Investing in Our Forests as a Path to Reconciliation

Apr 18, 2023 | JP Gladu, Chairman, Canada's Forest Trust


The forests of North America have undergone significant transformation since European settlement. As First Nations people, we see our relationship with Mother Earth and her forests as mutually sustaining. By contrast, European settlers viewed the land as wild and unmanaged. In relatively short order, these settlers began harnessing forests for industry and clearing the land for agriculture and urbanization. Through colonization and displacement, Indigenous people’s political, cultural, educational, and spiritual institutions were all but annihilated. With that went Indigenous knowledge and traditional stewardship practices.  As a result of settler dominance, exploitation and discrimination, today’s forests are “younger, more fragmented and homogenized” and, by extension, much less resilient and biodiverse than they once were.

That said, I am confident a new era has arrived.

In June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) tabled its “Calls to Action” Report recommending that Canadian governments at all levels use the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation. Of note, Article 29 (1) of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes that any meaningful path to reconciliation must include acknowledgement of the environment: “Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources. States shall establish and implement assistance programs for Indigenous peoples for such conservation and protection, without discrimination.” In the words of Anishinaabe Elder Mary Deleary, the work of reconciliation must honour our ancestors, respect the land, and rebalance relationships. 

A more sustainable, inclusive approach to forestry is a step along this path toward rebalancing relationships, and I see change coming across four key pillars.  

1. Land rights acknowledgement

To Indigenous peoples, the land belongs only to the Creator, and as its stewards, it was ours to care for, use – and to share if we chose. Over time, however, settlers increasingly viewed the many millions of unfarmed, undeveloped hectares of land as ‘Crown land,’ public land – their land. A new process for negotiating the fair distribution of lands and resources was adopted in the last decade. Currently, steps are being taken to provide enough lands and resources to meet Indigenous nations’ immediate needs. At the same time, Indigenous communities across Canada have been setting up protected areas and land guardianship, and our momentum is only growing. The non-profit Indigenous Leadership Initiative Indigenous guardians resources monitor program, led by Valérie Courtois is a perfect example. Courtois is a registered professional forester and the driving force behind the growing role of the Indigenous Guardians program in preserving Canada’s boreal forest and our wilderness. This repatriation of stewardship is already positively contributing to the health of our forests and Canada’s climate action agenda, and it must continue.

2. True collaboration

Before the arrival of Europeans in North America, Indigenous peoples were organized as sovereign nations. We had our own cultures, economies, governments, and laws. Through colonization, Indigenous ways were viewed as inferior and many of the structures of self-determination were severely incapacitated. The definition of meaningful engagement has evolved to a standard whereby agreements which touch upon Indigenous peoples and their rights, including their lands, territories and resources, must first secure the “free, prior, and informed consent” of those Indigenous peoples. While we are very aware that there continue to be instances where that minimum standard is challenged, the “principles of consultation and consent” have the objective of “avoiding the imposition of the will of one party over the other” and “striving for mutual understanding and consensual decision-making.” One of the aspects that appeal to me most about Canada’s Forest Trust Corporation (CFT) is that we approach working with Indigenous communities from this perspective. As honest brokers between corporations with money to invest and communities that require the investment, CFT respects and support Indigenous communities to fulfil their vision for their land and forest restoration. At every step, all parties are equal around the table.

3. Combining traditional knowledge with innovation

Indigenous peoples have been stewards of the land since time immemorial. We do not see ourselves as separate from nature; we are part of it. Therefore, it should be unsurprising that most aspects of our lives revolve around honouring, respecting, and doing what is best for people and planet. Our traditional knowledge of the interrelatedness of soil, water, air, plants and animals has led to sustainable forest management techniques that have been tested and proven time after time.

For example, the United Nations Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services noted that “lands and waters managed by Indigenous Peoples worldwide tend to be healthier and more vibrant.”

University of British Columbia study found that the number of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles in Canada and elsewhere were highest on lands managed by Indigenous communities. In contrast, Western appreciation for ecosystems and biodiversity is a relatively new phenomenon.

And yet, what Mi’kmaq elder Albert Marshall calls “Two-Eyed Seeing” – the combining of advancements in science and technology with Indigenous-led and informed forestry practices  – is proving to be vital to Canada’s success in preserving our native biodiversity and taking on climate change. To bring traditional Indigenous knowledge into the forest planning and conservation equation, Indigenous Knowledge Keepers must be included in the earliest discussions around any project, and respect for the value of their expertise and experience requires that they be acknowledged and compensated appropriately.

4. Mutual sustainability and inclusive economy

As I’ve noted, Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the land is one of reciprocity. We take care of nature, and in return, nature feeds and shelters us, and in this modern world, it also generates good jobs and income. Identifying ways for Indigenous communities to equitably share in the economic opportunities arising from resource development is a crucial tenant of Truth and Reconciliation because sound environmental stewardship does not mean never taking from the land. Rather, it means that when you take from the land, you do so in ways that minimize long-term harm, improve long-term health and allow nature to replenish itself. As most Indigenous communities are in or near forested lands, ensuring our equitable share of Canada’s sustainable forestry future economic potential contributes to the prosperity of Canada and its Indigenous people. In our current economic climate, economic reconciliation offers a competitive edge, lending a degree of trust and credibility, particularly in ESG investing. In fact, it is time to formally add ‘I’ for Indigenous to the business equation, not as a “tick-the- box” exercise, but a recognition of the largely untapped potential of Indigenous businesses and workers and acknowledgment that Canada’s economic future will be built in partnership with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

There is no more straightforward expression of Truth and Reconciliation.

This site is registered on as a development site.