Valérie Courtois has always felt at home in the bush. Her sense of belonging in the Canadian woodlands where she spent part of her childhood, and which she now calls home, is what ultimately led her to devote her career to protecting the trees. One of fewer than 100 indigenous foresters in Canada today, she considers her spiritual connection to the country’s boreal forest to be at once deeply personal and part of a shared inheritance from her Innu ancestors.
“It’s funny—when I first went into forestry, I thought, ‘This is great, I won’t have to deal with people. I can just deal with trees,’” remembers Courtois, who is based in Happy Valley–Goose Bay, Labrador. “Of course, now that I’m 20 years into my career, it’s all been about people and barely about trees. And that’s a good thing.”
More than 600 indigenous communities live within Canada’s boreal forest, one of the planet’s last great forests, at the crown of the continent. Despite the fact that their ancestors have resided here for millennia, indigenous peoples are facing increasing incursions from industry into their traditional territories, some of which have very little intact forest left. Activities like oil and gas development, mining, and bad forestry management—which wipes out about a million acres per year—threaten many parts of the boreal, undermining indigenous peoples’ right to control their land and impacting their ways of life. In the face of these growing challenges, Courtois has dedicated her life’s work to ensuring they have a leading role in caring for those lands for generations to come.
Courtois is well accustomed to change. Her father is from the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, on the shores of the Peikuakami (Lac Saint-Jean) in central Québec, and her mother is Québécoise, from the Mauricie region. The family moved around a lot during her childhood, following her father to the various stations where he was deployed as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer. Their nomadic life exposed her to different cultures, environments, languages, approaches, and solutions—but also left her feeling somewhat isolated. Going back to Mashteuiatsh and the Innu homeland was always a challenge. “My upbringing made me very aware of what rootedness means, and what a lack of roots feels like,” she says. “So I’m really sensitive to how much effort it takes to maintain any kind of connection, and therefore maybe I have a different understanding of what’s at stake if you lose that connection.”
Eventually Courtois took a job working on forestry issues with the Assembly of First Nations in Québec City, then moved closer to the boreal to work with the Innu Nation in Labrador, where she stayed for more than a decade, first as forestry director and later as environment director.
Today in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, she directs the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI), a four-year-old organization that works to strengthen indigenous nationhood and foster sound land conservation and management. Jokingly describing herself as “a glorified facilitator,” she has brought together indigenous leaders from across Canada—many of whom have significant political experience—to strengthen their hand in land management issues so “they can really fulfill their cultural responsibilities to the land,” she says.
One of ILI’s goals is the creation of protected areas that reflect indigenous law and culture and help to sustain fresh water, local wildlife populations, and a stable climate. Courtois says indigenous protected areas and other indigenous-led conservation efforts across the boreal forest have a pivotal role to play in Canada right now, as the country plans to protect at least 17 percent of its lands by 2020, a commitment made to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
Courtois also advocates for increased Canadian support for the indigenous peoples who care for protected lands on behalf of their communities. ILI is spearheading a National Indigenous Guardians Network to expand the work of those often referred to as the “moccasins and mukluks on the ground”—individuals who monitor forest health, maintain cultural sites, protect sensitive areas and species, and engage in important land-use and conservation planning. (The network is modeled on a similar—and successful—program created in Australia more than a decade ago.) Indigenous guardians contribute economic benefits too, helping communities grow sustainably, for example by opening up opportunities for ecotourism.
As part of the Innu Nation Environment Office, one group of guardians helped develop a plan to manage more than 71,000 square kilometers of Labrador’s forest in partnership with the government. The planning process, begun after a 2001 agreement with the province and implemented by Courtois, put the guardians in charge of the technical and strategic forest management tasks (like assessing aerial imagery, for example), ensured all decisions would be made through community consultations, and incorporated protections for sacred Innu areas.
“A lot of those guardians are immediately thinking about the fact that they’re essentially practicing a lost art,” Courtois says, noting how they’ve been able to address some of the impacts of colonialism, and translate Innu concepts of responsibility to the land into a technical forest management plan. “It’s not something that you can sit in a classroom and learn—you have to be on the land to do that. So a lot of the guardians are thinking about how to transmit this knowledge to the next generation.”
Given the importance of the boreal forest and the nature of the threats it faces, these initiatives could hold the key to its protection—and the protection of the planet. In addition to being the home of indigenous communities, providing habitat to iconic species like the boreal caribou, and providing millions with fresh drinking water, the billion-plus acres of intact forest are also a critical tool in the global fight against climate change. Its trees and soils store more than 300 billion tons of the planet’s carbon, or 36 years’ worth of fossil fuel emissions. But many guardians say that Canadian federal and provincial governments are not doing enough to safeguard the globally important landscape.
After ILI demonstrated the social, economic, and environmental benefits in more than 100 meetings with politicians—“basically anyone who would hear our pitch,” Courtois remembers—Canada last year committed $25 million over five years to stabilize and expand the 30 or so existing guardian programs. Though this sum is just a fraction of the original request, the initial investment is a critical step toward reconciliation between Canada and indigenous communities and a significant development for the true protection of their boreal homeland. And Courtois is hopeful that a larger investment will follow.
“It is our vision that with an increased presence of guardians everywhere in Canada, the whole system of land and resource management and protection would benefit,” she says.
For decades NRDC has worked closely with indigenous conservation leaders in their quest to protect the boreal forest, and Courtois has been a close ally of the organization over the past few years. Jennifer Skene, an NRDC environmental law fellow focused on boreal conservation, notes, “Val has really been our guiding light when it comes to the issues indigenous communities face related to logging and their right to determine how their land is used. She has this dual consciousness—about the desire of communities to manage the forest and grow economically, but also about the importance of maintaining this forest for future generations.”
Her determination and resilience have contributed to Courtois’s success in her role leading the ILI, Skene believes. “She obviously has seen the dramatic impacts industrial development has had on indigenous communities and has worked extensively in oftentimes very frustrating conditions with some governments that are unwilling to incorporate indigenous voices into their policies or consider indigenous rights.”
Meanwhile, the fight to protect the boreal forest is gaining international attention. Earlier this year, both a coalition of U.S. university groups and one of multinational corporations urged Canadian federal and provincial government officials to safeguard the globally important forest. With the destruction of intact forest continuing and the impacts of climate change growing by the day, indigenous leaders, including Courtois and guardians across Canada, represent a ray of hope for all of us.
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