The Cree call their territory “Eeyou Istchee,” meaning “The Land of the People.” For millennia, the Cree have hunted, fished, trapped, and lived on this land in the heart of the boreal forest. In just the last few decades, however, the Cree have seen logging, mining, and other industries degrade their land, threatening their way of life and the species they depend on most like caribou and marten. Because Quebec has turned a blind eye to these impacts and failed to step in on its own to protect the Cree’s territory, the Cree Nation Government (CNG) has put forth their own plan to safeguard the most vital areas of Eeyou Istchee. With this proposal, which would place 30% of their territory under protection, the Cree are seeking to “maintain strong ties to the Cree cultural heritage and way of life, and sustain biodiversity” for generations to come.
Developing the protected area proposal was a monumental undertaking. Currently only 15% of Eeyou Istchee is protected; this proposal would double that. It is also a triumph in uniting Western science with Indigenous knowledge and values. Given the industrial pressures on the territory, it was essential that the proposal encompass the areas of Eeyou Istchee most vital to both the forest ecosystem and the Cree culture. The CNG worked with the Nature Conservancy of Canada to create a computer model that considered watersheds, intact regions, culturally important areas, animals, landforms, soil types, and many other factors. This model generated a list of areas that would be optimal for protection and represent the diversity of the landscape. The CNG then took this list to the Cree communities to identify those places they deemed most important for protecting Cree values and providing food security. The CNG worked with tallymen (who oversee hunting traplines across the territory), land users, Elders, chiefs, council members, and others to determine which areas to prioritize based on their wealth of Indigenous knowledge of the land, built up over generations.
The final proposal contains protected areas for nine of the ten Cree communities. It also includes a Woodland Caribou Proposal area that encompasses the Broadback River watershed, a particularly vital region the Waswanipi Cree have fought for decades to protect. Caribou are declining across Canada, and this region represents a key opportunity to protect critical habitat. The swift protection of this area is especially essential since Quebec has already approved logging in the Broadback, which is set to begin in 2019.
The Cree’s proposal is an example of the groundswell of Indigenous leadership across Canada to protect the land. The boreal forest is being assaulted by industrial expansion, with dire consequences for Indigenous Peoples, species, and the global climate. Yet Canada’s federal, provincial, and territorial governments have dragged their feet, failing to implement any meaningful protections or large-scale solutions to this urgent problem. In the void left by governmental inaction, Indigenous communities have stepped forward, crafting caribou recovery plans, protected area proposals, and Guardians programs. Now, Indigenous protected areas have become central to Canada’s efforts to fulfill their international commitment under the Aichi targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity to safeguard 17% of the country by 2020.
The Cree’s protection proposal is far from finalized. This coming year, the CNG will enter into negotiations with Quebec to determine what of the proposal will be implemented. Quebec’s new government, elected this past fall, will have the opportunity to correct the missteps and inaction of its predecessors. It is crucial, however, that in deciding which areas to protect the Quebec government not only consider environmental factors but also the need to protect the areas that most support the Cree way of life. As Mandy Gull, the deputy grand chief of the Cree Nation explained, “We have to really create these spaces for protection to ensure Cree youth can go and hunt, fish and trap in areas that haven't been subject to any kind of presence. It's vital to our own culture." Embracing Indigenous protection is the best and only way to ensure this globally-important forest is protected. It’s time for Canada’s governments to follow Indigenous Peoples’ lead.