OTTAWA – Amid the court challenges, war of words, sit-ins and street protests that have marked First Nations relations with Canada’s resource sector, it might surprise some Canadians that aboriginal land management in this country is being held up as a model to the world.
Members of three remote native communities are in Sydney, Australia, this week, where the World Parks Congress is holding its sixth international summit.
They’re part of a global movement showcasing ways to balance aboriginal rights, cultural protection, resource development and environmental stewardship.
“There’s some real leadership happening in Canada,” said Valerie Courtois, director of the Aboriginal Leadership Initiative for the International Boreal Conservation Campaign, before departing for Sydney this week.
Representatives of the Grand Council of the Cree of Quebec, the North West Territories’ Lutsel K’e and Manitoba’s Poplar River First Nation have been invited to the congress, which meets every 10 years to discuss biodiversity, conservation and the state of the world’s parks and protected areas.
This year, Canada has garnered global attention.
When the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Tsilhqot’in First Nation in B.C. had aboriginal title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of traditional territory, it’s fair to say the decision rattled the country’s resource sector.
“This is not merely a right of first refusal with respect to Crown land management or usage plans,” Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin wrote in the unanimous June 26 decision.
“Rather, it is a right to proactively use and manage the land.”
However that collective title was not unencumbered, said the court, and current generations must not make decisions “that would prevent future generations of the group from using and enjoying it.”
“Nor can the land be developed or misused in a way that would substantially deprive future generations of the benefit of the land,” McLachlin wrote.
The right-leaning Fraser Institute responded to the ruling with an analysis that warned, “There is a possibility that already existing economic development projects may be suspended or shut down.”
The Tsilhqot’in are among First Nations who are now drafting their own resource management and land stewardship policies.
“This is not about saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to development,” said Courtois, who will address a World Parks Congress forum on Saturday.
“It’s an artificial dichotomy. It’s really about how much is enough.”
The real goal is taking charge of managing your own land, she said. For Innu such as herself, for example, survival of the caribou is central to their way of life. If development fails to protect caribou, that’s a failed management strategy.
Aboriginal consent, she said, “allows for a dialogue” and should be seen in a positive light. “It’s a condition for ‘Yes.'”
Steven Nitah is the Lutsel K’e lead negotiator on the creation of the massive Thaidene Nene protected area in the Northwest Territories.
He says the Dene people have been stewards of the land for millennia. Negotiations for the protected area with the federal and territorial governments, now near conclusion, long predate the Tsilhqot’in court ruling.
“This is just a continuation (of historic practice), using modern tools and legislation,” said Nitah. “I think we were ahead of the game.”
Far to the east, along the Manitoba-Ontario border, Sophia Rabliauskas of Poplar River First Nation is among those pursuing World Heritage Site status for a huge range of boreal forest known as Pimachiowin Aki.
Their bid, which was deferred in 2013, has highlighted shortcomings in the assessment process and is seen as a global test case for new ways of recognizing “cultural landscapes” — indigenous people, their culture and their geography together. That’s on the agenda in Sydney this week as well.
Rabliauskas said she’s not anti-development, but resource developments can’t take place in Pimachiowin Aki and they must benefit the people who actually live in the developed area.
“When you stand up for your rights, it’s seen as difficult or confrontational,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Nitah noted the Lutsel K’e negotiated terms of the development of a zinc mine that borders the Thaidene Nene preserve, and Dene rangers will monitor the land for environmental damage.
“It’s not all doom and gloom because aboriginal people have rights now,” he said.
Indeed, for a federal government that has dramatically slashed Parks Canada funding and employment, empowering First Nations rangers or “guardians” to monitor remote land preserves may be seen as win-win.
The Lutsel K’e are training their rangers in traditional lore and land practices, which reinforces cultural bonds.
It’s a model that is already widely used in Australia, and aboriginal land managers from down under visited Lutsel K’e just this month to share best practices.
“In the end, we can’t fail in this,” said Courtois.
“If we fail, we fail our culture. The stakes are really high for us.”