I come from the boreal forest, land of the Atiku (caribou), a sacred animal for the Innuat. My people used to travel the land following the herds of Atiku.
Growing up in Schefferville, Quebec, I would regularly see herds of caribou. Now, once a year, while we are on our traditional territory at the Mushuau-nipi, we wonder whether the caribou-master papakasis will do us the honour of allowing us to see one or two caribou. We have gone from an abundance to an uncertainty as to whether this herd will go extinct.
The herd from George River has a migration spanning from northern Labrador through large parts of Quebec. This herd gives us a particularly jarring look into the caribou population levels over time.
In the 1990s, it had a strong and vibrant population of approximately 800,000. That number now stands at 7,200, a population decline of about 90%.
Along with my Innu-aimun language, which is almost gone, I face the possible loss of two fundamental aspects of my culture. I live with two heartaches. Not only that, but caribou also serve a key role in maintaining balance within the Arctic ecosystem. Unfortunately, it is now an endangered species; its lands have been destroyed, flooded and polluted, all for the benefit of a few multinational corporations while the rest of us keep getting poorer.
This is largely due to the destruction of the boreal forests, caused by urban expansion and climate change, which serve as the caribou’s habitat.
These boreal forests have immeasurable impacts on our world. They remain one of the most effective ways to hold carbon emissions and prevent the effects of climate change. This is partly because they represent a large portion of the world’s remaining forests, but also because these forests can store twice the amount of carbon as other forests. We must do whatever it takes to protect our boreal forests and hopefully begin to rebuild those that we lost.
My ancestors and Indigenous peoples were and remain geniuses. They were doctors, engineers, pedagogues, architects and visionaries. You would collect what you needed from Mother Earth to satisfy the needs of your family. In exchange, you had a responsibility to protect Mother Earth. They understood the importance of these lessons and made sure to pass them on to younger generations. If we look to Indigenous communities across the world, we notice that those lessons didn’t disappear with my ancestors; we just haven’t been listening. It is time for Canada to listen.
Canada hosted the COP15 United Nations Conference on Biodiversity in December 2022. As host nation, Canada has a responsibility to be a worldwide model in protecting our biodiversity. Even though Canada has a lot of work to do, there is a clear path to properly lead this world to a greener future. If we want a chance at saving our planet, Canada needs to follow the lead of Indigenous communities around the world fighting for Mother Earth and to adopt a similar mindset about the land. South of the border, the United States government is starting to integrate Indigenous knowledge into its decision-making processes through a new council designed to advise federal agencies on environmental protection. This could be a model for Canada to follow.
Currently, 80% of worldwide biodiversity is found in places inhabited by Indigenous people, thanks to the stewardship of Indigenous communities. In Canada, the federal government is beginning to see the value of Indigenous-led conservation by funding Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area agreements and Indigenous guardians programs. According to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, 90% of protected areas across the country established in the past 20 years are the result of collaboration with Indigenous communities. These agreements have been shown to work, resulting in healthier and more vibrant wildlife across the lands.
We all have a responsibility and a duty to protect our Mother Earth and all she offers us. The land, the animals, the fish, the plants, the water: it is our identity, our culture, our knowledge, our traditions. To not act now is to die with it.
Senator Michèle Audette comes from the Innu community of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam in Quebec. She represents the De Salaberry division of Quebec in the Senate.
A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2022 edition of The Hill Times.