Interview By Billy Granger
In 2002, when I was working as the assistant director for the Wilderness Committee’s Manitoba office, the east side of Lake Winnipeg had already been established as an important battleground for competing interests. Industry, government, First Nations, environmentalists, and other non-profits anted in with funded efforts and dedicated personnel to meet with the other players to discuss, weigh, and vie for their various interests, and slog through the process of deciding the fate of one of the largest remaining tracts in intact boreal forest left on Earth. It was to be a protracted and bureaucratic affair that could last decades.
Between 2002 and 2004, I had been made increasingly aware of the accomplishments of a small community on the east side of Lake Winnipeg that would eventually garner international attention. Home to roughly 1300 Anishinabek people with a history in the area going back centuries, Poplar River First Nation had already been working tenaciously to achieve protection of their traditional home before I ever heard of them, and had already achieved interim protection from industrial developments for their homeland for five years. By 2004, interim protection was renewed for another five years for the 8000 square kilometer area.
It remains a significant accomplishment for Poplar River to have achieved this protection for such an expanse of forest on the highly contentious east side of Lake Winnipeg where the insatiable appetites of industry are ever looming. And it is one that has now received international attention.
In 2007, Sophia Bittern Rabliauskas, a community member of Poplar River First Nation, was the fourth Canadian in history to be awarded one of – if not thee – world’s most prestigious award for grassroots environmentalism – the Goldman Environmental Prize. The Goldman Prize annually honours grassroots environmentalists from the six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America. The Prize recognizes individuals for sustained and noteworthy efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great risk to themselves.
On June 15, 2008, I had the opportunity to interview Sophia Rabliauskas about the challenges and achievements faced by herself and her community, her feelings on industrial development, the forest, and the future. When we finally connect on the telephone, I introduce myself. Already, it is obvious from some of the words coming from Sophia that she is a community builder. She thanks me for the work I did with the Wilderness Committee toward protecting her traditional territory in 2004, and acknowledges that even though it can be challenging when resources are limited, by working together to protect this forest, we will make a global contribution. Her words are affirming, and I feel instant solidarity.
When I ask her about the challenges she and her community have faced working to establish the permanent protection of their traditional homeland, she provides me with a list that to many would seem insurmountable. In a community dealing with poverty and substance abuse, and still picking up the pieces from the effects of residential schools, Sophia and her fellow community members began the journey of learning in-depth what is happening to their community by researching the history, policies and legislation that affect them. But to do this, major language barriers had to be overcome.
“So we connected with people who have the expertise,” she explains. “Even though our community is isolated, we know what’s happening to indigenous people and their land all over the world. We don’t want the same fate. Instead, we will continue to teach our children to take care of the land.”
And so they have.
Over the years, Poplar River completed the final draft of a land management plan that includes full protection of their territorial lands from logging, mining, and hydroelectric developments, as well protection from drilling for oil, petroleum and natural gas. The plan safeguards traditional uses and stipulates that resource use and access by community members will be managed according to traditional values and knowledge.
“It’s frustrating when they tell you that by stopping [industrial] development, you’re stimulating poverty in the community,” says Rabliauskas. “Because if we lose the boreal forest – our traditional territory — our community will not survive.”
When I ask for more detail about what the alternatives are to industrial development, Sophia explains to me that we first must recognize that things will only get worse if we take too much from the Earth. From there, she explains how First Nations have different ideas as to how they can create economic development.
“[Some are] planning on expanding eco-tourism, starting small-scale, and then exploring further. There are other communities involved in the World Heritage Site, and we’d like to work together looking at eco-tourism to share with the world what we have.”
Sophia is referring to the Accord signed by four First Nations in Manitoba and Ontario to have their traditional territories linked by a common designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Accord endeavors to create a unique cooperative relationship in the spirit of advancing their common interests regarding protected areas in their respective territories. By utilizing eco-tourism, one of the fastest growing industries in the world, these First Nations would be able to economically capitalize on keeping the great forest on the east side of Lake Winnipeg intact.
“We’ve never had a concept of ownership over this land. We just take care of it for the next generation. Once this concept is grasped and embraced by people, our children will have a future.”
But economic development is not the only thing on minds of the Anishinabek from Poplar River. “Our community has a vision to build a community that is healthy first of all, then self-reliant,” explains Sophia. She tells me of healing camps that have been organized in her community where they take people out into the wilderness to heal and to learn about the history of their people.
Money from residential school payments have been used to fund camps for youth, families, women, and for those afflicted with diabetes, as well as those for people who suffered the tragedy of residential schools. Currently, they are preparing their sixth summer of camps.
In the end, she tells me, she is optimistic about the future as more indigenous people are getting involved in building awareness and understanding in the world. “They have a common goal,” states Sophia, “even though they have different ideas.”
“We’ve never had a concept of ownership over this land,” she said. “We just take care of it for the next generation. Once this concept is grasped and embraced by people, our children will have a future.”