Dispatches from Canada: The Boreal Forest

Dispatches from Canada

The Pew Environment Group—Australia is leading a tour of Australia's Indigenous Rangers to meet with Canadian federal, First Nations, and provincial leaders. On the tour, which began Oct. 29, the delegation will share successful conservation models that could provide First Nations advantages in the stewardship of their traditional territories.In this edition of Dispatches, Patrick O'Leary, a manager of Pew's Australia program, writes about the group's experiences.

Update 7: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Day 2

Nov. 6, 2012

By Patrick O'Leary

After a good night's sleep, it was time for us to bid farewell to Ottawa and Canada. We covered a lot of ground in 10 days, from the icy north to the heart of the capital, Ottawa. At each stop there was an overwhelming feeling of possibility about Indigenous management programs. With determination from Aboriginal peoples, flexibility and understanding from governments, and support from the likes of the International Boreal Conservation Campaign, Aboriginal land management will be a huge success and play a key role in protecting amazing places such as the boreal forest.

Group goodbye

Update 6: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Nov. 5, 2012

By Patrick O'Leary

Our day opened with a meeting with Parks Canada CEO Alan Latourelle and key senior staff. They walked us through a detailed explanation of the work across Canada to achieve cooperative management and conservation. As always, our Rangers—Damien, Daniel, and Phillip—were outstanding in conveying the successes of Indigenous land and sea management in Australia. The discussion with Parks Canada went extremely well, and the staff members all expressed a desire to keep in touch with us on this important topic.

Our next meeting was with Matthew Coon Come, grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees and his colleagues. Grand Chief Coon Come is a prominent and long-term leader on Aboriginal self-empowerment and land management. His questions were incisive and drew on his long history of activism, leadership, and administration of his people since he was a young man.

Then it was off to the University of Ottawa for a public event, opened powerfully by Grand Chief Coon Come, who set out his determination to see his people's future grow ever stronger in connection to their ancestral lands. He was followed by Michèle Audette, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, who spoke from her heart about her connection to the environment and the role of women in building a safe future for all. Daniel, Damien, and Phillip rose again for their last public remarks of the tour and once again did a fantastic job in conveying the opportunities and pride that land and sea management had brought to them as Rangers of Indigenous Protected Areas. There is no substitute for this kind of first-hand account from people on the ground.

Update 5: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Day 3

Nov. 3, 2012

By Patrick O'Leary

 Up early on Saturday, we had the very great honour of being invited to a traditional smoking ceremony by Chief Clarence Nepinak, his daughter Rebecca, and Tobasonakwut Peter Kinew, an elder. They use beautiful traditional pipes, filled according to ancient practice by the elders; it creates an evocative smell, conjuring up visions of the vast boreal forest and beautiful rivers of Canada. We will never forget that quiet moment with those generous and impressive people.

After the smoking ceremony we took part in a large powwow at the local stadium. We were overcome by the sights and sounds of hundreds of Aboriginal dancers in spectacular costumes moving to a powerful rhythm of traditional drumming and chanting. It's hard to describe the spectacle of this powwow and do it justice. We spent the entire day watching brilliant displays by dancers young and old, from many groups. 

Update 4: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Day 2

Nov. 2, 2012

By Patrick O'Leary

Friday morning saw us off to the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba to hear about the proposed Pimachiowin Aki UNESCO World Heritage site. After years of hard work, planning, and dreaming by people such as Sophia and Ray Rabilauska, this project is almost complete. The cooperation among Pimachiowin Aki and the federal, Manitoba, and Ontario governments has been a success story for Indigenous projects.

After break, we went into another extended discussion with interested Aboriginal groups and government staff about Indigenous Protected Areas and Indigenous Rangers, and active land and sea management. These conversations were extremely valuable in determining the key elements needed to make Indigenous programs work in Manitoba and, more broadly, Canada.

That night, things livened up with us all at the Indigenous Music Awards in Manitoba. With not much time to prepare, we managed to find the guys some suits, and they were led down the red carpet (literally!) by our fantastic hosts, the family of Chief Clarence Nepinak. Once inside, several TV crews swarmed around the Rangers and asked a variety of questions, starting with, “How are you adjusting to the temperature?” Damien summed it up for everyone by saying, “It's pretty cold!” A great night ensued with the chance to view some powerful Indigenous dancing and signing. 

Damien Williams

Update 3: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Nov. 1, 2012

By Patrick O'Leary

After bidding a fond farewell to Yellowknife, the capital of Canada's Northwest Territories, we headed to Edmonton for the night. Dinner with Canadian tour coordinator Larry Innes and his partner, Germaine, by a welcome open fire was followed by us bedding down, tired but excited about Winnipeg the next day (just not the 4 a.m. departure for the airport).

