The Grand Council of the Crees

Presentation to the NAFA/Forest Stewardship Council's Meeting on Principle 3

Posted: 2001-08-18


By Romeo Saganash

Wachiya, Good Morning

I would like to thank the organizers from NAFA and FSC Canada for inviting me here to share my thoughts on forest certification and to provide the perspective of the Grand Council of the Crees of Eeyou Istchee. As was mentioned, I am the Director of Québec Relations for the Grand Council. I am also a member of the James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment. With representation from the Crees, the government of Québec and the government of Canada, this Committee was to be the official body addressing resource development in Eeyou Istchee. It was to protect the environment and the Cree way of life while enabling sustainable resource development to take place.

For more than 25 years this Committee has made countless recommendations to the Government of Québec concerning forestry and the improvements needed to legislation, regulations, policy and practices that will make the industry truly sustainable while protecting our rights, our way of life and the environment on which we all depend. These recommendations have not been heeded. Instead the forestry regime and the industry it serves are causing havoc with our way of life, seriously harming the environment and ignoring our constitutional rights. Things simply can not continue as they have in the forest of Eeyou Istchee. There must be dramatic and immediate change. The boreal forest in peril. Our way of life is threatened.

I believe that FSC offers an opportunity to correct the continuing mistakes of the forest industry. However, I must add that my optimism for FSC is guarded. Throughout my life I have watched many new ideas come and go with respect to forestry. In the 1980s it was the concept of sustainable yield that promised a bright future. That idea became sustainable development which was followed by claims that government and industry were to maintain and enhance biodiversity. Then along came the belief that we needed criteria and indicators to measure the impacts of industrial forest and guard against environmental damage. Now we are told that forest certification will save the day. It seems that every few years we have to come up with a new catch phrase to hide the fact that we never fulfilled the goals and objectives of the earlier brave new concepts. With forest certification, I hope that we can all sustain our focus and work to ensure that it does not become just another well-intentioned idea that results in failure.

In order to prevent this from happening, I think it is important to understand what forest certification can and cannot do. The first point that I must emphasize is that the Grand Council views FSC as a tool, not a solution. We see FSC as a way of attaining mutually recognized goals of sustainable forest management. One positive aspect of FSC is that it allows a variety of participants to design standards based upon 10 fundamental principles. Implementing these basic principles should mean that there will be uniformity from one location to the next. Moreover these principles should ensure transparency and allow objective measurement of success and failure.

The need for both uniformity and transparency are vital to the future of the FSC. It is becoming widely respected for its attempts as forest certification in Canada and internationally. FSC's strength is that manufacturers, distributors, vendors and consumers of forest products are meant to be assured that the FSC label is consistent from one product to the next and one region to the next and that the process of certification is open and transparent. This is vital in the global market, as people in places like Europe may have the opportunity to buy FSC products from Canada, the United States and many other countries. Consumers have to be confident that the FSC label, and what it represents, is consistent from one country to the next and from one company to another. To have it otherwise would undermine the entire concept.

It is for this reason that the Grand Council endorses national standards for the boreal forest. To ensure that FSC certification remains consistent from one province to another, we need a standard that can be applied across the country. This does not preclude the development of regional boreal standards. But those standards should refine and improve for specific local conditions what has been set out in the national standards.

Another reason we support the creation of a national set of boreal standards is to prevent different provincial legislation and regulation from denigrating standards. It is unfortunate, but standards always seem to have a way of sinking to the lowest common denominator. And so, if we have a number of regional or provincial standards without a strong national foundation, then forest companies will pressure for adoption of the least onerous set of standards. This also applies to the certification process itself. The steps for gaining certification should be as transparent as possible from one forest operation to the next. For obvious reasons, this applies to the FSC auditors and the process that accredits them as well.

In addressing the need for national boreal standards and uniformity, I think we need to take a step back and look at the response to the FSC and its principles generally. There have been a number of developments, particularly in Ontario, that cause me concern. While I recognize that many stakeholders are anxious to have their local operations certified as soon as possible, I think it is necessary that we proceed at a pace that allows us to make certain that long term improvements, and particularly the protection and advancement of Aboriginal Peoples rights and interests, are not sacrificed for short term goals and immediate but flawed action.

