Paul Chief

Posted on March 11th, 2010

A Response to the Wabanong Nakaygum Okimawin (WNO)

Written by C. Hunnie

Paul Chief, a member of Brokenhead First Nation, is a committed and active citizen on issues that affect First Nations. The list of the many projects he has been involved with is extensive. He has sat on the board of directors of the Manitoba Model Forest since 1996. He has served on his community’s council for four terms, or eight years. Since 2003, he has been a committee member of the Manitoba chapter of the First Nation Forestry Program. He is also the vice president of First Nation Forestry Limited Partnership. This story focuses on his experience as a participant on the Eastside Land Use Planning Committee, now known as the Wabanong Nakaygum Okimawin (WNO).

The WNO initiative attempts to bring together local communities, First Nations, industry, and environmental organizations to develop strategies for land and resource use on the east side of Lake Winnipeg that respects both the value of the boreal forest and the needs of local communities. The WNO mandate is to establish a government-to-government relationship that will “reinforce the foundation for the most comprehensive traditional land use planning in this country” (Government of Manitoba).

The east side of Lake Winnipeg planning area, encompassing an area 83,000 square kilometers in size, contains a largely intact boreal forest ecosystem. Of the people that reside there, 97 % are First Nations that are directly affected by any land-use decisions made in the area. The government need for consultations with First Nations communities in the area is logical and legally required. This ambitious process has yet to produce significant progress.

“I think I was chosen by the government as a participant because of my involvement in forestry projects in the past. I’m from Brokenhead but Brokenhead is outside of the boundaries assigned to the east side.” Perplexed by the fact that he was outside of the planning area, yet asked to contribute to its development, Mr. Chief explained the implications of his involvement. “The process was so new. When they started talking about borders and how big of a land mass this really was, I looked around the table and I was disappointed to see that there was not enough brown faces there. A few of us were adamant that things had to change. This is not the proper process. I felt uncomfortable about speaking about what Berens River wanted, or Island Lakes. It makes things difficult. You try to do the right thing.”

“When they started talking about borders and how big of a land mass this really was, I looked around the table and I was disappointed to see that there was not enough brown faces there.”

“First Nations on the east side didn’t realize that people would pay to recreate these areas and that tourism was a good economic opportunity for them.”

For Mr. Chief it is all about the people, about respect. “We said we need to talk to the people so we should go to them. Forget Hydro. We know what they want; they shouldn’t be selling a transmission line and then we come in and start talking about what we should protect. When we went to the communities everyone thinks that you’re trying to sell them something. They have never seen so many influential people in their communities before, all with something to say. There were people and organizations they had never heard of before and they were all attending this big community meeting.”

Mr. Chief likens his role at the community meetings to the stereotype of the smiling, statuesque or “wooden Indian,” He explains that being an Aboriginal person and going to these communities is difficult. “People believe you are a sell out and they take out their frustrations on you. So it took a lot to get to know the local people and to gain credibility with them, in order to actually get them on board. I was happy to leave when it was over. Why should I have a say in these people’s backyards? It’s up to them.”

The WNO was something new that had never been done before. Consequently, there are many challenges with it. A lack of meaningful action was perhaps the strongest criticism Mr. Chief assigned to the process. “An elder said to me, don’t be a rez dog. A rez dog is always chasing something. He chases you; he chases cars. But when the car stops, the dog doesn’t know what to do. Be prepared, and don’t pursue what you don’t intend — or aren’t able — to act on. The province of Manitoba wanted to do it right but they had no expertise. They had no way of bringing First Nations people, industry, and stakeholders all to the table and get them to talk.”

How do you increase involvement from the people that will be the most affected by decisions on the east side? How do you get more vocal people out that have the highest stake in the outcome? All good questions Mr. Chief says. “Nobody has the answer. Those of us who participated asked the question. Personally, I think in the end it is what government wants and in the end the government is happy just to keep people talking. Enough money was spent on talking, let’s put some of that money into getting results. What I mean by results is, have the land-use studies been completed, and are Aboriginal communities that will be affected aware of all their assets? Maybe you can ask the government that question because I don’t get an answer.”

What the WNO process and other consultations identified is that there is significant interest regarding eco and cultural tourism ventures for First Nations on the east side. In response to this identified interest a separate community-driven organization called Eastside Aboriginal Sustainable Tourism Inc (East Inc) was created by a volunteer Board of Directors to support the development and expansion of new and existing Aboriginal tourism businesses on the east side of Lake Winnipeg (www.eastinc.ca).

“First Nations on the east side didn’t realize that people would pay to recreate these areas and that tourism was a good economic opportunity for them. The idea behind this was to build capacity for the communities so they can have their own economic ventures.”

E.A.S.T. Inc. is a community-driven initiative, created and facilitated by people from the east side. As an economic development initiative that supports the development and expansion of new and existing Aboriginal Tourism businesses, communities on the east side will benefit from an increased awareness of cultural identity, increased employment, and revenue. In addition, eco and cultural tourism based economies benefit from protection of healthy and intact boreal forests. A thriving tourist industry will help to keep industrial developments such as logging and mining from negatively impacting the area. The significance of which Mr. Chief reveals in a simple but powerful statement, “If the land is unhealthy, then guess what, so are we.”