over their land.

One incident in particular underscored how important that proof would become, and it involved Ed Hudson, a community leader.

During the early 1980s, Hudson and his mother's uncle were following a creekside beaver trapline when they came upon No Trespassing signs nailed to trees on both sides of the stream.

With the government's blessing, outsiders had built fishing and hunting lodges between Lake Winnipeg and the Ontario border.

Being told not to enter traditional Poplar River territory infuriated Hudson, then in his early 30s. Not one to back down from a fight, he wanted to destroy the signs, then pay a visit to those who had posted them.

But the older man advised his apprentice to be patient. "He always said to be respectful, to work within the law," Hudson explains. "We're still the Queen's Indians," he adds in jest, referring to Canada's symbolic relationship to the British monarchy.

Following discussions with provincial conservation officers, the signs were removed, and a confrontation avoided.

But the implications of the incident and others like it were clear—at least to the Poplar River elders. "They told us people would come for our resources," Hudson says, "that we had to prepare."

Exhibiting an unusual degree of foresight and political savvy, the elders, most of whom have since died, urged the band to collect individual stories and record the history of the community, showing how the people had used—and continued to use—their ancestral lands.

They advised that this be done in a way that would satisfy officials in Winnipeg, which is to say, in written English—no easy task for people who still relied on oral traditions and for whom the province's majority language was largely foreign.

"No one knew what a land management plan was," Hudson says, "but that's how it started."

The first plan was modest, limited to a swath of forest from the village 25 miles upstream, and extending only five miles from the Poplar River on each side. The plan included a request that traditional traplines be respected.

How the government responded, after getting over the shock of a First Nation claiming provincial territory outside its officially recognized reserve, revealed a deep cultural divide.

"We'll allow you to lease the area," officials said. In other words, pay for something you already own—if, that is, indigenous people viewed ownership in such terms.

"The land doesn't belong to us," Hudson says. "It belongs to our children." The Poplar River leaders withdrew but didn't give up.

Sovereignty Through Solidarity

There then followed a remarkable chapter in the life of the people of Poplar River, as well as their First Nation neighbors—one whose ending has yet to be written but which has already inspired other indigenous groups, such as the Maori, in New Zealand, and the Fiji islanders.

The Poplar River band continued working on their land management plan, never doubting that the area should be controlled by the people who had lived there for 6,000 years.

Meanwhile, environmental groups launched a campaign to preserve the world's boreal forests, which cover most of Alaska, Canada, and Scandinavia, as well as much of Russia.

Canada seemed especially promising because a great deal of its original forest remained intact. Some 1,500 scientists from countries around the world petitioned the Canadian government to protect at least half of its boreal and to closely manage development on the rest.

With the technical and financial help of organizations like the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Poplar River First Nation enlisted archaeologists, biologists, and other experts in its cause.

"We compiled lots of data, as they call it," Hudson says.

The band also hired Ray Rabliauskas, Sophia's husband, a non-native resident of Poplar River whose familiarity with both English and Ojibwa made him an ideal go-between during the many meetings that took place in Winnipeg.

Ray, Sophia, Hudson, and others returned again and again to the capital to argue for sovereignty. "I really enjoyed those days," says Hudson, who readily admits that, like his compatriots, he was learning on the job.

Even so, it appears that the government was often one step behind Poplar River, failing to appreciate the growing sophistication of the leaders, who saw themselves as doing nothing more than obeying the last wishes of their elders.

They moved closer to fulfilling that pledge in 1999, when Manitoba granted temporary—five-year—protection to Poplar River's entire historic territory.

In effect, the decision was a ban on all forms of development the Poplar River community deemed undesirable: No commercial logging, no mining, no dams, no power line corridor connecting hydroelectric projects in the northern part of the province to urban areas in the south—all of which the government had previously considered.

Whether the interim status would become permanent was far from certain, however. Nor was there a guarantee that Poplar River would exercise real control over the region. And both worried Hudson and the others, who were growing increasingly concerned about young people leaving the reserve. "More would stay," he says, "if there were more to stay for."

Despite the uncertainty, the region's people set their sights even higher. Near the time the provincial government granted temporary protection, the First Nations met in Little Grand Rapids to discuss several issues, including applying for their territory to become a UNESCO World Heritage site: Pimachiowin Aki.

Soon they forged a cooperative stewardship accord saying they would work together to regain sovereignty and preserve their territory.

