'The land belongs to everyone': Innu communities and conservation groups working together

Conservation organizations like UNESCO and Parks Canada are working with Innu communities in northeastern Quebec and Labrador to protect traditional lands in the area, and those partnerships are benefitting everyone involved.

Communities of Pessamit and Ekuanitshit work with UNESCO, Parks Canada to protect traditional lands

Innu have been coming to the Mingan Archipelago beach for thousands of years to hunt, fish and gather food. (Ossie Michelin)

For thousands of years, the Innu First Nation of northeastern Quebec and Labrador have been watching over the land. No one knows this area, known as among the Innu as Nitassinan, better than them.

That is why conservation organizations like Parks Canada and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) are reaching out to partner with the Innu for their mutual benefit.

"Groups like UNESCO can benefit from our Indigenous knowledge to create policies and measures to protect the environment," said Raymond Rousselot, a band councillor with the Pessamit Innu First Nation.

"Our partnership with UNESCO becomes a symbol of honour, it is something our young people can be proud of, and it is proof to the outside world we value our land."

On National Aboriginal Day this year, the community of Pessamit and other Innu communities on the North Shore reaffirmed the partnership they had made with UNESCO 10 years ago.

The Manicouagan–Uapishka Biosphere Reserve was first designated in 2007 by UNESCO and since then, it has helped the Innu preserve and protect over 3,000 square kilometres of the their traditional habitat.

An unmarked river inland along the way to the Manicouagan–Uapishka Biosphere Reserve, which was first designated by UNESCO in 2007. (Ossie Michelin)

'The land belongs to everyone'

With the new agreement this year, a program is being developed to bring Innu youth up to partner with researchers, share knowledge of the land and learn valuable research skills.

"These kinds of connections are important because we depend on our territory and the environment for our food and culture. The purpose of an Indigenous person is to protect their environment and our way of life," explained Rousselot.

"We are part of the Earth, the Earth is not a part of us, and there's a difference: we need the Earth to survive, but it doesn't need us. We don't have the notion of property, the land belongs to everyone."

For much of their history, conservation groups like UNESCO and Indigenous Peoples did not always see eye to eye. Conservationists tried to protect nature from people, including Indigenous people.

However, according to Meriem Bouamrane, UNESCO specialist for the international Man and Biosphere Programme, that attitude has changed and everyone is the better for it.

A view from inland in the Innu territory of Nitassinan, in what is now Quebec. (Ossie Michelin)

"Some of the knowledge you have in Indigenous communities is coming from the fact they never saw themselves separated from nature. And because of that, they were always respectful of it, living within the its boundaries, never taking more than they needed," explained Bouamrane.

"There are more and more people everywhere on this planet starting to think that the way we treat resources and the way we use them is really important — there are limits and we must live within them. There's this shift in consciousness about our relationship and our interdependency on nature, and that is a lesson we can all learn from Indigenous people."

Protecting lands for generations

Just under 500 kilometres east from Pessamit, along the St. Lawrence River, is the Innu community of Ekuanitshit. The community has been working with Parks Canada for nearly 30 years.

In 1988, the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve was established within the community's traditional lands. By remaining a park reserve, instead of a national park, the Innu can maintain their traditional practices within the area — hunting, fishing and gathering.

The plan is to someday turn the park reserve into a national park, but not until a deal has been reached with the Innu.

Ekuanitshit Chief Jean-Charles Petashue speaks to C3 expedition participants in his community. (Jo-Ann Wilkins/Canada C3 Program)

The Innu refer to the Mingan Archipelago as the "Mille Petit Enfants" in French, or "Thousands of Little Children" in English. It is a place where their ancestors hunted seals and bears, collected sea bird eggs, and feasted on berries — a tradition they carry to this day.

For Ekuanitshit Chief Jean-Charles Petashue, the islands are just as much a part of the communities as he is.

"The Innu are the people who have been watching over this land for generations, and the park realizes this," said Petashue.

"We realize that Parks Canada can help us protect our lands for generations to come from mineral exploitation. Already on our land, there are many mines and dams, and even more are being explored every day. This is an area that we must work together to protect for the generations to come."

For Parks Canada it is a win-win situation — both sides benefit from their partnership — but most importantly, it is a way to protect the area.

"We share from the experience and expertise in the development of tourism in the region," says Dany Lebrun, field unit superintendent with the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve.

"In return, we benefit by sharing in their knowledge of the land that dates back thousands of years, and at the same time we can learn from a culture and way of life that is completely different than our own. It's the sharing of opinions, finding common grounds, and a shared love of nature."

Chief Petashue says he hopes more Indigenous Peoples will make partnerships with conservationists because he believes they have the same goal in mind: to ensure the natural world will be there for generations to come.