We arrived in Winnipeg the morning of Thursday, Nov. 1, with high expectations and were rejoined by our friend Miles Richardson of the Haida Nation, who had introduced us to Aboriginal groups in Vancouver earlier in our trip. Miles's long history in Indigenous rights with the Haida people and his passion for sustainability have been an inspiration throughout our trip.

Miles Richardson

We met first with Manitoba's minister for conservation and water stewardship, the Hon. Gord Mackintosh, who was keenly interested in our program. Minister Mackintosh gave us a broad overview of the province's current efforts toward cooperative land management. This was an extremely productive meeting, and the discussion will be on-going.

The second half of the day was filled with meetings at the University of Winnipeg. It was a great honour that the session was opened with a prayer from Clarence and Barb Nepinak. The Nepinak family made our stay in Winnipeg a really enjoyable experience.

Gord Mackintosh

During the proceedings at the university, President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Lloyd Axworthy and Minister Mackintosh spoke thoughtfully. They were followed by Sophia Rabliauskas of Pimachiowin Aki Corporation and a Poplar River First Nation member and Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, who discussed the importance of the land to Aboriginal culture and survival. Our Rangers—Daniel, Damien and Phillip—did a great job, as always, giving their presentations.

A robust panel discussion followed, with many incisive questions from the floor. We had to be on our toes, but hard questions make for the best dialog. Conversations continued after we closed.

Panel discussion

That night we had a lovely homemade dinner hosted by Chris Debicki of the Oceans North Campaign. We had a chance during the evening to talk about the parallels between Arctic Canada and the Australian Outback. Temperature aside (obviously!), we found amazing similarities in the issues affecting conservation and Indigenous rights and land management.

Update 2: Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada

Oct. 31, 2012

By Patrick O'Leary

It's after 11:30 at night, and we're just back in our hotel after an inspiring time in Yellowknife. We had several great meetings with Lutsel K'e Dene and Yellowknife Dene, people of the Great Slave Lake region. They were very eager to hear from Australia's Indigenous Rangers, and I think a lot was accomplished.

Damien Williams at Yellowknife Airport.

On Tuesday, Oct. 31, we were able to meet with federal and provincial government staff. This turned into a useful two-way discussion on how to develop better protection and management of the region.

Wednesday night we had a great turnout at a public meeting in Yellowknife. The audience was engaged and informed, which led to an open discussion about indigenous conservation efforts.

Lutsel K'e Dene tepee in Yellowknife.

But so far, the highlight of this trip was our visit to the traditional bush culture camp on the banks of spectacular Great Slave Lake run by Lutsel K'e Dene peoples, who have a deep and abiding commitment to preserving local culture and skills and applying them to their land management today.

Sunset over Great Slave Lake.

The Lutsel K'e Dene people shared their plans for a local indigenous-managed protected area, Thaidene Nene, which was most impressive. They have a strong vision for this new protected area, and they were eager to learn about similar experiences in Canada and Australia. We shared a lot of positive examples and models in use in Australia that could be adapted here.

We were happy to be asked to stay for a lunch of tasty fresh local fish cooked on a traditional fire inside a tepee on the banks of Great Slave Lake.

Off to bed now, because we have a 4 a.m. start tomorrow!

Update 1: Arriving in Canada

Oct. 29, 2012

By Patrick O'Leary

We arrived safe and sound, but very tired, in Vancouver, British Columbia, yesterday after the long haul flight from Sydney. Anne Maree Sam, our colleague with the Canadian Boreal Initiative, met us at the airport and graciously agreed to show us the sights and tell us a little about her homelands in the North of British Columbia.

Stanley Park Totem Pole

Our first stop was the Stanley Park for a photo shoot with The Globe and Mail and Reuters. It is a beautiful park with spectacular views of all the autumn colours. The park also has a number of majestic native totem poles that were carved by the Indigenous Coast Salish people from the Vancouver area.


The focal point of the Stanley Park is a thousand year old cedar tree.

Rangers with cedar

The tour really starts today, when we will have an all day meeting with Aboriginal Canadians, followed by an evening event with special guest David Suzuki. Tuesday morning we head further North, closer to the Arctic Circle but still in the Boreal Forest region, to Yellowknife. Hoping to see some snow and that we have enough cold weather gear!

We're all looking forward to the day, a little tired but very inspired and excited by being in Canada and sharing conservation models that aboriginals here can use to protect their boreal forests.

Speaking at Museum of Anthropology.