Each spring in the boreal forests of Chapleau, Ontario, not far from the coast of Lake Superior, local Indigenous youth set out to tap birch trees for syrup. In June, after the fireflies come out, they return to harvest materials for birchbark canoes and baskets.
These budding stewards of the forest are members of a youth empowerment program run by Wahkohtowin Development – an Indigenous-led social enterprise rooted in sustainable forestry that serves and supports three local First Nations owners: Brunswick House, Chapleau Cree, and Missanabie Cree.
“Part of our cultural-spiritual connection is the belief that we do everything to make ourselves 100 per cent interactive with that ecosystem: just like the bird, the crawler, the walker, the swimmer, we all rely on each other,” says David Flood (Strong Wolf), an Ojibwe and general manager of Wahkohtowin. “Our spiritual religion exists in this landscape.”
Wahkohtowin pursues its mission with the respect and collaboration of GreenFirst, a local forest products company. Their strong relationship is built on trust, in part owing to the fact that GreenFirst has held FSC certification for nearly 20 years – thus committing to upholding Indigenous rights.
Chris McDonell, chief forester-Ontario at GreenFirst, says the FSC standard has helped deepen its relationship with Wahkohtowin, allowing them to better understand First Nations’ perspectives and goals.
“While the interests of industry and First Nations can sometimes feel far apart, I’ve seen so many instances when Indigenous and non-Indigenous practitioners are out in the woods together, integrating their perspectives into our shared goal of sustainable forest management,” Chris says.
“Together with Wahkohtowin, we’ve modified practices outside of the norms, working to reconcile modern forestry practices with the interests of the communities,” says Chris, adding that their partnership has resulted in the conservation of land for cultural purposes, including birch syrup production and moose habitat protection. They also engage Indigenous youth in surveying and assessments to improve forest renewal.
Supporting Free, Prior and Informed Consent
Historically, formal inclusion of Indigenous interests was not prioritized on a global level. Indeed, Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), a specific right that pertains to Indigenous Peoples, is now recognised in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) – a declaration adopted by the UN General Assembly just 15 years ago.
FSC actively supports FPIC and requires all certified forest owners or managers to uphold its principles in order to earn and maintain certification. Through this, each Indigenous community grants, withholds or withdraws its consent on projects and activities that impact their rights – in accordance with UNDRIP and the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169.
“What FSC is doing globally and domestically here in Canada by implementing UNDRIP and FPIC into the new national forest stewardship standard not only opens the door for economic opportunities and participation from communities, but also drives ecosystem resiliency,” says David Flood.
That standard, says Francois Dufresne, president and CEO at FSC Canada, holds industry players accountable for taking action.
“The goal is that when consumers see the FSC logo, they know they are supporting a company that doesn’t just follow the status quo, but pursues a sustainable global model for how forestry should be.”
A holistic view of the forest
Nearly 1.7 million people identify as First Nations, Metis and Inuit live in over 600 communities across Canada – and the vast majority depend on forests for food sovereignty and security, medicines, clean water, and spirituality. There is also a dependence on forests for wood fibre as demand rises worldwide, requiring a healthy balance between industry and conservation.
Wahkohtowin achieves this balance by collaborating directly with industry and investing in sustainable forestry with FSC certified partners for economic benefits, the chance to grow their communities, and to leave a legacy of healthy lands for everyone.
Kevin Tangie (Big Knife) is lands and resources economic development portfolio holder for Brunswick House First Nation. “I’m proud that our communities are now a lot more educated and do have a voice now,” he says. “Wahkohtowin is helping us to get more sovereignty, deepening our influence on these lands and supporting our First Nation communities to understand the bigger picture.”
For the budding stewards of the forest in Chapleau, forestry stewardship efforts go far beyond sustainably sourced products. These youth are part of Wahkohtowin’s Guardian Program, through which they reconnect with their land and culture.
“We are trying to help foster a sense of identity and of community, and pass down the intergenerational love and knowledge that our ancestors left for us,” says Christina Bekintis (Fire Wolf) of the Eagle Clan who coordinates cultural revitalization efforts at Wahkohtowin. “Whether it’s building a canoe or learning our songs, learning our language, learning the medicines, or being out on the land.”
Many Indigenous Peoples hold close the Seventh Generation Principle – that today’s decisions must lead to a sustainable world seven generations from now.
“Everything is connected and a big part of what we do is understanding that we’re not superior to mother nature – we are a part of it,” says Amberly Quakegesic (Rainbow Woman) of Brunswick House.
“Knowing that the animals need this to survive, we need everything to survive: water, trees, air, and we need it to be there forever so we need to be thinking that way.”