The Waswanipi Cree Tirelessly Defend Their Boreal Homeland

Written with Jennifer Skene

David Dodge / CPAWS

For the last thirty years, the Waswanipi Cree have been under siege, watching as logging trucks encroached further and further into their boreal forest homeland. Today, their only territory that remains untouched by roads and logging lies in the Broadback, a region that still teems with wildlife, clear waters, and old-growth trees—but is under increasing threat. Even as Canada’s federal government looks to ensure the rights of Indigenous Peoples and facilitate Indigenous-led land management, the Quebec government is steadfastly refusing to recognize Indigenous rights to their land, instead pushing for development in the Broadback and other regions vital to Indigenous ways of life. The Waswanipi, despite decades of frustration and failed promises, are staunchly fighting to stop this logging onslaught on their territory and secure a healthy future for their people.

Logging’s Toll on the Waswanipi Cree Way of Life

The Broadback River watershed lies 500 miles north of Montreal in Eeyou Istchee, the traditional territory of the Crees. In this rich boreal forest region, Waswanipi Chief Marcel Happyjack stated, the “Cree way of life still connects us very strongly to the land.” In a few weeks, schools and businesses will close for “goose break,” and many Waswanipi spend several weeks in camps out on the land hunting the birds during their annual migration. In the fall, the Waswanipi will again return to the land for “moose break.” These hunts are part of a broader culture of dependence on the land and forest stewardship that has sustained the Waswanipi for millennia. Melanie Neeposh, the former Waswanipi Youth Chief, described: “All of the traditional cultural activities that we practice out there on the land, that’s who we are, that’s us. Our culture’s out there on the Broadback. Our identity’s out there on the Broadback.”

The Broadback River watershed

Since the 1980s, however, industrial development near the Broadback has taken a devastating toll on the forest and the Waswanipi Cree’s way of life. Between 1980 and 2015, the disturbed area in the Broadback River watershed expanded from less than 113,000 acres to over a million, and the Waswanipi Territory is now fragmented by over 2,400 miles of forestry roads. Only three of the Waswanipi’s traplines, which are areas essential to hunting, trapping, and fishing, remain untouched by roads and logging.

Fishing in the Pristine Waters of the Broadback

The impacts of logging are not short-lived: once the land is logged, it can take over a hundred years for the forest to return to its pre-logged condition. Mandy Gull, the Deputy Chief for the Cree Nation Government, described,

“When we see these large spaces that are clearcuts … we often consider them to be dead zones. There’s no wildlife in these areas. The vegetation doesn’t grow back.”

Cree hunters have found that wildlife do not have enough vegetation to hide from predators and have reported declines in lynx, moose, marten, beaver, and muskrat, which are staples to a traditional subsistence livelihood.

One of logging’s most devastating impacts has been the decline of boreal caribou, a species that holds great significance for the Cree. Eeyou Istchee is home to two caribou herds, which have already been severely impacted from logging and other development and have insufficient habitat to survive long-term without recovery efforts. In addition to the toll this takes on the Waswanipi, their declines are disturbing because boreal caribou populations are a bellwether for the health of the boreal forest; as their populations decrease, it indicates trouble for the boreal ecosystem as a whole. Logging also undermines the Broadback’s vast ability to store carbon in its soils and trees. Chief Happyjack described the region as “literally a shield against climate change.” Degrading the Broadback erodes this shield, jeopardizing global efforts to mitigate the worst effects of a changing climate.

Calls for Protection Ignored

Like so many Indigenous communities across Canada, the Waswanipi have had little on decision making about the fate of their homeland—even though Canadian courts have held that Indigenous Peoples must be consulted “in good faith” about development on their land and accommodated where they are impacted. For more than 15 years, the Waswanipi have tirelessly fought to protect the Broadback and their way of life from logging. Yet, their requests for protection have largely fallen on the Quebec government’s deaf ears, subjugated to industry’s interests. Even where Quebec has protected some areas of Eeyou Istchee, these protections, as, Chief Happyjack explained, “[don’t] protect what should really be protected,” and exclude the some most important areas of the Broadback.  

Clearcutting in Waswanipi traditional territory

One of these still unprotected areas is the Mishigamish, which contains some of the richest intact forest the Waswanipi have left. Conserving the Mishigamish, which essentially means of “protecting the traditional Cree way of life,” has been at the center of the Waswanipi’s fight, ever since they first submitted a plan for protecting the region in 2002. Following years of silence from Quebec, in February 2011, the Waswanipi Cree submitted a formal Mishigamish Protected Area proposal to the provincial government, which was supported by the broader Cree Nation Government (CNG) and neighboring communities. Yet, this vital region remains unprotected and increasingly vulnerable to logging operations.

In ignoring the Waswanipi Cree’s calls for protection, the Quebec government has shirked decades of promises. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, signed in 1975, commits Quebec to protecting “the Cree people, their economies and the wildlife resources upon which they depend.” Continued logging in the Broadback directly contravenes this promise. The latest logging plans also undermine Quebec’s promises under the 2002 Paix des Braves Agreement to adapt its forestry regime to consider the Cree way of life, including through special wildlife protections. In addition, Quebec has failed to live up to its commitment to meet with the Waswanipi to meaningfully discuss the creation of the Mishigamish—a promise made as consolation for leaving the Mishigamish out of protected areas established in 2015.  Nearly three years later, Quebec has met with the Waswanipi under this taskforce to discuss the Broadback only once, back in 2015.

Instead, Quebec is facilitating more logging in the region—including in the Mishigamish—undermining the Waswanipi’s efforts to protect their homeland. In early 2018, Quebec released new plans for integrated operational forest management (PAFIO), despite clear Waswanipi opposition to them. These plans would allow logging and roads to begin chipping away at the last intact forest the Waswanipi have left, including critical caribou habitat. This would be an enormous blow to the Waswanipi, wildlife, and the world. 

Figure 1: Logging Plans In and Near the Mishigamish

The Need for Indigenous-Led Land Management

Quebec’s consistent prioritization of industry over Indigenous lands and ways of life is quickly falling out of step with national and international trends toward amplifying Indigenous voices. The Waswanipi are not alone in leading the way in protecting the boreal forest. Other Indigenous communities in Quebec and across Canada are developing land management plans based on both traditional and Western knowledge and science to ensure their territories are protected for future generations while enabling sustainable economic development. The importance of Indigenous-led protection is also increasingly being recognized globally. Later this month, Indigenous Peoples from around the world will meet in New York for the annual United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). There, they will discuss the theme of “Indigenous Peoples’ Collective Rights to Lands, Territories, and Resources.”

The Waswanipi’s decades-long fight to protect their homeland demonstrates the importance of placing Indigenous voices front and center in land management decision making. It is well past time for Quebec to heed the calls of the Waswanipi, along with those of other Indigenous communities calling for their right to dictate the future of their land. The Broadback is too important to lose, with ramifications not just for the Waswanipi, but for the entire planet. Who better to steward it than the Waswanipi, who have done so for millennia?  

About the Authors

Anthony Swift

Director, Canada Project, International Program

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