Fighting Climate Change, Indigenous People Protect Canadian Forests
BROADBACK FOREST, Quebec — At a bend in the Broadback River, Don Saganash, 60, listened to the steady, familiar sound of the rapids that to his ears were the “heartbeat of the Broadback.’’ He took in the surrounding forest, the spruce and pine trees rising from a floor of rainbow-colored moss so soft that he had always imagined “walking on air.’’
Nothing had changed in this corner of the Broadback Forest since he was a boy, or since he was picked by his father to become the tallyman of his extended family’s trapline, or ancestral hunting grounds. A respected figure among the Crees, his Indigenous community, the tallyman made sure there were enough animals and other resources in the trapline for current and future generations.
“Now,’’ his father told him, “it’s up to you to protect our trapline.’’
Mr. Saganash began fighting against threats from industrial logging in the Broadback — a still untouched boreal forest in northern Quebec, reachable only through unmapped roads and boat rides along its river and lakes — two decades ago. But in recent years, his fight became part of a global contest against climate change.
Saving the Broadback and other boreal forests would keep intact their vast stores of carbon that, if disturbed, would release carbon dioxide and contribute to global warming.
Forests like the 3.2 million-acre Broadback are at the center of a growing battle to save the world’s largest carbon sinks, from the rainforests in the Amazon to the peatlands of Indonesia and Central Africa to Canada’s 1.4 billion acres of boreal forests.
Canada’s boreal forests, representing the world’s largest intact forest ecosystem and storing at least 208 billion metric tons of carbon, is considered one of the world’s largest terrestrial carbon vaults.
In part to meet its climate goals, in part to further reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous communities, the Canadian government has been turning to them more and more to help manage boreal forests by ceding more of the forest land to Indigenous groups. Last year, the federal government set aside $340 million to support areas protected by Indigenous groups and networks of Indigenous experts.
Under this program, more than 50 Indigenous communities across the country have received financing to establish and oversee areas for conservation, turning them into stakeholders entrusted to not only resist deforestation, but also to safeguard their carbon sinks. The program will also support Indigenous people who will oversee these areas.
For Indigenous leaders, the support was a belated acknowledgment of their historical and intimate knowledge of the boreal forest zone — home to 70 percent of the country’s Indigenous communities.
“Within the past five years, I have seen a shift and an openness, particularly at the federal level, where I think they’re starting to understand that traditional knowledge acquired over sometimes millennia is as valid as Western science,’’ said Mandy Gull-Masty, the grand chief of the Cree National Government, which represents the Cree communities in Quebec.
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Over the years, the Crees have pushed for greater protection of their traditional territory in northern Quebec, which are mostly on provincial lands. In 2020, the provincial government agreed to increase the percentage of protected land in traditional Cree territory from 12 percent to 23 percent — a surface equal to the size of Switzerland.
“They did information sessions, they did mapping exercises,’’ said Ms. Gull-Masty, referring to tallymen and other local experts from the Cree communities in the north. These protected areas will help mitigate climate change by protecting forests and waterways, reduce the risks of forests fires and conserve wildlife, she added.
Marcel Darveau, a forestry expert at Laval University in Quebec City, said Indigenous groups have both an “ancient and actual knowledge’’ of boreal forests.
“They keep watch over the territory and are its guardians,’’ he said.
Mr. Saganash, the tallyman who has long fought against logging, belongs to the Crees centered in Waswanipi, a town eight hours north by car from Montreal.
Today, even as protected areas have increased overall, logging has expanded throughout his region and has reached the edges of the Broadback Forest. Of the 62 traditional hunting grounds in the Waswanipi region, only a handful are untouched by logging.
“They’re coming fast,’’ Mr. Saganash said, worried that loggers or miners will eventually advance into the Broadback’s unprotected area.
A decade ago, the Cree council of Waswanipi proposed the creation of a 1.2 million-acre protected area called Mishigamish, or large body of water, which would have included a stretch of the Broadback River, lakes and parts of the forest.
The area accounts for about a tenth of the total territory of the Waswanipi Crees — which is roughly the size of Belgium and has been logged significantly over the decades — and represents its last intact patch.
About 70 percent of the proposed area has now been protected, but the fate of the remaining section worries Mr. Saganash and others. A logging company has built two roads heading straight to the Broadback’s southernmost limit, under a logging plan approved by the Quebec government.
The Waswanipi Crees’ allies, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, say that the Quebec government has not fulfilled an earlier pledge to discuss expanding protection of the Broadback. Officials at Quebec’s ministries of forests and of the environment declined interview requests.
Tallymen have played a central role in maintaining sustainability in Cree territory through their “ability to make sense of a very complex landscape,’’said Gail Whiteman, a professor of sustainability at the University of Exeter who spent 18 months among Cree tallymen in the 1990s.
Over a recent three-day visit to this area, Mr. Saganash and his nephew, Stanley Saganash, 50, stayed at the camp of another relative, Roderick Happyjack, 40. Across a lake, along the Broadback River and into the moss-blanketed primary forest, in a region hours away from the nearest cellphone tower, there was no trace or sign of another human being.
But the three knew every beach along the lake, every bend along the river and every hill in the forest. Every corner of the unmarked territory seemed to hold a personal or family memory: the first moose killed, an unusually large birch tree cherished by a mother, the first log cabin built by a grandfather.
At night, in bed with the lights turned off, Mr. Saganash entertained the younger men with stories from the Broadback, including the time someone called a moose and it showed up right outside a cabin.
“Our elders used to say that their home was here first and that their second home was in the reserve,’’ said Mr. Saganash, a retired ambulance driver who is now a member of the Cree council in Waswanipi.
Mr. Happyjack built his cabin after his grandfather died nine years ago, powering it with a generator that provided what Mr. Saganash described as “tradition with a modern twist.’’ He transported a refrigerator, a stove, a freezer and other bulky items in winter, navigating the frozen waterways on a snowmobile.
His grandfather — the tallyman of Mr. Happyjack’s trapline — had taught him to hunt and love the Broadback. In his will, his grandfather gave him permission to set up his own camp and invite friends, though only two at a time, to prevent overhunting.
“I feel closer to my grandfather when I’m around here,’’ Mr. Happyjack said. “Sometimes he visits me in my dreams.’’
Two years ago, alone in the Broadback, he dreamed that after answering a knock at his door, he looked at the shore and saw his grandfather wearing his familiar red-and-black checkered coat.
“He turned around and looked at me,’’ Mr. Happyjack recalled, adding that his grandfather then pointed silently at the log cabin he had built long ago. “What is my grandfather telling me? I wondered. I figured he was telling me to take care of his cabin. He worked hard and now I had to work hard to take care of it.’’
The sense of responsibility was transmitted through traplines and generations.
Stanley Saganash recalled one of the most important lessons he learned from his father while hunting.
“I used to kill a lot and my father told me, ‘Whoa, don’t shoot everything. Save some for the next generation,’’ he said, adding that he had applied that lesson this hunting season. “I got one moose and my nephew got one moose. But I saw two more moose, and I didn’t shoot them.’’
In each trapline, the tallyman was responsible for making sure that its members were using the land and its resources so that the trapline would keep providing for future generations.
“We’re thinking three generations ahead,’’ Don Saganash said.
The Canadian government had not always valued the role of Indigenous communities in conservation, Ms. Whiteman said.
“Now the global discourse is about protecting these carbon sinks — soil is almost the new sexy,’’ Ms. Whiteman said. “But the tallymen always said this land is valuable to human survival.’’