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Planning for Change in One of the Most Intact Places on Earth

By Cheryl Chetkiewicz

Looking out of the window of the small charter plane, en route to Neskantaga First Nation some 480 kilometers northeast of my home in Thunder Bay, I am struck (again) by the sheer size of Ontario’s Far North. Stretched out below me like a massive green and blue tapestry of forest and water, this region is nearly the same size as Sweden.

Ontario’s Far North is one of the most intact regions in the world making it a green jewel in the circumpolar crown of boreal forest. Credit: Cheryl Chetkiewicz/WCS Canada.
Ontario’s Far North is one of the most intact regions in the world, making it a green jewel in the circumpolar crown of boreal forest. Credit: Garth Lenz.

From up here, it is easy to assume Ontario’s Far North is devoid of people, but this land has been inhabited for thousands of years. Historically, indigenous peoples traveled across Ontario’s Far North following daily, seasonal, and annual cycles of hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering medicines and materials, and trade.

First Nations in the Far North first encountered Europeans around 1611 when Henry Hudson landed in James Bay, seeking new trade routes. As the Hudson’s Bay Company became established, trading posts at river mouths throughout the Far North emerged. Traders were dependent on First Nations to both supply the fur trade and provide much-needed food resources such as caribou and fish.

Most communities in the Far North like Webequie First Nation pictured are remote and accessible only by air or winter roads. While generally not opposed to resource development, First Nations are concerned about the long-term impact of development activities on their traditional territories. Their lands are inseparable from First Nation traditional and cultural values and rights. Credit: Cheryl Chetkiewicz/WCS Canada.
Most communities in the Far North like Webequie First Nation pictured are remote and accessible only by air or winter roads. While generally not opposed to resource development, First Nations are concerned about the long-term impact of development activities on their traditional territories. Their lands are inseparable from First Nation traditional and cultural values and rights. Credit: Cheryl Chetkiewicz/WCS Canada.

While the traders have long gone, Canadian laws and treaties forced First Nations to give up their way of life and surrender their lands. In the Far North, First Nations continue to live with this legacy as they deal with sub-standard housing, unsafe drinking water, limited health and education services, and human crises related to drugs, alcohol, and youth suicide. Today, there are additional challenges (and opportunities) as the global demand for cheap minerals and energy encourages new exploration and industrial development across their traditional territories.

The view from the plane makes it clear what is at stake. To the east, the Hudson Bay Lowlands are the largest wetlands in North America and the second largest peatland complex in the world. Acting like a massive sponge, these systems regulate water flow and quality in rivers, streams, and lakes; provide habitat for thousands of migratory birds and caribou; and absorb tonnes of carbon.

In Ontario, caribou are considered threatened due to human settlement and development activities such as forestry, mining, hydroelectric development and roads which destroy and fragment their habitat. Over 40 per cent of caribou range in Ontario has been lost since the late 1800s making the Far North an important stronghold for this species. Credit: Justina Ray/WCS Canada.
In Ontario, caribou are considered threatened due to human settlement and development activities such as forestry, mining, hydroelectric development and roads, which destroy and fragment their habitat. Over 40 per cent of caribou range in Ontario has been lost since the late 1800s making the Far North an important stronghold for this species. Credit: Justina Ray/WCS Canada.

Looking to the west, the Boreal Shield supports the largest intact boreal forest left on the planet, providing homes for caribou, wolverine, and moose and their predators. Thousands of lakes and some of the largest, intact flowing rivers support a high diversity of freshwater fish, remaining largely free of human impact.

Climate change is affecting Ontario’s Far North faster than any other part of the province. Its effects are being felt in remote First Nation communities as warmer temperatures compromise winter roads used to bring in diesel fuel, food, and building materials more cheaply than air transport while extreme wildfires and flooding result in more frequent emergency evacuations.

Because of warming waters across Ontario's freshwater systems, sportfishes that prefer warm water, such as smallmouth bass, have shifted their range northward by 17.5 km/decade. Credit: Mohammed Alshamlih/WCS Canada.
Because of warming waters across Ontario’s freshwater systems, sportfishes that prefer warm water, such as smallmouth bass, have shifted their range northward by 17.5 km/decade. Credit: Mohammed Alshamlih/WCS Canada.

Wildlife are also having to adapt to changes in their environment. Polar bears show significant declines in body condition and survival while warming waters make it easier for smallmouth bass, which are invasive in the Far North, to expand their range and threaten native coldwater fish like lake trout. Natural habitats of wildlife species from birds to caribou will be affected, perhaps dramatically, by the higher intensity and extent of wildfire.

