The Cree First Nation of Waswanipi, Que. is fighting to protect one of Quebec's last remaining virgin boreal forests from forestry development.

Located about 730 kilometres north of Montreal, the community of Waswanipi describes itself as the "gateway to northern Quebec."

The Waswanipi Cree territory covers an area slightly smaller than Switzerland, and Chief Marcel Happyjack says 90 per cent of that territory has already been harvested or carved up by logging.

'We just want something that will ensure the protection of the Cree rights ... and also to protect the species that are within that area,' - Waswanipi Chief Marcel Happyjack

Now the community is taking a stand to protect the remaining 10 per cent — or about 4,000 square kilometres — of virgin boreal forest called the Broadback Valley forest.

The swath of land is in the heart of the Waswanipi Cree First Nation territory, and it's one of the last remaining intact boreal forests in Quebec.

It's an area which the community says is central to the Cree way of life.

Plans for forestry development in the region call for building 126 kilometres of roads through the territory, which would encroach on a section of the Broadback River Valley forest.

"If they do go ahead, we would see over 113,000 hectares of land gone within two years," Happyjack said. "That would bring total devastation to the trappers' way of life, which is hunting, fishing and trapping."

broadback river valley forest

The Broadback Valley Forest, central to the Cree way of life, is one of Quebec's last virgin boreal forests. (Greenpeace)

Caribou population at risk

"We're not anti-development," Happyjack said. "We're not anti-forestry, but we just want something that will ensure the protection of the Cree rights ... and also to protect the species that are within that area."

Since 2002, the local community has been asking the province of Quebec to protect that land — home to bears, moose, migratory birds and woodland caribou — classified as a threatened species  by the Canadian government.

The roads would not go through the area in question, but they would come close.

Happyjack said if the firm that wants to construct the roads, Matériaux Blanchet Inc., does get the green light, he has no doubt there will be an impact on the caribou.

Khalie Reign Sanipass waswanipi

Khalie Reign Sanipass, a resident of Waswanipi, holds up a model forest she brought with her to the COMEX hearing. (Submitted by Allan Saganash)

"That caribou [population] is decreasing. We know that there's a lot of disturbance because of forestry and because of roads being built, and this species seems to be moving farther away from the territory," said Happyjack.

"Our people — our trappers and our tallymen — are able to see that there's something that's bringing a disturbance upon the wildlife there," he said.

Tallymen are the stewards of the land, authorized by the Cree community to supervise harvesting activities on a given trapline.

The proposed logging roads are currently under review.

An independent government agency, known as the Environmental and Social Impact Review committee (COMEX), held a public hearing in Waswanipi and has consulted planning documents and environmental impact studies.

Now the residents of Waswanipi are waiting to hear what recommendations COMEX will make to Quebec's minister of sustainable development.

'Put faith in consultation,' Grand Council urges

Concerns about the protection of the Broadback Valley forest have also pitted Waswanipi against Quebec's Grand Council of the Crees, to which the Waswanipi Cree belongs.

Last July, the Crees' Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come signed a partnership and co-operation agreement with the Quebec government, aimed at resolving a longstanding dispute with the forestry industry over a huge swath of territory of the James Bay Crees.

At that time, Coon Come said the agreement would not affect the Broadback River Watershed Conservation plan.

The Grand Council's executive director, Bill Namagoose, told CBC that Waswanipi should put its faith in the consultation process, which he said is going well.

Namagoose said in any event, the forestry companies don't want to cross into the Broadback River Valley forest because they would have to build a bridge. 

Now that the public hearings have wrapped up, there is a 30-day waiting period to allow for stakeholders to submit further statements and comments on the project before COMEX submits its report to Quebec.

A spokesman for the Minister of Sustainable Development, David Heurtel, said the minister would not comment, as the COMEX process is still underway.

waswanipi map

The Cree First Nation of Waswanipi, described as the "gateway to Northern Quebec," is located about 730 kilometres north of Montreal. (Google Maps)