Blog: Indigenous-led conservation is gaining traction

Federal government promises to support four Indigenous Protected & Conserved Areas in Northern Ontario

By Petri Bailey, CELA’s Northern Services Summer Student
With thanks to Shawanaga First Nation for providing a unique and valued perspective.

The boreal caribou. The eastern whip-poor will. Pitcher’s thistle. Each is a threatened species in Ontario. As biodiversity faces growing pressure, many Indigenous communities are leading efforts to protect natural spaces in Ontario and across the country.

In Northern Ontario, Shawanaga First Nation is one such community. With recently-announced federal funding, Shawanaga aims to establish a dynamic protected area. Management will be led by the community – not the Crown vested in the federal or provincial government, as has long been the case. While challenges remain, this project offers a chance to chart a different path which protects biodiversity while advancing reconciliation.

What is biodiversity, and why does it matter in Northern Ontario?

wetlandOntario’s 330,000 square kilometers of wetlands are highly productive and sensitive ecosystems. Photo: Petri Bailey

Biodiversity takes on many forms.

The variety of genes, individual species and whole ecosystems are all part of the biodiversity equation. Each is a link on a chain that, working together, help keep our global ecosystems healthy. A loss of a single link, like pollinating bees in an orchard, can have far-reaching consequences.

Northern Ontario is a vast area and it’s also remarkably diverse. In the Far North, the peatlands of the Hudson Bay Lowlands provide habitat for threatened boreal caribou and store enormous amounts of carbon, helping to sequester greenhouse gases and mitigate the effects of climate change.

To the south, the Great Lakes St-Lawrence Forest is home to reptiles like the Massasauga rattlesnake. And in the middle, the vast boreal forest, often named the lungs of the planet, is part of a global ecosystem which spans around the world.

These ecosystems work together to produce the air we breathe, purify the water we drink and form the soil where we get our food. And in an age where climate change poses a global threat, Northern Ontario’s ecosystems are as important as ever.

What steps has Canada taken to protect biodiversity?

midland_painted_turtleOntario’s eight turtle species, including the Midland Painted Turtle, are at risk of disappearing. Photo: Petri Bailey

In 2010, Canada and over 190 other countries met at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in Japan. At issue was the rapid loss of biodiversity taking place across the planet. Building from the Convention, Canada adopted the 2020 Biodiversity Goals and Targets for Canada. Target 1 aimed to protect at least 17% of terrestrial areas and inland water, along with 10% of marine and coastal areas (the government has since promised to protect 25% of Canada’s lands and waters).

Unfortunately, Canada has a long way to go in meeting these targets. As of December 2019, Ontario has only conserved 10.7% of lands, and nationally, only 8.9% of waters. However, in an effort to achieve its conservation goals, Canada has committed to supporting Indigenous engagement in conservation. Thus, Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) have become a centerpiece of this effort.

In June of this year, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson announced over 60 conservation projects funded under the Target 1 Challenge. Nearly half of the projects are Indigenous-led, including four projects across Northern Ontario.

What are Indigenous Protected & Conserved Areas?

“Culture and language are the heart and soul of an IPCA,” according to the Indigenous Circle of Experts (ICE). In their report, We Rise Together, this Indigenous-led committee considered how to move forward with IPCAs across Canada.

And as Chris Burtch, IPCA Coordinator at Shawanaga First Nation explains, “It’s where Indigenous governments have the primary role in protecting through Indigenous governance”. This approach is a change from the past, where First Nations historically had a lesser say in protected area management.

ICE established three principles shared by IPCAs:
• They are Indigenous led
• They represent a long-term commitment to conservation
• They elevate Indigenous rights and responsibilities

There is no “cookie-cutter” approach to these projects. Governance and management objectives of IPCAs are determined by individual communities themselves. And although protecting biodiversity is a key function of IPCAs, they are also aimed at revitalizing Indigenous languages, cultures and protocols – and supporting sustainable, conservation economies.

Are there plans for Indigenous Protected & Conserved Areas in Ontario?

Georgian_bayGeorgian Bay is widely recognized for its windswept White Pines and smooth, granite outcrops. Photo: Petri Bailey

The waters of Georgian Bay are home to an island dominated by bedrock and stands of old white pine. It’s called Shawanaga Island, and Shawanaga First Nation is on a mission to protect its landscape and the many species that live within it.

This isn’t the first time Shawanaga First Nation has worked to support and protect the area’s biodiversity. For decades, the community has operated a fish hatchery to help the walleye population bounce back. And the community is working with Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve, a group that is leading efforts to develop a conservation plan for Eastern Georgian Bay.

Community members from Shawanaga First Nation have used the island since time immemorial. However, access to the island became more challenging for Shawanaga members once land use and ownership started to change.

“We want to make sure that those things are still accessible. We want to make sure there is longevity”, says Tobias McQuabbie, Lands Manager at Shawanaga First Nation. “It’s a different way of asserting our jurisdiction over this land”.

McQuabbie – who has taken part in Traditional Knowledge studies with community members – says that the Sixties Scoop has changed the way the island is used today. “What I’m finding is that the major land users were our parents’ grandparents. The people who are in their 60s – they were babies when the island was used. The main land users have passed on.”

The Federal Government recently announced funding for over 60 conservation projects across Canada, including Shawanaga Island Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area. Photos: Tobias McQuabbie

What kind of challenges does the Shawanaga Island IPCA face?

The federal government committed to support Shawanaga First Nation’s project under the Target 1 Challenge. However, the province was not part of the site selection process for IPCAs. Shawanaga is now reaching out to the province to discuss long-term protections and care of the island.

However, the response from the government of Ontario has been less than enthusiastic. As the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry recently told TB News Watch , “[t]he federal government has decided to provide capacity building funding towards four proposals that implicate provincial Crown land”. Notably, “Crown land” represents land whereby First Nations title has neither been acquired by, nor surrendered to the Crown, more appropriately called “Treaty land” by Shawanaga First Nation. The statement went on to say that the Ministry was not involved in these decisions, noting “Nor did the province recommend any of the proposed sites for protection”.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unexpected obstacles. Yet despite the challenges, Shawanaga First Nation, and three other First Nations in Ontario, continue to push forward with projects that may transform Canada’s protected areas landscape.