Combining Environmental Stewardship and Economic Renewal in Northern Canada: The Whitefeather Forest Initiative

Project Contributors: Alex Peters, Andrew Chapeskie
website: www.whitefeatherforest.com

Credit: Whitefeather Forest Initiative

Preparing fish in Pikangikum: people are moulded by the land and everything they draw from it, say the Elders Credit: Whitefeather Forest Initiative

The Whitefeather Forest planning area, located in the boreal region of Ontario and Manitoba, Canada, is a holistic network of both natural and cultural features that results from the relationship between Pikangikum (Ojibwa) people and their ancestral lands. This relationship expresses a closeness that comes not only from their knowledge of using the land, but also from a spiritual and emotional connection to the land. Elders’ teachings stress the importance for the Pikangikum First Nation to continue to follow the customs of cherishing the land and all living creatures, and to carry on with the responsibility of “keeping the land”. As Pikangikum Elder Whitehead Moose puts it: ‘Everything that you see in me, it is the land that has moulded me. The fish have moulded me. The animals and everything that I have eaten from the land has moulded me, it has shaped me. I believe every Aboriginal person has been moulded this way.’ For the Pikangikum, the land and people are inseparable. Their territory is not merely a landscape modified by human activities, but a way of relating to the land, and a way of being on the land (Pikangikum First Nation and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 2006).

The “Whitefeather Forest Initiative” combines environmental stewardship with economic renewal strategies to enable the Pikangikum First Nation to develop new resource uses, with the aim to provide urgently needed tribal enterprise opportunities for the youth within their Traditional Territories. The ecological richness of these territories forms a cultural landscape that is of international ecological significance – from vast tracts of jack pine to the wild rice (manomin) stands planted long ago by the Pikangikum people to increase food for fur-bearing and aquatic animals, to the numerous pristine waterways that flow through the forest. The cultural heritage also includes features such as pictographs, traditional campgrounds, portages, and waterway channels.

The Whitefeather Forest Initiative applies a community-based land use planning approach, in which the elders of the community take a leading role in planning through a steering group. The knowledge tradition, language, and stewardship values of the community guide the development of the initiative. The elders, whose knowledge and wisdom are highly valued, work with the community research team members to develop new forest-based livelihood opportunities for the youth of Pikangikum. The goal is to ensure that the maintenance of forest cover and biodiversity and the care of vulnerable species are achieved within a new economic and resource management context that also maintains the vitality and strength of the indigenous language, culture and knowledge tradition of the community. An Indigenous Knowledge Teaching and Training Centre is also a part of the project.

This approach is strengthened through innovative partnerships for education, resource management, and business development with parties that have an interest in the Whitefeather Forest Planning Area. Through these partnerships, Pikangikum seek to continue their role as keepers of the land, while at the same time recognizing other interests and harmonizing them with their own interests. The Whitefeather Forest Initiative is carried out in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. The process to develop the Whitefeather Forest Initiative in general and partnerships in particular is centred on consensus building and dialogue-based decision-making. The essence of the Pikangikum view of partnership was expressed by Elder George M. Suggashie to representatives from environmental organizations: ‘We are happy when people come to us and ask how we can work together. We are very upset when things are done to our land without our participation.’ The research results from collaborations with the Whitefeather Forest Research Cooperative are made available in both Ojibwa and English.

In addition, the project seeks to establish a linked network of protected areas. A Protected Areas Accord was signed in 2002, with the goal of achieving UNESCO World Heritage status. Local knowledge also played a key role in the development of a Community-based Land Use Strategy for the Whitefeather Forest and Adjacent Areas in the context of the Province of Ontario’s Northern Boreal Initiative, which seeks to develop forest management approaches that are ecologically suited to the northern boreal forest.

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