Valérie Courtois on what she hopes will come out of COP15: “to save the world”

The Director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative discusses COP15, the importance of the boreal forest and the vital role of Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship

  • Published Dec 09, 2022
  • Updated Dec 14
  • 2,646 words
  • 11 minutes
A woman in a blue shirt stands next to the water
Valérie Courtois is the director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative and a leading expert on Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship (Photo: Indigenous Leadership Initiative)
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Canadian Geographic‘s David McGuffin sat down with the Indigenous Leadership’s Initiative’s Valérie Courtois for an inspirational conservation about the role Indigenous leadership can play in biodiversity conservation.


On Nitassinan, the boreal forest and caribou

Nitassinan is the Innu word for “our land.” “Assi” is the name for land. We’re in the easternmost extent of the boreal forest, which is the largest intact forest left on the planet. It is a caribou landscape, which is why my people are here. We are a caribou people. And the George River herd— a caribou that occupies most of the Quebec-Labrador peninsula — in particular has been essential to our story of why we’re here on this landscape.  Our understanding of our place in the world revolves around that relationship. In fact, much of our food security historically has also depended on that herd. So it’s essential for for our nations and not just the Innu Nation of which I’m a member, but all of the nations that depend on Caribou to really figure this out and work hard on what can be done to ensure that that relationship continues in perpetuity.

On the decline of the George River caribou

The George River herd was once the largest herd of any ungulates in the world. In the early nineties the census found they were about 800,000 animals, but many of us think that the herd was actually closer to a million at the time. Since then, it’s been suffering a gradual decline and, more recently, quite a sharp decline. Last year’s census found they were about 8000 animals. So quite a dramatic decline.

Caribou do have a population cycle, much like lynx and rabbits and other animals. The only difference is that the caribou population cycle tends to be much longer, somewhere around 70 to 90 years. But what we’re seeing in the herd is definitely some impacts of climate change. We’ve noticed changes in insect behavior, greater abundance of insects. And caribou don’t really like insects. Well — like the rest of us! Caribou have a tendency to stay in the higher ground now rather than coming into the valleys where there is better food for them. In fact, a caribou will choose wind over good food when it is bug season, and that has changed the way that they migrate, the timing of their migration and quality of nutrients that they can obtain. We’re also seeing changes in predator dynamics; in particular, we’re noticing that black bears are taking more young caribou than usual. We’ve seen that bears have been actively hunting caribou, [as opposed to] taking advantage of running into caribou. This idea of active hunting is new. 

The last time that the herd had a low moment was in the 30’s and 40’s. In fact, that previous decline was part of what precipitated the sedentary new lifestyle for the Innu. There were no real industrial activities on the landscape at the time. Now we have the largest nickel mine in the world, the largest iron mines in the world, two of the largest hydro projects in the world. We have an incredibly active mining exploration industry, a railroad, highways. These are all things that are encroaching on the available space for that herd to come back. So our question is: is the herd resilient enough to adapt to that increase in pressure? If you’re a caribou and you’re detecting all of this activity, your instinct is to avoid that. In fact, there are some studies that have shown that caribou will avoid linear disturbances like roads by over 20 kilometers. All of these things are questions that we have about how that herd can have the space that it needs to come back.

On Indigenous Guardians

They’re like our boots on the ground. They’re people whose job it is to take care of our landscapes, to ensure that our traditional laws are applied, that our communities are well informed of what’s going on, that the nations have a strong voice in considering the pressures and options and opportunities that come to them. For example, when I was managing the environment office [in Labrador] a number of years ago, it was my job to review the permit applications for [resource] exploration camps. If I had the capacity to ask a Guardian to go verify the plans, the area, what sort of rights and assets and interests we might have in those areas, then I could engage on that application much more deeply. But if I did not have that option, and if the application gave very little information, I had to take a position that would protect our rights, and that was to say no to those areas. So I’ve always advocated for the fact that Guardians in some ways are good development enablers. They can help be a part of that process that ensures that the communities can be well informed when they’re making decisions on what happens on their landscapes, and can therefore offer their free, prior and informed consent. My perspective is the more information, the better. And Guardians help do that.