The true value of the FSC and its principles is not that an entire industry, a region or even a province can be rubber stamped as certified. Rather, it is that individual operations have been objectively judged as meeting exacting standards that protect and enhance the environment and the rights of Aboriginal or Indigenous Peoples.

Work should continue on developing boreal standards for Ontario. However, we must ensure that national boreal standards are formulated and adopted immediately. There must be recognition that national boreal standards will cause the improvement of local or regional standards that may already be in place. We do not want to see regional standards differing so greatly that our rights and the degree of protection of our interests as Aboriginal Peoples varies from place to place.

Thus far I have briefly outlined what FSC can accomplish. Now I would like to say a few words about its limitations. Forest certification cannot replace governments' fiduciary and other constitutional and legal obligations to First Nations. Forest certification cannot replace Treaties or Aboriginal rights. Forest certification cannot replace the need for constructive nation-to-nation dialogue on natural resource issues. And finally, forest certification cannot be used to define, interpret or limit our rights. The FSC should not be viewed as a panacea for many of the outstanding issues that First Nations are bringing forward in nearly every province in the country regarding forest practices and our rights.

As I said earlier, in Eeyou Istchee the Cree people have been dealing with unchecked forestry development for more than twenty years. Across our traditional territory forestry companies continue to clear-cut entire family hunting territories as they have done for decades now. Years ago we approached the companies responsible and tried to convince them to stop or at least slow the rate of cut. They responded by claiming that their operations were all within the law and the requirements of their forest licenses. They then told us that any complaints should be forwarded to the Government of Québec. When we approached the Government they told us to go back to the companies. This too has gone on for years. Common sense and common values were sacrificed along with the environment and our rights as the pace of cutting increased. We were left with no remedies other than going to Court or taking direct action.

The reality that the Cree Nation has experienced with forest `development` illustrates the third point that I wish to emphasize here today. We must not allow Governments to use the FSC and the possibility of future certification as an excuse for not dealing with our Treaty, Title and other Aboriginal rights issues. We cannot allow governments to use the FSC and its principles to once avoid their duties. The Grand Council's approach to this scenario is to continue to push the Governments of Québec and Canada to resolve outstanding issue related to the recognition of Cree rights under the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement. For this reason we interpret Principle 3 in keeping with our rights under the Agreement.

For example, with reference to the preamble of Principle 3 and 3.1, the term "lands and territories" is used. We interpret this to extend beyond our Category 1 or reserve lands and apply to the entire area that is encompassed by our family hunting territories across all of Eeyou Istchee. From our perspective it makes little sense to see Principle 3 as being limited to our reserve lands, as most of our hunters depend upon forested lands far from the reserves. This applies to many of the First Nations represented here today.

Applying Principle 3 to our traditional lands represents a significant area of forest. In Eeyou Istchee this represents in excess of 70,000 square kilometers of forest, which provides at least 25% of Québec's softwood lumber.

Another important aspect of Principle 3 that we intend to interpret liberally and constructively is point 2. Point 2 of Principle 3 states:

"Forest management shall not threaten or diminish, either directly or indirectly, the resources or tenure rights of indigenous peoples"

As the Grand Council has asserted in its lawsuit against Québec, Canada, and numerous forestry companies, the present system of forest management used in northern Québec runs contrary to this principle. The current rate of harvest, the concentration of harvesting activities, the lack of habitat protection for animals like moose, the insufficient buffering around water courses, the degradation of local water quality, the indiscriminate use of a massive network of permanent forestry roads, and the absence of meaningful consultation all serve to threaten and diminish our right to continued use and access to all the resources of the boreal forest. Simply put, it is difficult to harvest moose on clear-cuts, particularly when those blocks essentially cover thousands and thousands of hectares.

Considering the state in which current forest management practices leave our family hunting territories, the Grand Council has little choice but to apply a broad and meaningful interpretation of Principle 3. For us, the starting point of any valid certification will be a substantive reduction in the current rates of harvest. This is the only way that operations will be sustainable in the north. We will not accept any system that endorses the status quo. Indeed we will work aggressively against such a system. That work will be directed at the market place, the courts, the media and the hearts and minds of the general public.

