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Pimicikamak elder surveys damage caused by hydroelectric development

Photo: Timothy J. Rudnicki

As wild and trackless as so much of Canada's boreal forest may seem, the forest's entire expanse has been inhabited for thousands of years. Canada's indigenous peoples have thrived in the boreal by adapting to the landscape in every way. Climate, topography, all the plants and trees and animals of a community's homeland -- these are the elements that define a traditional indigenous culture; these cultures are profoundly connected to their lands.

So-called subsistence forest activities -- hunting, fishing, gathering, trapping and the like -- are still a critical part of many indigenous economies. For example, one-third of the more than 12,000 Cree who reside in northern Quebec's boreal forest still depend on subsistence activities as their primary source of food and income. Today there are about 500 indigenous communities within the boreal forest, many of them beyond the reach of roads and accessible only by air or water.

As industrialization -- industrial logging, road-building, industrial hydroelectric systems, and oil and gas drilling -- chews its way through the boreal forest, the very existence of some of these cultures has been threatened. One example is found in the story of Pimicikamak, a Cree community in northern Manitoba centered on the village of Cross Lake. There, a massive industrial hydropower complex built by Manitoba Hydro has sullied drinking water with sediment, eroded away ancestral graves and cultural sites, and severely impacted habitat for fish, birds, animals and medicinal plants. Pimicikamak, however, is not taking these abuses lying down. The community has been fighting to make the provincial and federal governments honor treaty commitments, to mitigate the damage Manitoba Hydro has done and to promote clean, safe energy alternatives to hydropower.

Ultimately Pimicikamak faces a problem shared by all the indigenous peoples of the boreal: all of us living to the south of the boreal forest need to understand that resources like paper, oil and electricity often are developed at tremendous cost to indigenous communities and their lands. And the best way those in southern Canada and the United States (the recipient of about 40 percent of Manitoba Hydro's electricity) can show respect for indigenous cultures is to conserve -- and thus curb demand for the boreal forest's natural resources.

last revised 7/20/2004

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