By Sharon Oosthoek

Walpole Island First Nation has a long history of taking care of the rare ecosystems that make up its six delta islands at the head of Lake St. Clair. Now a group of residents is building on that history with the creation of the first Aboriginal land trust in Canada to receive charitable status.

Established in 2008, the Walpole Island Land Trust is run by volunteers who hope to protect the community’s tallgrass prairie, oak savannah, Carolinian forest and network of wetlands. “We want the children of the future to say, ‘Wow they were really thinking of us’ not ‘What the hell were they thinking?’” says the group’s president, Clint Jacobs, quoting one of the trust’s founding members.

The 24,000 hectares that make up these delta islands are home to more than 50 species of plants and animals deemed at risk in Canada. The dominant threats to vulnerable flora and fauna are pollution – from shipping lanes, Sarnia’s Chemical Valley and Detroit’s industry – and development.

While traditional land trusts protect ecosystems by buying easements from landowners, land trust arrangements are more complicated in a First Nations community. In general, residents do not own land privately but instead have certificates of possession, and the community as a whole may have rights to land through the band council, which can in turn lease land to people outside the community. Consequently, the land trust must purchase both certificates of possession and leases.

“We had lots of legal opinions and discussions with Indian Affairs to make this happen,” says Jacobs.

So far, the trust has raised enough money to buy a certificate for one 10- hectare parcel of rare prairie habitat and has taken over the expired lease for 69 hectares of degraded wetland (formerly held by a local hunting lodge) that the trust volunteers intend to rehabilitate. The trust is now trying to raise $100,000 to buy a certificate for a parcel of prairie and savannah, and to create an endowment to manage the land.

“I’m extremely proud of my ancestors. They did a great job in balancing things and making sure they didn’t exploit nature, but at the same time they utilized what the Creator blessed them with,” says Jacobs. “Those sacred obligations are still with our people. We have to remind ourselves of that.”