Being a Guardian is also an incredible career path. It’s one where you can fully integrate your culture within the expression of your career and your job. That’s incredibly attractive, especially in remote places that don’t necessarily have a lot of economic opportunities for people. 

"We cannot affect our environment to a point where we're hindering the opportunity for future generations." (Photo: Nadya Kwandibens)
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On COP15, halting biodiversity loss and Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship

We’re going to be there with bells on. It’s a chance for the world to really hone in on biodiversity. It happens once every ten years and it’s in Canada. It’s important that we highlight not only the most important effective actions in terms of conserving biodiversity, but also addressing the issues of climate change through Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship. Our Prime Minister and his cabinet have recognized that time and again. And the [Indigenous] Nations in Canada, we’ve been conservationists ever since we’ve existed. We understand that our relationship with our landscapes is what ensures our survivals. And we also know that gives us responsibilities to that relationship. That’s what is really driving this conservation movement. The International Boreal Conservation Campaign, which the Indigenous Leadership Initiative is a member of, has been supporting and working with First Nations across Canada for about 20 years now. In that time, we funded a lot of the land use planning efforts. And what we’ve seen is that the vast majority, in fact, over 90 per cent of new protected areas that have been established in that time have been either led or co-led by Indigenous peoples. We’re also seeing the impacts of the work of Guardians. In the last five years alone, that movement has more than quadrupled in First Nation communities. We’ve gone from about 30 to 120 programs now.

On Canada’s responsibility to the boreal forest and Indigenous Peoples

Canada has a big part of that boreal forest that circles the globe — we’re a very large country and we have the benefit of much of it still being intact. It holds a quarter of the world’s wetlands. It is therefore a climate regulator. It absorbs and stores twice as much carbon as the world’s tropical forests per hectare. If we’re thinking about the capacity of the planet to help in engaging and creating those nature-based climate solutions, or this ability for the planet itself to help store and capture some of that carbon, the boreal forest is the best example of that. That to me means that as a country, we have a particular responsibility to show leadership. If Canada can get it right, by truly empowering Indigenous nations to take on that role, which in itself will be an incredible act of reconciliation, then Canada can show the way on what it looks like to to value the communities within its borders, to value the knowledge systems and sciences that contribute overall to everybody’s prosperity. To show a way that that doesn’t necessarily break down the social fabric that has been built up, but on the contrary, actually bonafides it and injects all of the values that come from the diversity in our people. Hopefully this is something that other countries will look to. The COP really is a good opportunity for Canada to showcase that.

On COP15 aspirations

We’re looking for a couple of things out of COP. One is we’re interested in the targets — every ten years, new biodiversity conservation targets are put in place and the post 2020 framework that is being negotiated is looking at the possibility of protecting 30 per cent of lands and waters by 2030. We think that’s an important target, not because we think it’s ambitious enough. In fact, on average, when First Nations are holding the pen on land-use plans, they tend to protect much more than half of their landscapes — in many ways the globe is catching up to Indigenous ambitions with respect to conservation. But the target does offer a lot of space to advance and and demonstrate those models — and show how that return on investment really goes beyond just halting and reversing biodiversity loss.

We’re also looking for the recognition of Indigenous rights and titles and the role of Indigenous Peoples and our knowledge systems in the management of biodiversity within those targets. We’re hopeful — right now, the draft does include much of that. We’re hoping that through the negotiations, those things stay. We’re also looking for the global community to think about the financing of these efforts. Indigenous Peoples globally are not a big part of the population — a few million compared to 9 billion now globally — but 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity are on lands that we manage and love. So it’s necessary to see some of that recognition and some of the financial power of the globe turn towards enabling that Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship. Because what we’re seeing is that when that happens, everybody benefits. We’re at critical points… if we’re on track to losing a million species, that’s not just going to be terrible for the environment. It’s going to be terrible for our societies and terrible for our economies and terrible for our food security and all of the other things. So that’s what we’re looking for out of COP — to save the world.

