In the Canadian Boreal Forest, a Conservation Ethic at Work
An Interview with Leaders of the Poplar River First Nation.
photo: Manitoba Wildlands Councilor Ed Hudson (second from right) discusses conservation planning.
For thousands of years, the people of the Poplar River First Nation have relied on the trees, plants and wildlife of the Canadian boreal forest for food, medicine and the survival of their cultural beliefs and traditions. Spanning rugged granite cliffs, dense evergreen woods and tranquil marshlands on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, the Poplar River community lands are accessible only by air or water for most of the year; an ice road allows for limited ground travel during the winter months.
The people of Poplar River have fought successfully for years to keep proposed logging, hydropower and mining projects from destroying the beauty and natural resources of their traditional territory. The interview below is drawn from a conversation with Albert Bittern, elder; Ernest Bruce, manager; Victor Bruce, elder; Ed Hudson, councilor; Ray Rabliauskas, land management coordinator; and Sofia Rabliauskas, councilor.
Your community takes its name from the local forests and waters. Can you tell me about the relationship between the Poplar River people and the land?
It began with our ancestors, who were the first people here. We have always depended on the land for nourishment, for the water we drink and the air we breathe. The land also provides the knowledge and the wisdom of our people. As the elders have told us, without the land we won't survive here.
How is the wildlife in your area important to your community?
We depend on the animals for just about everything. We still rely on the beaver, moose, rabbits and fish for food. From the moose hides, we make moccasins and jackets and other things. Years ago, these animals were the main source of our diet -- before we got into Western food. Our people were healthier then because the food was healthier than what we eat today.
photo: Manitoba Wildlands A Poplar River landscape.
What makes your part of the boreal forest such a special place?
There are land masses and delicate ecosystems which have not been touched for centuries by the outside world. At Kettle Rapids, there are natural rock formations that look like kettles when they fill up with water. According to an archeologist, these were dug into the rock during the last ice age, when the boreal forest was being created. Eagles, foxes, bears, wolves, moose, caribou -- we see all of these when we travel and it's just indescribably beautiful.
This is a special place because our people were born here, and they're buried here too. There's a big spruce tree that fell down in one of our rivers many years ago. And it's still there. Nobody's ever moved it. And the boreal forest itself is in its natural state -- our people have not disturbed it.
Your community has expressed concern over the future of this close relationship with the forest. What are some of the challenges you are facing?
For us, the world is Mother Earth. It gives us life, and the trees have a role to play in protecting us and cleaning our systems. If what they say is true, global warming is going to have a lot of negative impacts on our community and our livelihood and the land, because we're interdependent. And we are not an isolated community. In trying to protect the boreal forest, we are addressing the issue of global warming -- which affects the entire world.
Another one of the forces that threatens our relationship to the land is the companies that want to cut down trees, develop roads, dam rivers and mine our area. These outside influences, with their machines and their pens, can destroy us. Once they cut the link between the people and the land, the First Nation people will eventually disappear. To get a helping hand from organizations like NRDC is good. There are many people out there who care about the forest and what it represents.
photo: Wayne Sawchuck The people of Poplar River continue to depend on moose and other boreal forest wildlife.
What kind of impact would industrial development have on your land and your community?
Many people don't understand how interconnected we are with the land, and that when they come here with proposals of hydro-transmission lines and other types of development and logging, they are threatening our way of life. Along with our community, a diverse ecosystem would also be destroyed. This activity would disrupt the migratory routes and feeding grounds of the moose and the waters where the fish live and spawn. When we talk about development, we're not just talking about the people here and now. We have to look at it from seven generations down the road. Whatever we decide to do will impact our children, our great-grandchildren and their children as well.
How have you worked to protect and manage your traditional lands for future generations?
The elders have told us, 'It is your responsibility to look after the land the way it is. Don't destroy it, because you need that land to survive.' That is the message that we must teach our children and our grandchildren. And that is the teaching that we use when we go to meetings and negotiate for protection of the land. Over the past decade we have:
- Completed a land-use and occupancy study -- based on interviews with elders, trappers and others who use the land -- to determine the area that Poplar River considers its traditional territory.
- Conducted archeological studies that show ancient historical occupancy of these lands. We have discovered remnants of pottery and tools that an archeologist has estimated date back 4,000 to 6,000 years.
- Created a land-use management and protection plan, combining traditional knowledge and science with Western science and other types of information gathering. The plan will include conservation guidelines such as what animals to avoid killing at certain times of the year.
- Secured interim protection for 2 million acres of our traditional lands. When our lands management plan is complete we will present it to the province to secure permanent protection for this area.
- Established a healing camp, where the elders instruct about 30 or 40 community members at a time about traditional values and teachings. This has a very positive benefit for our young people, and ourselves as well, in preserving the values that were almost lost.
- Formed a First Nations Protected Areas Accord with the Pauingassi, Little Grand Rapids and Pikangikum First Nations to protect our respective ancestral lands and their resources.
- Approached the United Nations about combining the territories of these four First Nations, along with two provincial parks, into a United Nations World Heritage and Cultural Site. The provincial governments of Manitoba and Ontario are working with us on this.
Why are you working to establish a United Nations World Heritage Site?
It is a way for us and our neighboring First Nation communities to protect our land from logging and development and to bring world recognition to the teachings and knowledge of our elders. It's time that we share that knowledge -- of how beautiful the land is and how to look after it -- with the world.
Why should U.S. citizens be concerned about what happens to the boreal forest?
The forest helps reduce global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide, and so protecting it impacts the health of the planet and everybody on it.
Tell me about your vision for the future -- for your community and for all of us.
We would like to see the forest continue to sustain our people and their way of life. Our young people need to connect to the land and to the spirits of our ancestors. Our protected land is our refrigerator and our medicine cabinet, and we must leave this territory as is, in its natural state, untouched and undisturbed. We've lived here for many years and we haven't destroyed it. We must keep our rivers blue and our air fresh. We must let our forest to grow tall, as it does every year, and remain that way for many, many, many generations.
We speak of a sense of security, seven generations down the path -- and a sense of contributing something to the world for everyone to have. We speak of oxygen. If the forest goes, then that's gone.
Take immediate action to save the boreal forest, an NRDC BioGem.
last revised 6/17/2005
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- In the Canadian Boreal Forest, a Conservation Ethic at Work
- After fighting successfully for years to keep destructive logging, hydropower and mining projects out of their traditional territory, the people of Poplar River are now working to secure permanent protection for their boreal forest homeland.