"The more intertwined it is," Sophia Rabliauskas had said during the lakeside spiritual retreat in 2010, "the stronger it becomes."

After the five First Nations signed the accord, Hudson, Sophia and Ray Rabliauskas, and other representatives of Pimachiowin Aki met with leaders of both the Ontario and Manitoba governments.

That led to the inclusion of two parks—one in each of the provinces—creating a continuous, mostly wild region that stretched across 40,000 square miles, all of it ancestral Ojibwa land.

Building Roads and Going Online

Before that fateful day when Ed Hudson found No Trespassing signs on a family trapline, the village of Poplar River had been accessible only by boat and plane.

The community subsequently built a road from the village southward for about 90 miles, paralleling Lake Winnipeg. During the winter, a maintenance crew plowed a path from the end of the road five miles across the ice to Pine Dock, a fishing outpost on the west side of the lake that's connected by highway to Winnipeg.

Eventually trucks replaced snow machines, ATVs, and canoes as the primary mode of transportation on the reserve, and roads and bridges were built to accommodate them.

Winter shopping trips that initially focused on necessities soon expanded to luxury items like TVs and computers. Today more than a hundred Poplar River homes have Internet service.

What remains of Poplar River's isolation won't last much longer. In their blueprint for the future, the elders asked Hudson and his contemporaries to include a year-round, all-weather road to extend the winter section all the way down the east side of the lake to Winnipeg.

"They told us the kids would need it," says Sophia Rabliauskas. "Just not in my lifetime!" she adds with a laugh. In 2007, Rabliauskas was awarded a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for the groundbreaking work she and her Poplar River neighbors had done on behalf of indigenous sovereignty and forest conservation, including convincing the Manitoba government to extend interim protection—if necessary until 2014.  

It wasn't. In June 2011, after a nerve-racking 12-year wait, Manitoba decided to protect in perpetuity all of the Poplar River First Nation's traditional territory.

Now, for the first time since European settlement, their homeland was under their own control.

That left one more step in realizing the vision of the elders—the designation of Pimachiowin Aki, which would increase the protected area fivefold. Once again, without intending to do so, tiny indigenous communities in a remote part of Canada found themselves in the forefront of global change.

The Canadian government, on behalf of the First Nations and provincial parks partners, submitted the World Heritage site nomination in January 2012. The following year, during its annual session, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the World Heritage Committee confounded everyone back in Canada by voting to defer the nomination.


The committee realized that the UNESCO evaluation criteria were flawed. Although they'd approved a small number of so-called "mixed" sites before, they'd never dealt with one so large, nor, more importantly, one in which the cultural aspect of the site was not embodied in a major structure, like a cathedral.

Poplar River and partners had proposed something very familiar to them but alien to UNESCO: What makes Pimachiowin Aki worthy of heritage site status is not its natural or cultural elements as separate entities but rather the special bond between the two.  

To Canada's First Nations, indeed, and to aboriginal people everywhere, the notion that culture exists apart from nature is a kind of madness that's at the root of our environmental troubles.

During the 2014 meeting of the World Heritage Committee, held in Doha, Qatar, one of the committee advisers referred to the Pimachiowin Aki experience as a "traumatic process that asked some fundamental questions about how we work … particularly in territories of indigenous people."

The committee agreed, voting to review, at the next annual session, this coming summer, the way such nominations are evaluated. Poplar River and the other First Nations resubmitted their proposal on January 28.  

A final decision on Pimachiowin Aki is expected in summer 2016.

Meanwhile, the people of Poplar River have been implementing the management plan the government approved in 2011.

A new trapping policy, aimed at maintaining beaver and other populations, is being developed. Looking to tourism and recreation as a source of revenue, the reserve now issues fishing licenses to outsiders. And community members are discussing ways to create jobs—in education and conservation, for instance—making it possible for youngsters to find well-paying, meaningful work in Poplar River. "We have to get ecology into the classroom," Ray Rabliauskas says. "We have to get kids back into the bush."

And if the allure of the outside world proves irresistible to the next generation, the area will nevertheless retain its character—as a cultural sanctuary the First Nations people can always return to and, as a bonus to us all, a natural preserve that will help counter the dangers of global climate change. Two aims—one local, the other global—braided together.

But neither would be possible without sovereignty. "Our spiritual values come from the land," Ray Rabliauskas says. "Having the land makes it real."

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