I encourage all of you - particularly those First Nations who are in the far north and have yet to experience industrial forest management on their traditional lands - to apply a similar interpretation of this principle.

If all of us present at this conference can arrive at a consensus on how Principle 3 should be interpreted, then the FSC and forest certification will bring us that much closer toward realizing our larger goals of Treaty implementation, Title recognition and self-governance. I recognize that this is not an easy task. I understand that in many cases adhering to Principle 3 in this broad sense will seriously impact a company's chances at certification. I also understand that there will be a great deal of pressure from the other chambers within FSC for compromise. However, if we remain firm and committed , I believe that pressure in the market place for FSC certified products will encourage governments and companies to work together with us to ensure that the necessary steps are taken to fully meet the requirements of Principle 3. This will be a fundamental break from both the past and present. These two groups seem only to work in concert against us.

As I have said, transparency and uniformity are critical to the success of the FSC, and this applies to our role regarding Principle 3. If there is a sliding scale of interpretation on how this Principle is be applied, I foresee difficulties ahead, with the possibility of neighboring First Nations becoming divided over whether or not nearby forestry operations receive certification.

I would now like to take a brief moment to say a few words about the Grand Council's work with respect to the US softwood lumber trade debate. As many of you know, we have been very outspoken on this issue both in Canada and down in Washington. Recently I have received a number of calls from various individuals who are fearful that our actions will hurt their local initiatives. We understand your concern because we had to consider how these actions might affect local Cree forestry operations as well. In considering these issues it was clear to us that safeguarding the rights of the Cree people would in the long term only benefit our local companies. A forestry regime that protects the environment and our way of life will produce a sustainable industry. A truly sustainable industry can only result in jobs and incomes that last for generations. The existing industry simply lurches from 5 year plan to 5 year plan with the impending doom of exhausted forests growing ever nearer.

Thus far, the forestry industry has responded to our actions on softwood lumber by warning us that we are threatening their ability to conduct business and that this is unacceptable. Well, my response is to ask about our ability to conduct business. What about the ability of the Cree people to hunt, fish and trap? It seems forestry companies still do not understand that years of clear-cutting have eroded the capacity of our hunters to conduct business, thereby eroding our ability to exercise our constitutional right to the traditional harvest. We cannot let these forestry companies forget that they are not alone in relying on the forest.

Finally, I would just like to say that the Grand Council is not the only First Nation organization to address the softwood lumber trade issue. The B.C. Interior Alliance and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation also filed briefs with the U.S. Department of Commerce for similar reasons. First Nations in the three largest softwood lumber producing provinces have clearly spoken out. This is indicative of the problems caused by the failure of governments to realistically address our Treaty, Title and other rights in a substantive manner.

As we all know the US Department of Commerce has recently made its preliminary decision regarding softwood imports and placed a tariff of 19.31 percent on Canadian lumber from all provinces other than those in the Atlantic region. In its decision the Department of Commerce supports the Cree view that failure to set aside a reasonable area of the boreal forest for protection from logging amounts to a government subsidy. In Québec there are essentially no ecological reserves, parks or wilderness areas secure from logging in the boreal forest despite international calls for a minimum of 10% to be so set aside as representative of forest lands. There are certainly no such areas within Eeyou Istchee.

Unfortunately the US thinks that the matter of governments breaching our Aboriginal and Treaty rights should be addressed within the Canadian legal system, rather than through international trade regimes. This determination may have more to do with the US fear of setting a precedent that could affect the way it treats its Native Peoples than it has with any faith in the Canadian legal system or assessment of the validity of our claims.

Let me end with this brief summary. The FSC, its Principles, and particularly Principle 3, reflect the growing international concern with the way governments and the forest industry have ignored Aboriginal Peoples rights and indeed acted in violation of those rights and thereby threatened the viability of the forest and the environment that gives life to us all. A broad and substantive interpretation and application of Principle 3 will serve us all very well. However allowing some in the industry to manipulate it for their own short term profit or standing by while governments coopt it in order to maintain their unilateral and unconstitutional control of the forests will only result in the repetition of the disastrous mistakes of the past. This will seriously imperil the future of the forests and all who depend on them.

Let us walk forward into the forest together and see it for all that it truly holds for us