A northern Quebec Cree nation has gone global with the struggle to preserve one of the province’s last pristine forests and the strategy appears to be paying early dividends.
The Quebec government sent the Waswanipi Cree nation a letter last month inviting leaders to set out their expectations for protecting a remaining slice of their ancestral hunting ground in the Broadback Forest, according to Deputy Chief Mandy Gull. The forest in the James Bay area is full of mature trees and is a key habitat for the endangered Woodland Caribou. Talks with the government had been dormant for nearly two years, Ms. Gull said.
“I feel Premier [Philippe] Couillard is trying to open a dialogue. They are saying within the next 18 months there will be additional protection measures in place, and we want to hold them accountable for that,” said Ms. Gull, who was in Oxford, England on Friday speaking at the Skoll World Forum of entrepreneurs, investors, academics and government officials.
Ms. Gull said she believes the action on the file resulted from a letter-writing campaign that started after she spoke at a global conference of fashion executives in New York last fall. Quebec officials could not be reached Friday to discuss the next steps in any coming negotiations.
About 1,800 Waswanipi Cree live in their community about 500 kilometres north of Montreal, but their traditional hunting grounds extend another 300 kilometres farther northwest. Almost all of their traditional lands are already heavily logged, but they have managed over 15 years to reach a series of agreements with the government to set aside nearly two-thirds of the 13,000-square-kilometre Broadback Forest.
The nation once had 63 traplines but the three that remain intact are in the Broadback area, Ms. Gull said.
While her family’s trapline closer to Waswanipi is broken up by clear-cut areas and newly planted forests, Ms. Gull described her shock when she first visited Broadback with its teeming wildlife, thick canopy and mature trees.
“The difference in density, vegetation and wildlife just completely blew my mind,” she said. “I had never seen the forest in its true state, what it’s supposed to look like. At that moment, I mourned everything my family had lost.”
Although forestry companies are abiding by a voluntary moratorium on logging, the map of the permanently preserved areas resembles a dumbbell. The part in the middle is under constant threat of development, according to the Cree and environmental activists.
“Slowly and incrementally, the area has received greater levels of protection but an area still critical to the caribou and to traditional cultural practices around the Broadback River is still left,” said Nicole Rycroft, executive director of Canopy, an environmental group that works to protect old-growth forests.
“Two-thirds conservation is better than no conservation. But the protected area as it stands is not fulfilling its intended purpose without the other third.”
While forestry for paper production has fallen off with the decline of newspaper printing, the exploding demand for rayon and viscous fibres in fabric manufacturing still bolsters demand for trees.
A former paper mill in the region is often rumoured to be on the verge of reopening for producing the wood pulp used in rayon production, according to Ms. Rycroft, whose non-profit works with forestry-industry customers, including The Globe and Mail, to find alternatives to logging old-growth forests to create their products.
A reopened mill would only increase pressure to log the area, she said.