Sophia Rabliauskas

Posted on March 11th, 2010

Boreal Forest Activist Receives Order of Manitoba

By Chris Webb (Reprinted with the permission of the Drum)

In 2004, residents of Poplar River First Nation convinced the Manitoba Government to stop all mining and logging on their traditional land, 600km northeast of Winnipeg, for the next five years. Sophia Rabliauskas is a member of this community and at the forefront of their struggle for full protection. She is now being recognized for her tenacity with one of the province’s highest awards, the Order of Manitoba.

“It feels great to be recognized,” Rabliauskas says. “It’s good because it gives the whole community of Poplar River the support we need and it’s also bringing a sense of pride to the community and the people.”

In 2002, Rabliauskas, along with several other community members developed a comprehensive land protection and management plan for their territory-a precedent setting accomplishment among First Nations in the boreal. The plan outlines core elements for the protection of the forests, such as respecting traditional knowledge; benefiting from environmental analysis; developing economic opportunities, including protection of traditional hunting, trapping and fishing activities; and creating sustainable tourism opportunities.

“It’s been a long process and the work continues to protect the land,” she says. “We got temporary protection but what we really need is full protection of this land, and we’re busy negotiating with the provincial government now to get that.”

Rabliauskas is working with other First Nations in the area to safeguard an even larger section of the boreal forest and declare it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. She hopes her work will be an inspiration to other First Nations who face similar challenges protecting their land. Vast areas of Canada’s boreal forest have been clear-cut by logging companies and subject to invasive mining development. The Boreal Forest Network reports that nearly 65 per cent of Canada’s boreal forests have been slated for long term clear-cut.

“It’s been a long process and the work continues to protect the land. We got temporary protection but what we really need is full protection of this land, and we’re busy negotiating with the provincial government now to get that.”

“She’s been a consistent voice and advocate for protecting traditional territory and an international voice for protecting the boreal forest. It’s great that she’s being recognized for her work.”

Environmentalists and residents fear that these boundless forests could be the next target of the world’s pulp and paper industry. Gaile Whelan Enns, Manitoba Wildlands director, says Rabliauskas’s involvement in her community has to do with preserving the traditional knowledge that has been passed down to her. “She’s been a consistent voice and advocate for protecting traditional territory and an international voice for protecting the boreal forest. It’s great that she’s being recognized for her work,” she says.

A recent climate action plan released by the Manitoba government says they are committed to, “working together with the Government of Ontario and First Nations Communities to sustain one of the largest untouched tracts of boreal forest in North America through a UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.”

In April last year, Rabliauskas was one of the six activists to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco for her work. Only three other Canadians have received the award.

More information on her community’s work protecting the boreal forest can be found at: www.poplarriverfirstnation.ca