Beyond a clear-cut in Quebec’s far north — marked by a sign that reads “the road of destruction ends here” — Aboriginal Canadians are fighting for an ancient forest and their traditional hunting rights.
Canada’s boreal forest is the largest intact forest in the world, comprising one-third of the forest circling the North Pole above the 50th parallel.
In this remote part of Quebec Province, just south of the frozen Broadback River, the coniferous forest is home to hundreds of wildlife species, including the endangered woodland caribou.
For centuries, Cree tribespeople have also lived and hunted in these woods.
They lived without hindrance until the 1970s, when logging and the construction of hydro-electric dams in the James Bay region started to encroach on them.
In 2010, a dozen Cree tallymen — tasked with supervising trapline activities — decided to take a stand on behalf of 16,000 Cree who live in this area, and blocked logging roads in protest.
They say logging offers few benefits to indigenous people, while damaging the environment.
The sign on a dirt road 6km south of the river represents their last stand.
They have demanded that about 13,000km2 of wilderness north of the marker be set aside for a nature preserve.
Forestry companies had agreed to a logging moratorium but that expired in June last year, and the Grand Council of the Crees has yet to reach an accord with the Quebec government.
The future of the forest is an issue in the province’s general election.
The Liberal Party, which is leading in the polls, favors massive exploitation of untapped natural resources in Quebec’s far north.
Liberal leader Philippe Couillard said on the campaign trail that “thousands of jobs, millions of cubic meters of wood and [several] pulp mills are at stake.”
The Liberals’ main rival, the Parti Quebecois, has also pledged to significantly boost logging in the province over the coming years.
“At least they haven’t started handing out exploitation permits yet,” said Steven Blacksmith, the natural resources administrator for the Cree reserve of Waswanipi.
According to the latest government figures, Quebec’s forestry industry is the largest in the country, employing close to 70,000 people.
The industry accounts for 2.7 percent of the province’s GDP, exporting billions of dollars worth of lumber, pulp and paper each year.
However, it has struggled with every up and down of the global economy.
Standing in the middle of a logged section of his former trapline, Don Saganash pointed in every direction and said: “We can’t hunt here; the animals don’t have any shelter anymore.”
“We can’t even trap marten anymore,” his cousin Malcolm said. “This winter I caught none, whereas before I would catch 100.”
Hunting is not just for sustenance or sport, but at the heart of Cree culture, and has been recognized in Canadian law as a right for natives nationwide.
However, those rights are being tested by lumberjacks pushing further and further north, Don says.
From time to time, forestry industry representatives stop in at Don, Malcolm and another cousin Philippe’s hunting camp deep in the woods to announce plans for logging nearby, and offer the trio compensation.
“I say no, but they still move forward,” Malcolm said.
Philippe said there were now three forestry companies on his land — traditional Cree territory.