The Grand Council of the Crees

Aboriginal Perspective on Canada's Progress Towards Meeting..


Posted: 0000-00-00

Prepared by The Grand Council of the Crees of Eeyou Astchee
Peggy Smith, R.P.F.,
for the
National Aboriginal Forestry Association


There is widespread national and international acknowledgment that an essential part of sustainable forest management is the recognition of Indigenous rights and values and Indigenous participation in forest management planning. This paper will:


Indigenous Peoples in Canada

The Canadian Constitution defines Aboriginal Peoples in Canada as "Indian, Inuit and Metis" (which means "mixed blood"). The Canadian Constitution also affirms and protects Aboriginal and treaty rights.

There are eleven different Aboriginal language families and over 600 First Nation communities who operate under special federal legislation called the "Indian Act". Over 80% of Aboriginal communities in Canada are in productive forest areas which cover eight broad forest ecosystems. The Indigenous Peoples of Canada have built a way of life dependent on and respectful of these forest lands.

This way of life has been disrupted and transformed over the past four centuries by European settlement and natural resource development which built the economy of modern day Canada. The pace of natural resource development has increased over the past 100 years. Aboriginal communities in developed areas are still fighting for a share in the decision-making and benefits of forest operations in their territories and, at the northern boundary of the Boreal forest, Aboriginal communities are being affected by timber harvesting operations in areas never before touched by industrial timber harvesting. Aboriginal communities in all parts of Canada are struggling to overcome the results of alienation from Canadian society and their traditional values and way of life, a social disruption reflected in poverty, high suicide rates among youth, health problems and low education levels.

Subsistence forest activities such as hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering still form a vital component of the economic base of Indigenous communities. For example, one third of over 12,000 Crees who reside in the Boreal forest of northern Quebec still depend on subsistence activities as their primary source of food and income. It is these activities that are most often protected under Treaties signed between Canada and Indigenous Peoples. Many of the treaties have wording like, as long as the sun shines and the water flows, that capture the strength and lasting commitment of these agreements.

International Commitments to Indigenous Participation in Forest Management

Indigenous rights, as they have been declared by Indigenous Peoples' organizations, differ from what has been described through processes led by groups such as the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO), the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS). Though these formal UN and OAS processes have not found universal consensus from member governments or from Indigenous Peoples, they have provided a focus for discussion. Indigenous Peoples have declared non-recognition of their right to self-determination as the most contentious item.

INTERNATIONAL LABOR ORGANIZATION: ILO Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (1989), although ratified by only a few countries, is a statement of minimum rights including equal rights and opportunities under national laws, a sharing of social and economic benefits, protection of social, cultural, religious and spiritual values, participation in decision-making and due regard for customary law.

UN WORKING GROUP ON INDIGENOUS POPULATIONS: The WGIP has completed a United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a comprehensive statement which makes the commitment to resolve the issue of self- determination. For Indigenous Peoples, the international recognition of the right to self- determination is fundamental. The Draft Declaration states that "Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development."

Several commitments made at the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED), including Agenda 21, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the non-legally binding statement of Forest Principles, recognized that Indigenous knowledge is not only useful but critically important to the development and cultural survival of Indigenous people, the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable forest management (see Appendix 1 for wording of these commitments).


In keeping with its endorsement of the UNCED forest commitments, Canada has begun to build a policy which promotes increased Indigenous participation in forest management. Canada's National Forest Strategy and the network of 10 Model Forests established in 1992 laid the groundwork for these policies. The development of a set of Canadian criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management, approved by the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers in 1995, strengthened this policy framework.

The National Aboriginal Forestry Association, an Indigenous-controlled, non-political, non-governmental organization, whose goal is to increase Indigenous participation in sustainable forest management, has been an active participant in all of these processes. NAFA was formed after participants in a 1989 conference on Aboriginal forestry identified the need for an advocacy organization at the national level.

THE NATIONAL FOREST STRATEGY, 1992: In its National Forest Strategy entitled, Sustainable Forests: A Canadian Commitment, a commitment was made to develop an Aboriginal forest strategy which "respects the shared beliefs and aspirations of Aboriginal people, and addresses?the development of models for sustainable forest management." At the heart of this Aboriginal forest strategy is the principle that "Canada should recognize and make provision for the rights of Aboriginal people who rely on forests for their livelihood, community structure and cultural identity."

To achieve these goals the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, which includes representatives of both the federal, provincial and territorial governments of Canada, set out a "Framework for Action" with three directives:

MODEL FORESTS: The Model Forest Program, with its principles of partnership and opportunity to explore the practical application of sustainable forest management principles, encouraged Indigenous participation. In 1997 Canada announced that the Model Forest Program would continue for another five years with the addition of an Aboriginal-led Model Forest.

