A Cree First Nation and a conservation group are pressing Quebec to protect one of the last wilderness areas in the province’s boreal forest, amid fears that logging is increasingly threatening traditional Indigenous hunting and fishing grounds.
The Waswanipi nation in northern Quebec says the province has failed to deliver on a three-year-old pledge by Premier Philippe Couillard to enter “meaningful discussions” to protect the pristine Broadback Forest. The area is home to old-growth trees, unspoiled rivers and wildlife such as woodland caribou and marten.
“It’s the last remaining untouched area, so it’s very important for the Waswanipi to protect it,” said Ronnie Ottereyes, deputy chief of the Cree First Nation. “When we see everything else – the clear-cuts, all the devastation – it doesn’t feel good.”
Quebec and the Grand Council of the Crees signed a forestry management deal in 2015 after complaints that logging operations were harming the Cree’s ancestral hunting and fishing territory. But the preserved area omitted a zone covering about one third of the Broadback, totaling some 3,500 square kilometres.
Since then, discussions with Quebec have barely edged forward, according to the Waswanipi nation. A new five-year forest management plan by the Quebec government, which took effect this year, has heightened concerns that forestry roads and logging will encroach on the Broadback Forest and river watershed.
Forestry operations have already affected most of the Waswanipi’s territory, which is intersected by forestry roads. The Broadback Forest represents the last 10 per cent of intact boreal forest on the nation’s traditional territory.
A Cree Nation official says roads are coming within 10 kilometres of the unprotected zone.
“They’re at our door. It’s a matter of time,” says Michel Arès, head of the Forest Authority Department for the Waswanipi Cree. “We’re talking about substantial wood harvesting.”
The Broadback Forest is a cultural touchstone for the Waswanipi Cree, tying the community of about 1,800 people to its traditions, Mr. Ottereyes says. The Cree still fish, trap, and hunt moose and geese in the virgin forest and waterways.
“It’s important for youth to see that area. Everywhere else they go, they see trees being cut, and development. We identify ourselves within that land and the watershed,” Mr. Ottereyes said.
Forestry companies are abiding by a voluntary moratorium on industrial activities, but the province’s new forest management plan has increased concerns about environmental pressures on the land.
“We aren’t blaming the forestry companies – they’re not responsible for planning,” Mr. Arès said. “Management for the territory is in the hands of the government.”
Quebec’s Minister of Sustainable Development, the Environment and the Fight Against Climate Change says the government is in the final stages of designating a formal protection zone around the Broadback river. In a statement, a spokesperson for Minister Isabelle Melançon said a conservation plan is now the subject of consultations. It is not clear whether the plan addresses the Waswanipi Cree’s concerns.
The Cree’s cause has gained international attention. Canopy, a non-profit conservation group, has launched a global letter-writing campaign to the Quebec government pressing it to complete the protection area. The group, which works with corporate customers of forest products, including The Globe and Mail, says the Broadback Forest conservation area is key to biodiversity and the fight against climate change.
“The Broadback is the best opportunity for the protection in Quebec’s boreal forest,” said Nicole Rycroft, executive director of Canopy. “There is one last piece missing. The time is now.”
She said forestry companies are also eager to see the issue addressed.
“The lack of clarity has made it more complicated for all parties,” Ms. Rycroft said.
The Waswanipi Cree First Nation is about 800 kilometres by road north of Montreal, with hunting grounds extending hundreds of kilometres farther northwest.