There is ongoing interest in developing the region’s natural resources. The so-called Ring of Fire’s deposits of chromite, nickel and copper have been touted as the “oil sands of the north.” New mines in this remote region will require access, by road or rail, to get ore to processing facilities and southern markets. In 2014, the government of Ontario made a billion dollar commitment to support this infrastructure.

The boreal region has always had boom or bust economies, starting with the fur trade. This cycle continues today with timber, oil, gas, and minerals such as gold. In the Far North, gold is currently being mined at the Musselwhite Mine. Credit: Garth Lenz.
The boreal region has always had boom or bust economies, starting with the fur trade. This cycle continues today with timber, oil, gas, and minerals such as gold. In the Far North, gold is currently being mined at the Musselwhite Mine. Credit: Garth Lenz.

While First Nations communities have been asking for all-weather roads for decades, the government seeks an economic return on such an expensive and potentially risky investment. Lasting benefits that outweigh adverse social, economic, and environmental impacts will depend on proactive, regional-scale assessments of development in the Far North, starting with the Ring of Fire.

In 2014, I proposed just that in a report with Dr. Anastasia Lintner. Our report draws on case studies in Canada and around the world to highlight how regional assessments could offer better conservation and social outcomes than project-based impact assessments and community-based planning – the current provincial and federal practice.

Currently, there are only two all-weather road corridors in the Far North. These have gravel surfaces and a combined length of a few hundred kilometres. The desire for additional all-weather roads for communities and industry in previously remote, unroaded areas like the Far North are one of the main threats to intact, functioning ecosystems and wide-ranging species like caribou and wolverine. Credit: Garth Lenz.
Currently, there are only two all-weather road corridors in the Far North. These have gravel surfaces and a combined length of a few hundred kilometres. The desire for additional all-weather roads for communities and industry in previously remote, unroaded areas like the Far North are one of the main threats to intact, functioning ecosystems and wide-ranging species like caribou and wolverine. Credit: Garth Lenz.

In Ontario, such an approach requires a new way of thinking about planning and decision making, particularly for government. It also requires different federal and provincial processes from those that drive today’s business-as-usual focus on mitigating impacts of individual development projects and expecting community-based land use planning to address regional issues such as roads, climate change, and conservation of wide-ranging species like lake sturgeon and caribou.

The Regional Framework Agreement between Matawa First Nations (nine First Nations in Ontario’s Far North whose traditional territories and communities will be affected by development of the Ring of Fire) and the Ontario government offers a glimpse at how issues like roads and environmental impacts can be addressed. However, there is no legal requirement for a regional approach and no precedence for conducting one. Until recently, that is.

Ontario's Far North is a vast oasis of coniferous forest, intersected by tens of thousands of lakes, dozens of rivers and the third largest wetland in the world. Credit: Garth Lenz.
Ontario’s Far North is a vast oasis of coniferous forest, intersected by tens of thousands of lakes, dozens of rivers and the third largest wetland in the world. Credit: Cheryl Chetkiewicz/WCS.

In late June, the federal government announced a review of their approach to environmental assessment in Canada. One of the reforms being requested resulted from a Federal Environmental Assessment Reform Summit with other 30 of Canada’s leading environmental assessment experts, academics, lawyers and practitioners. It would facilitate regional environmental assessment based on the same principles and recommendations outlined in our report. This reform would provide a legal pathway for a regional approach to planning and environmental assessment in Ontario’s Far North, particularly in the Ring of Fire.

As I peer out my plane window and prepare to land in this unique landscape, I am hopeful that our efforts to encourage a regional approach as well as a fundamental transformation in Canadian environmental assessment law may converge. For the first time, such a process could unite First Nations, government staff, scientists, and other groups in the shared goal of protecting the ecological and cultural web of life that sustains the Far North for future generations.

Ontario's Far North is home to the most southerly sub-population of polar bears. Significant declines in body condition and survival of polar bears have recorded. These trends have been attributed to climate change impacts on sea ice habitats in the Hudson and James Bay. Credit: Brandon Laforest.
Ontario’s Far North is home to the most southerly sub-population of polar bears. Significant declines in body condition and survival of polar bears have recorded. These trends have been attributed to climate change impacts on sea ice habitats in the Hudson and James Bay. Credit: Brandon Laforest.

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Dr. Cheryl Chetkiewicz is a conservation scientist with WCS Canada.