CANADIAN CRITERIA & INDICATORS FOR SUSTAINABLE FOREST MANAGEMENT: The Canadian Criteria and Indicators exercise addressed Indigenous involvement in forest management in Criterion Six: Accepting Society's Responsibility for Sustainable Forest Management (Defining Sustainable Forest Management: A Canadian Approach to Criteria and Indicators, 1995). Elements 6.1 Aboriginal and treaty rights and 6.2 Participation by Aboriginal communities in sustainable forest management set out a number of indicators by which Canada hopes to measure its commitment to meeting these principles. Included among the indicators are the:


While Canada's federal government has Constitutional responsibility for entering into international agreements on matters relating to forest policy and trade and responsibility for "Indians and lands reserved for Indians", it is the provincial governments that have primary jurisdiction over the management of Canada's forests. Each province has its own set of forest legislation, policies and regulations. The autonomy the provinces have over forest management makes it difficult for the federal government to coordinate efforts to fulfill national and international commitments and to protect Indigenous interests in natural resources. A good example is found in Quebec where the provincial government has refused to officially sign the National Forest Strategy, instead opting only to adhere to its goals and objectives.

Currently, there is great diversity in how each province approaches Aboriginal peoples. For example, the province of British Columbia, Canada's largest producer of forest products, instituted sweeping forest management reforms through the passage of its Forest Practices Code of British Columbia Act in 1994. Among many changes were its approach to the province's Aboriginal peoples. The Act's Preamble made a commitment to balance the needs of all peoples and communities, including First Nations. To achieve this promise to Aboriginals, the Forest Practices Code includes a number of provisions related to protecting key areas of interest. Under these provisions, companies are required to complete an assessment of cultural heritage resources and ensure that forest development plans identify and describe "areas of aboriginal sustenance, cultural, social and religious activities associated with aboriginal life."

The province of Ontario, the nation's third largest lumber producer, also passed new forestry legislation, the Crown Forest Sustainability Act. Its regulated Forest Management Planning Manual requires forest managers to prepare Native Background Information Reports and Native Values Maps to help assess past problems of timber management and identify areas of economic, cultural and spiritual importance to affected Aboriginal communities.

There are also still many land claims unsettled, broken treaties and agreements and outstanding self-government negotiations which prevent a truly equal partnership between governments and Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

There are many obstacles to overcome in forging a new relationship between Indigenous Peoples and governments in Canada, the main recommendation of the recent Royal Commission on Aboriginal peoples whose report is titled People to People, Nation to Nation (1996). A closer look at an Indigenous People, the Crees of Eeyou Astchee will reveal some of these difficulties in the forest sector.

The Crees of Eeyou Astchee

The Cree Nation of Eeyou Astchee's traditional lands encompass 50,000 square kilometers of commercial forest land in northern Quebec. Quebec is Canada's second largest forest products producing province.

Over the last thirty years members of Cree Nation of Eeyou Astchee have had to endure the impacts of unsustainable forestry development. Since 1975 the amount of land cleared each year has increased by a factor of five. This represents approximately 500 square kilometers per year or 5 million cubic meters of wood annual. Virtually all of this wood is harvested using large area clearcutting.

The net effect of this escalation in forestry activity is a disruption in many Crees' ability to sustain themselves through hunting, fishing and trapping. Cree lands are divided into family hunting territories. Families harvest these territories in a cyclical manner, changing locations from year to year so as not to exhaust the land's resources. However, in the community of Waswanipi, whose surrounding traditional lands have been affected by logging the most, Cree hunters and their families have witnessed an average of 38% of the trees being removed from each Waswanipi hunting territory. In the most extreme case, over 80% of the trees of a single hunting territory were cut. According to forest management plans for Waswanipi, 100% of its traditional lands are slated for commercial logging. In human terms this means that over 100 families will eventually be displaced from their land. As the logging moves steadily north, a similar situation will be repeated in four other Cree communities whose hunting territories fall with Quebec's commercially designated forest.

In addition to the severe economic and social consequences of these logging activities, the environmental consequences are serious. In the region around Waswanipi, the moose population was measured at 1200 in 1985. Today, after thousands of square kilometers of logging and hundreds of kilometers of forestry access roads, there are fewer than 400 moose left. Reduced habitat and pressure from sport hunters from the south and outside the province have decimated a once healthy moose population.

