As told to John Hassell
I grew up fishing, trapping and hunting, and those traditional activities remain a big part of my life – as they do for many other members of the two other First Nations that share the shores of Lake Nipigon in northwestern Ontario, where the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek (BNA) First Nation is located. I remember watching a golden eagle push a bald eagle off a nest on those pristine shores, and I could drink the water right out of the lake.
After leaving my community in 1991, I spent nearly 15 years working as an advocate for sustainable resource use in the natural resource sector with diverse stakeholders, including Aboriginal communities, industry, environmental organizations and government. I was also the senior Aboriginal policy advisor with the Canadian Boreal Initiative, which I am proud to say brings together diverse partners to create new solutions for boreal forest conservation.
Now I run a consulting business (the Aboriginal Strategy Group) but spend the majority of time back with my community, where I serve as a senior advisor and hold the environment portfolio.
I am trying to attract development to my community as we are on track to receive our official land status back this summer. When we do, the BNA First Nation should not just be a retirement community; we need to create job opportunities for members who are returning. I have a strong conservation ethic, but I recognize the need for balance as we address major socio-economic challenges.
I’m a strong believer in working with all stakeholders to find a balance between environmental considerations and the very real social and economic struggles of First Nations communities. Sustainability is the core, but solutions must be understood within the context of people who desperately need training and employment opportunities.
Like most First Nations peoples, I believe in Mother Earth and have a spiritual connection with nature. Our identity and culture are based on an innate relationship with the land. Of course, concepts, or at least the actions taken, will vary once you start defining what it means to look after the earth. This is because First Nations peoples have diverse identities, such as the different identities of people from the north versus the south. But none of us want to see our backyard degraded and, if we collaborate and listen to the many voices, we can find common solutions.
In a perfect world, First Nations would be the drivers behind land-use planning. Decisions on the ground need to account for our traditions and aspirations through meaningful consultation and capacity building.
Not only do people need a seat at the table, but European-style decision-making models must be shaken up to respect Aboriginal forms of knowledge. For example, scientific data used to determine the range and distribution of game should be complemented by traditional knowledge attained through generations of watching traplines and personal experiences of what happens on the landscape.
In the end, we can all travel down the river together, but we should each remain in our respective canoes. We won’t try to steer their boat and they shouldn’t try to steer ours. When the time comes to make decisions, we can do it together. That respect and autonomy is the necessary starting point to bridge the two distinct cultures and differing understandings of sustainable development in the northern context.