Thunder Bay

After interim licenses, First Nations group calls for long-term license to manage forest in traditional lands

A First Nations-owned resource management group in northwestern Ontario is calling on the provincial government to grant them a long-term license to manage a forest that is located within their own traditional lands.

The Ogoki Forest is located within the traditional lands of Aroland, Eabametoong and Marten Falls

The Agoke Development Corporation, co-owned by three northwestern Ontario First Nations, is calling on the provincial government to grant them a long-term licence to manage a forest located within their own traditional lands. (Submitted by Anthony Taylor)

A First Nations-owned resource management group in northwestern Ontario is calling on the provincial government to grant them a long-term license to manage a forest that is located within their own traditional lands.

The Agoke Development Corporation (Agoke)—which is jointly owned by the Aroland, Eabamentoong and Marten Falls First Nations—has been managing the Ogoki Forest on an interim basis since 2018, when they were granted a two-year contract. Earlier in 2020, the group had their two-year interim agreement renewed.

The group's business advisor Jason Rasevych said the interim agreements were put in place to allow the newly formed management group build relationships and develop capacity. But Rasevych said Agoke is now ready to take the next step and receive a long-term license, and is calling on Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) Minister John Yakabuski to make that happen.

"This First Nations group has been managing the local forest successfully over the past few years. And in order for them to be sustainable over the next 10-year forest management plan (FMP), they require a long-term management licence."

Rasevych said the group has developed a lot of capacity over the past few years, overseeing the maintenance of roads, developing silviculture programs, protecting culturally sensitive areas and animal habitats, as well as helping to develop the plan that will guide resource management in the Ogoki Forest for the next 10 years.

More than that, the forest is located within the traditional territories of the three First Nations and "there's a lot of land users from three First Nations that have utilized the Ogoki Forest for gathering medicines and also going out on the land to participate in traditional activities related to hunting and fishing and so forth," said Rasevych.

But Rasevych also sees it as a matter of implementing treaty requirements.

"We've got to think of it now being 115 years into James Bay Treaty 9. And that's where these three First Nations are really doing the job of trying to share the benefits of the land and to get management rights of their traditional lands through this long-term license."

Employment, green energy and carbon off-sets part of long-term vision for Ogoki Forest

Lawrence Baxter, the Marten Falls representative on Agoke's Board of Directors, said First Nations have been left out of the benefits of resource management in past years.

"In the past, we had very little opportunity to work in the forest. So having a role in the management will create economic opportunities. The MNRF has always had seasonal workers from the First Nations who would work a few months and then leave, but today we're trying to sustain employment for our First Nation people and get away from that idea of a government safety net fallback.

Baxter added, "we want First Nations to be self-sufficient and to feel good by working without this short-term employment. We want a better environment for the young people so they have meaningful employment."

Jason Rasevych, a business advisor for Agoke Development Corporation, says increased management rights for the First Nations-owned group is part of implementing the obligations set out in James Bay Treaty 9. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

And employment opportunities for the First Nations around the Ogoki Forest form just one part of the long-term vision for the region, according to Rasevych.

Through a partnership with Nakina Lumber, "there's an opportunity to have up to 75 per cent Indigenous employment in the operation. That wasn't there before when that facility operated during the 2000s and so it's an opportunity where we have First Nations that have 80 per cent unemployment rates," said Rasevych.

He added a longer term agreement would help create job training opportunities, and said Agoke is looking into opportunities to participate in carbon off-setting and is conducting research on "biomass feedstock to help scale capacity for micro-grids and energy sovereignty in the Far North."

'Building capacity and experience takes time': MNRF

Baxter was optimistic about the prospect of reaching a long-term licence with the government within the coming months.

"We have to convince the government that we can do this to hire the people and make the plans to do this, and I think we finally manage to do that. I think it's good that First Nations really want to work together and manage the forests on our traditional lands."

In a statement provided by email to CBC News, a spokesperson from the MNRF said, "our government understands the importance of the Ogoki Forest to the local economy and the opportunities it provides to surrounding Indigenous communities."

A statement from the office of John Yakabuski (pictured), Ontario Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, said building capacity and experience took time and it was interested in working with First Nations when it comes to forestry management. (CBC)

It goes on, "The ministry has been supporting Agoke Development Corp for several years in building capacity operationally and in terms of the planning and management of the Ogoki Forest. Moving into a full sustainable forest licence holder position with the management, operational and renewal responsibilities is best done gradually and with the right relationships between the company, the forest industry and government.

"Building capacity and experience takes time, but does not take away from the ministry's interest in continuing to work with Agoke Development Corporation and First Nations with interest in a long term forest licence."