On conservation and economic development

There’s still a perception that somehow conservation displaces economic opportunities, which I don’t believe for a second. What I’ve seen is that conservation could become a keystone of a new type of economy in many of these regions. That’s why I think it’s really important that the government supports those ambitions of Indigenous peoples and invests in these areas.

I’m a forester and I’ve been responsible for my share of trees being cut down in my career. And I think that’s a good thing. Forests do have that capacity, but I think in many ways, the premise of forest planning has been flawed from the beginning. When you’re a forest company or you’re the Department of Forestry of a province, your mandate is to look at the forest and maximize the economic return that you get from that forest. But as an Innu forester, my first question when I look at the forest is what needs to stay for that forest to be able to make sure that I can continue to be Innu and the things that I depend on can continue to be who they are and what they are. Then what’s left over, then let’s figure out how to do that with the best standards globally. We’re Canada — we can choose the cadillac option of all of the options in forest management. So I do think that there is a need for the sector to rethink what has been essentially a luxury that it’s had because it’s operated in the world’s largest intact forest. When you do that, you have a sense of abundance and therefore, you’re not as worried about risk to those areas.

But, as an Indigenous person, I think about risk all the time. When we talk about the sacred gift or the sacred responsibility we receive from the creator, that’s the crux of it. We cannot affect our environment to a point where we’re hindering the opportunity for future generations. That’s why we have that instinct of saying what needs to stay as opposed to what can go in those forests. I do think that the forest sector needs to look at that. I do think that when it comes to species like caribou, we’re going to have to start to look at those choices. Let’s pick on the province of Quebec (my community that I’m a member of is in Quebec) — the premier says things like “we won’t sacrifice a job for a caribou.” I think that’s incredibly shortsighted and the wrong way of presenting the issue.

I’ve known so many people who work in the forest industry at all levels, and all of them love the bush. That’s part of who people are when you work in that industry. I don’t believe for a second that people are like these cartoon versions of humans that are just chomping away at the bush happily laughing as they’re chewing through. I think people want to do well by their environment. They want to do well by the forest. They trust professionals who are telling them that things are okay. But those professionals probably could do a little bit better about looking at the impact of the work over the long term — how these landscapes are truly managed and what the mosaic of the forest really looks like.

On what gives her hope

Oh, Guardians give me hope every day. It gives me hope when I hear mothers say “I hope my son or daughter will be a guardian when they grow up.” It gives me hope to know that there are people every day who are working hard to learn their language. There are more language speakers today than there were five years ago, than there were ten years ago. That’s exciting. The explosion of Indigenous crafting online — there’s like beaded earrings on every website and there’s moose hide camps… all of this is possible because people are returning to the land and able to source those materials and have the space and time to develop them. That artistic boom is incredibly hopeful to me. The fact that we’ve got more people going through post-secondary university, building and growing and asserting their leadership in the Indigenous community is exciting. We’ve had more women as Grand Chiefs than ever — let’s take my friend Mandy Gull-Masty of the Cree Nation of Quebec, she’s doing great work in that leadership. Also, seeing how young people are experiencing what the Elders have told us about, which is that when you go to the bush, you feel love. That’s when you think about the dark colonial period that we’ve just gone through in the 150 odd years — these kind of things are certainly what motivates me. And I hope that other Canadians also see hope in that. It’s not easy in these times when you turn on the news — you know, Ukraine and droughts and all of the things happening globally are kind of bombarded at you. But right here in Canada, that bright light of Indigenous assertion and power and, and care for our lands, I think is something that certainly gets me out of bed in the morning.

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