Adding to these environmental, economic and social impacts which have eroded their traditional way of life, the Crees have not benefited or shared in the profits gained from logging their traditional forests. Only 40-50 Crees are employed in the estimated 14,000 forest products related jobs dependent upon their traditional lands. The Crees benefit very little from the over $1.2 billion flowing from their lands annually. Little has been done to improve this situation, notwithstanding the National Forest Strategy directive to "increase forest-based economic opportunities for Aboriginal people."

Perhaps most disturbing for the Cree is that there is no satisfactory mechanism in place between the province of Quebec and the Cree to solve these problems. Similar to other provinces in Canada, Quebec refuses to recognize the Crees right to self-determination and their right to negotiate a government-to-government solution to forest management practices in northern Quebec. The Crees are treated like just one more stakeholder in an area with diverse interests, including the very sports hunters who have gained access to the Crees' food supply through logging roads. It has become a common practice for forest industry companies to approach individual Cree trappers and offer compensation settlement in the form of cash or goods like snow machines, rather than sit down and negotiate a forest management agreement with the Crees' political representatives, an agreement that would both benefit the Crees overall and lead to improved forest management practices on their territory.


Although some provinces have begun to take steps toward more equitable treatment of the Aboriginal communities who depend on the forest, more work is required. Indigenous Peoples from all provinces maintain that measures developed without their effective participation and endorsement are lacking. Undermining some of the recent legislative initiatives which provide for more Indigenous participation is the assumption that Indigenous Peoples are but just one of a whole series of social groups with a stake in the forest resource. The legislation itself has been developed without consultant and ratification by Indigenous Peoples.

Treating Indigenous Peoples as just another stakeholder is the predominant attitude in Canada, even though this attitude runs counter to international agreements which recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples to self-determination, self-governance and self-management of their traditional resources. Article 26 if the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states:

Indigenous peoples have the right to own, develop, control and use the lands and territories?This includes the right to full recognition of their laws, traditions and customs, land-tenure systems and institutions for development and management of resources, and the right to effective measures by States to prevent any interference with, alienation of or encroachment upon these rights.

What must be done to ensure a truly equal partnership for sustainable forest management between Indigenous Peoples and governments which ensures both forest health and the health of the Indigenous communities dependent on forests? How do we move beyond forests as battlefields between conflicting ways of life and cultures? How do we learn to accept and promote the Indigenous traditional concepts of the circle where everything is connected, of sharing, of respect for all living things, of never taking more than we need and always giving back to the land when we take something?

Governments must accept their responsibility to meet commitments made to Indigenous Peoples through treaties and land claims and follow internationally recognized protocol for negotiating modern-day agreements. Outstanding claims should be settled before industrial development is promoted.
Governments must accept that Indigenous Peoples are not just another stakeholder in forest management, but by prior occupation and rights entrenched in agreements have a unique voice in forest management decisions. With this understanding, effective consultation will mean consultation that has been developed and endorsed by Indigenous
More opportunities should be provided for the development of sustainable forest management practices by Indigenous Peoples outside the realm of existing tenure and regulatory frameworks. The Model Forest Program in Canada may provide a limited



Agenda 21, Chapter 26, Clause 26.1:

"In view of the interrelationship between the natural environment & its sustainable development & the cultural, social, economic & physical well-being of indigenous people, national & international efforts to implement environmentally sound & sustainable development should recognize, accommodate & promote & strengthen the role of indigenous peoples & their communities."

The Convention on Biological Diversity, Article 8(j):

"Subject to its national legislation, respect, preserve & maintain knowledge, innovations & practices of indigenous & local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation & sustainable use of biological diversity & promote the wider application with the approval & involvement of holders of such knowledge, innovations & practices & encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge, innovations & practices."

Guiding Principles on Forests:

"Governments should promote & provide opportunities for the participation of interested parties, including local communities & indigenous people, industries, labour, non-governmental organizations & individuals, forest dwellers & women, in the development, implementation & planning of national forest policies."

"National forest policies should recognize & duly support the identity, culture & respect the rights of indigenous people, their communities, & other communities, & forest dwellers. Appropriate conditions should be promoted for these groups to enable them to have an economic stake in forest use, perform economic activities, & achieve & maintain cultural identity & social organization, as well as adequate levels of livelihood & well-being, through, among others, those land tenure arrangements which serve as incentives for the sustainable management of forests."


Canadian Council of Forest Ministers. March 1995. Defining Sustainable Forest Management: A Canadian Approach to Criteria and Indicators. Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada.

International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development. 1996. People of Peoples; Equality, Autonomy and Self-Determination: the Issues at Stake of the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People. Montreal, Canada.