Protecting Waswanipi’s Broadback forest from a renewed threat

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                                           Broadback River

When the Cree Nation Government signed a forestry co-management agreement with the Quebec government in 2015, Waswanipi members were unhappy that the protected area did not include their section of the Broadback Valley. A letter from Premier Philippe Couillard was then annexed to the deal, affirming the government’s willingness to have “meaningful discussions” to include Waswanipi.

Two-thirds of the Broadback forest are presently set aside for protection and forestry companies have been abiding by a voluntary moratorium on logging, but an aggressive logging proposal revealed earlier this year threatening the region once again.

A conservation campaign to protect the remaining 10,000 square kilometres of the Broadback, which the Waswanipi call the Mishigamish, has drawn an unprecedented level of social and economic support from around the world. International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including Greenpeace and Canopy have added their voices to the Waswanipi struggle, bringing reporters to the northern forest and Cree leaders to the global stage.

“In the last year or so, Canopy has got the support of more than 20 (international) companies with annual sales of more than $74 billion US to write letters to the Quebec government to voice their support for the completion of the Broadback forest conservation area,” Melissa Filion, Canopy’s Quebec Director and Senior Corporate Campaigner, told the Nation.

Canopy works for large-scale forest conservation by harnessing the power of the marketplace, seeking sustainable solutions that balance conservation with economic interests. One of their notable successes was collaborating to conserve British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest two years ago. They hope to similarly leverage political and economic influence to preserve Waswanipi’s “landscape of hope”.

Deputy Grand Chief Mandy Gull believes the connections provided by these NGOs, who have each worked with Waswanapi for several years, can help raise the Broadback’s profile with governments, the business world and the public. She joined Canopy to present Waswanapi’s conservation plan at various international conferences, including the Skoll World Forum in the UK and a brand summit of fashion companies in New York City.

“That was so helpful in connecting the end users to a First Nation community leader who was there to voice the vision for the community,” said Filion. “Often these retailers aren’t aware of the impact they can have on the ground, and it was beneficial for the Cree to see in a very tangible way the support they can get from the marketplace.”

Last March, the Quebec government sent a letter to Waswanapi Cree Nation, inviting leaders to state their expectations for protecting the remaining area of the Broadback, reopening a dialogue that had been dormant for nearly two years.

The healthy and abundant Broadback ecosystem not only supports traditional hunting, fishing and trapping, but it is also one of the last refuges for old-growth trees in the province and endangered species like eagles, wolverines and woodland caribou. A report last year revealed there were only 15 caribou left in a threatened herd near neighbouring Val-d’Or, half the number of five years before.

Deputy Grand Chief Gull first became aware of the Broadback forest while working under former chief Paul Gull, and later became very good friends with Don Saganash Sr., who has one of the last intact traplines in the area. She has become an outspoken advocate for greater protections of the Broadback forest, for which the Waswanipi nation has been striving for nearly 20 years.

Gull has called the Broadback one of the most beautiful places she’s ever witnessed, with its “trees and trees as far as you could see.” Besides the importance of its undisturbed traplines and thriving wildlife, she sees the Broadback as an opportunity for the Cree and Quebec to showcase carbon crediting and lead the international fight against climate change.

“This forest is a major carbon storage area and we are giving back to everyone in protecting it,” Gull told the Nation via email. “Personally, I would like to see it settled before any more impacted Elders leave us.”

She explains that transitions in staff had stalled negotiations but recent appointments of a new Deputy Minister and team have brought a new surge of energy to discussions. Gull is currently chairperson for the Cree Quebec table on the Environment and Protected Areas.

“We started a dialogue with Quebec and we have plans to work with the community before we sit down again in the fall,” Gull said.

Both Gull and Filion share a sense of urgency, believing there is a great opportunity now to implement an agreement before the next provincial election.

“The more we wait, the more the Broadback will be under threat,” Filion explained, noting the movement’s burgeoning support from environmental groups and scientists. “We’re hopeful, we’re excited, and the time is now.”

Canopy has recently launched a promotional campaign featuring a puzzle with a missing piece, representing the push to finalize the Broadback conservation area. This puzzle has been shared with key representatives of the Quebec government, the Cree government, Waswanipi and the marketplace. It’s also being advertised in newspapers and various restaurants in Quebec.

“The puzzle is a great promotional item – it really showcases how Quebec is the one holding the last piece to finish the job,” said Gull.

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