Enhancing Aboriginal Involvement in Canada's Model Forests

In central Saskatchewan, the Montreal Lake Cree Nation has had a history of friction with its non-aboriginal neighbours. When the Canadian government established Prince Albert National Park, this First Nation community was removed from its traditional home within the park's boundaries to a reserve 20 kilometres away. From then on, the community had few ties with the park staff. Nor were its relations with Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management, an arm of the provincial government, much brighter. "They were always butting heads with the Cree Nation," says Gene Kimbley, who worked for the Montreal Lake Cree Nation for 10 years.

But when planning began for the Prince Albert Model Forest (PAMF), the Montreal Lake community put aside its misgivings to become an active partner in the new organization. "We saw it as an opportunity to sit down at the same table with the forest industry, with the provincial and federal governments, and with other interested parties," says Kimbley, a former president of the PAMF who now runs the consulting firm, EcoDynamics Consulting Group International.

Montreal Lake's participation has paid off in the form of timber harvesting and silviculture jobs with Weyerhaeuser, the PAMF's main private sector partner. While these employment gains were not a direct result of the model forest, they were accelerated by its existence, adds Kimbley. "When people sit down and talk about common issues, once they get to know their partners, they begin to form relationships that are long-lasting and prove beneficial to both sides," he stresses.

From confrontation to collaboration

Two provinces away, Henry Lickers tells a similar tale. "In the 1970s and '80s, most of our environmental work was confrontational: fighting (paper manufacturer) Domtar, fighting polluters, fighting the government, fighting everybody," says Lickers, who serves as Director of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne's Department of the Environment. But after a divisive "civil war" in 1990, the elders realized: 'We've become very good fighters, but we haven't been very good peace people. It's time to change our direction from confrontation to peace," he says.

One of the outcomes of this decision was the Mohawk Council's pivotal role in creating the Eastern Ontario Model Forest (EOMF) - for example, Lickers helped to write the proposal that led to the EOMF's creation. As one of three founding partners (along with Domtar and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources), the Akwesasne community holds a permanent seat on the EOMF's Board of Directors and is an active participant on technical committees that perform advisory functions for the model forest. Moreover, its influence pervades the day-to-day business of the model forest through the spiritual blessings that open and close each meeting, and the "zeal to deal" ethic [see sidebar], developed by the Iroquois nation. In the EOMF context, "zeal to deal" is a process for generating enthusiasm and strengthening relationships between partners and potential partners, in which decision-making is achieved by consensus or mutual agreement rather than by majority vote.

Like the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne has benefits to show from its involvement in a model forest. In return for participating in joint projects, the community may receive funding, trees, training, price discounts, or school tours. "Although the monies aren't big, we are always searching for new opportunities so that we can broaden our base of experience," adds Lickers.

EAI role models

Since 1997, both the Montreal Lake and Akwesasne communities have served as role models for the Enhanced Aboriginal Involvement (EAI) initiative, launched by the Canadian Model Forest Network (CMFN) to promote the participation of aboriginal peoples in model forests across the country. Prior to 1997, "we knew there had been some good successes but also that there was room for improvement," says CMFN coordinator Brian Bonnell. "You had a site like the Prince Albert Model Forest, which had three levels of aboriginal involvement including two local bands (i.e., Montreal Lake and Lac La Ronge), the Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC), and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN). Whereas in Manitoba, they have a large aboriginal population, but during phase one they were not actively involved," he adds.

In response, the EAI Committee, under the joint chairmanship of Gene Kimbley and Duane Hiebert (the PAGC representative on the Prince Albert Model Forest Board), used its funding to sponsor information exchanges and projects of interest to aboriginal communities, which "helped the initiative gain momentum," says Bonnell. Thanks to the EAI initiative, First Nations people from Prince Albert have visited both aboriginal and non-aboriginal groups in the Manitoba Model Forest to discuss the benefits of model forests, help bridge gaps, and promote greater understanding. And after the participation of First Nations and Metis increased there, representatives from both the Prince Albert and Manitoba Model Forests traveled to New Brunswick to visit aboriginal communities in the Fundy Model Forest.

Meanwhile, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne has shared its experiences with the Long Beach Model Forest on Canada's Pacific Coast and other sites. "You show people by doing, you don't show people by talking about it," says Lickers. "People come here and see how we work together, and they say, 'Wow!' For example, the Ministry of Natural Resources may not be welcomed in many First Nations communities, but it is in the Akwesasne community. Somebody might say, 'Well, Henry, their policy on fisheries is sometimes draconian.' Not here in Akwesasne. Why? Because we have a working relationship with them, not only in the model forest, but with many other issues."

Embracing partnerships

According to Bob Newstead, the CMFN regional coordinator in Edmonton, the EAI initiative is clearly paying off. "Prior to this program, in the McGregor and Foothills Model Forests, there were passive to non-existent relationships [with aboriginal communities]. Now, First Nations - and to a certain extent, other aboriginal groups - have come to realize the importance of larger partnerships."

"The EAI initiative has now pretty well covered all of the model forests in Canada," adds Kimbley, who is stepping down as co-chair of the committee to focus on his consultancy business. "Wherever aboriginal communities are participating, it has been a positive experience, particularly in the Manitoba Model Forest where a 50/50 joint venture to manage forest areas has been established involving [the private sector firm] Tembec and local aboriginal communities."

While the EAI Committee's current mandate ends on March 31,2002, its work will likely continue during the next phase of Canada's Model Forest Program - although its practice of funding local projects will end. In recent years, the committee has received so many project proposals that there is not enough money to satisfy everyone, explains Bonnell. The EAI initiative may focus instead on tackling strategic issues related to aboriginal involvement in the model forest network as a whole. "One concrete step is to ensure that aboriginal communities are involved from day one in the development of individual model forests' proposals, so they are a part of the whole plan, and their basic interests are being met."

Future goals

In addition, "we may focus more on broader issues of concern to aboriginal groups: traditional hunting, traditional resource rights," says Kimbley. "They can come together and try to work out ways of working through these issues and come to an agreement before polarization sets in."

He and Lickers believe the model forest approach could, in theory, work anywhere. It "allows people to find common ground rather than confront one another and take pot shots at each other," Kimbley says. If this approach had been present in Burnt Church, Nova Scotia, (the site of a Canadian fishing dispute) "there would have been no Burnt Church conflict." The community's aboriginal and non-aboriginal fishermen may have been able to develop a mutually agreeable plan for sharing the fisheries resource, if a similar forum was available there, he concludes.

By John Eberlee