Boreal Forest Agreement: It’s time to forgive and move forward – by Stephen Kakfwi (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal-April 4, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal  is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario. This opinion piece was originally published on April 4, 2011.

Stephen Kakfwi is the former premier of the Northwest Territories and former president of the Dene Nation.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy recently called for the termination of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (NAN Targets Boreal Agreement, Chronicle-Journal, March 22). While I agree that the process to reach that agreement was flawed, and that the announcement could have been handled better, I believe it is time for collaboration, not conflict.

Finding a way to protect our land and ways of life is essential if we want to survive. As Aboriginal people, we are first and foremost survivors. Since Europeans first arrived here in 1492, Aboriginal peoples have had a near-death experience. The spread of epidemics decimated our population, the invaders took our land and diminished our natural resources.

Ever since, native peoples have fought hard to take back our land and regain control of our lives. We even fought and changed the Constitution of Canada so that we could govern ourselves.

Many of us have worked to negotiate land, wildlife and water agreements. Our success as native peoples is due in no small part to the fact that we have a broad vision of what we want our future to be and we know must be done to preserve our inheritance.

I have personally spent decades working on these issues. I know the struggle firsthand, and understand that the path to restoring self-governance and control over our lands and resources isn’t an easy one.

But we are learning to form strategic alliances — sometimes with industry, sometimes with environmental groups — to meet our ultimate goals.

Last year, the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement was signed between environmental organizations and the Forest Products Association of Canada.

They negotiated for two years to achieve something that seemed impossible to many observers.

They made a truce, which commits the environmental groups to help improve the industry’s operations, and the companies to help protecting caribou and the boreal forest.

The outcome is great, except for one fundamental thing — aboriginal leadership was not involved. And so when they announced that a major breakthrough was made, my feelings were mixed.

Part of me recognized that it was an outstanding achievement, but another part of me felt that it was profoundly wrong, because these groups were talking about aboriginal land and aboriginal resources.

I felt they had disrespected our aboriginal leadership and First Nations governments by not involving us at the start. I felt they should apologize. And they have.

Groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation and the Canadian Boreal Initiative have apologized directly to First Nations leaders.

Some have accepted it but others have not. This is unfortunate. If we don’t sit down at a table together and discuss our disagreements; we’ll never understand each other and we won’t make real progress.

And, we should remember, First Nations can choose to accept the recommendations that the signatories give us or not. We’re in control of decision-making on our lands, just as we should be.

In my years in politics, I’ve learned that the world around us is not perfect. My advice to native leaders has been to recognize that an apology has been made, and that there is a public commitment to recognize our leadership and our rights on the part of the industry and conservation groups.

Now is not a time to retreat or sulk; it’s time for us to show our leadership and commitment to protecting our forest, land, waters and wildlife, and to build our economies. To do that successfully, I believe we need alliances with environmental groups and industry.

The environmental organizations who signed this agreement are set up for the primary purpose to protect nature, including the caribou. And God bless them for it; we know they’ll keep at it with us or without us.

In turn, Aboriginal people will continue to fight to regain control of our lands, waters and wildlife, with or without environmental allies.

Yet, it’s perfectly logical to say that we should work together because we share a common purpose.

Yes the path that was taken to reach the agreement was flawed, but it offers us a way forward to meet our shared goal of conservation and sustainable development of our lands and resources.

My message is that there’s no one perfect solution. Make a plan for your land; make a plan for your people. Decide who you want to work with to realize your plan.

We should continue to build alliances between our communities, but there are other good allies out there, and we should also work with them.

When I die I want to be able to close my eyes and know that the trees, the birds, the animals, the water and the land that I was born into are still there for my grandchildren.

I may have to travel a long, hard road to make sure that happens. And I may have to forgive a few of my friends and allies along the way. But it’s a small price to pay to ensure a healthy future for our people and our land.

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