Increasing The Capacity Of First Nation Forestry Stewards

By Malcolm McColl

Secwepemc communities in BC now have modern land-use management systems designed by First Nations for their own use. Chief Judy Wilson, Neskonlith Indian Band, studied information management at the En’owkin Centre, an arts and publishing institute in the Okanagan Nation, and later worked with Chief Atahm School to create a digital Secwepemc language and culture centre on Little Shuswap Lake operated by Adams Lake Indian Band. Chief Atham School is western Canada’s only First Nation language immersion school.

Caring for the land is paramount for Neskonlith Band, and Chief Wilson says, “Only through a collective process can we achieve this.” She says caring for the land goes beyond stewardship, “it includes the land, the animals, plants, eco-systems, people, and spiritual connection with all living things.” Today’s challenges include both restoration of forests and lands as well as cleaning up the lakes and rivers and old industry sites like mining tailing ponds. The chief says, “Our customary laws set out use, access, responsibilities for ‘Caring for the Land’ and how these resources were shared through kinship ties and historical accords or treaties.” Neskonlith is working collectively with the Sexqeltkemc Division, which currently includes Adams Lake and Splat’sin, who signed a protocol in June 2009.

Chief Wilson notes, “Court decisions in northwest BC place the burden directly on First Nations to respond to Crown-oriented land use referrals, that are slapped together with mis-coordinated maps and no standards of reference to the maze of contents.” The priority of reports does not reference the depth of concern about First Nations land issues. The level of Aboriginal interest must come from First Nations, but financing is nonexistent, and very few industry or government agencies are willing to provide referral payments to First Nations.

Chief Wilson comes from a land claims background within her family, and learned important lessons from people like Jeanne Joseph, a Haida/Nisga’a woman who teaches information access and retrieval systems for territorial claims. Neskonlith Indian Band, Adams Lake Indian Band, and Little Shuswap Indian Band own a collective history and share knowledge streams about land use within their traditional territory. Adams Lake and Neskonlith partnered with DR Systems, Inc. to design an automated Referral Tracking System (RTS) distributed via community workshops to provide a land use management process and allow multiple levels of response to Crown referrals.

The RTS is an information management system that can be linked with a database or used as a stand-alone unit. A GIS mapping systems was initially developed through BC Capacity funds with the Adams Lake, Neskonlith, and Little Shuswap Bands and is developing into an online governance tool to service the Sexqeltkemc Division and the Secwepemc Nation. This will provide capacity for communities with GIS mapping tools to develop impact, infringement, and interest reports that can help them make informed decisions about territorial lands and resources. Adams Lake and Neskonlith are working collectively with Sexqeltkemc Division and Shuswap Nation to assert Title and Rights over lands and resources within territorial lands. GIS mapping and resource management initiatives link to regional and Nation level.

Dozens of Bands are using RTS software around the province. Wilson notes Secwepemc communities are, “innovators and leaders in many areas, and a key concern for many Bands is land use management within their traditional territories.” She said, “It really works because our land use planning focuses on community growth [and continuous reflection upon stewardship] as the ancestors expect. We have the ability to monitor project encroachment in the nation down to the effects on a particular stand of trees.”

RTS software fits the Tools for Success program offered by INAC and StatsCan and is also useful in areas like health care, water management, and emergency call centres. Communities are undertaking a comprehensive planning process, and the RTS can help reconstitute stewardship of traditional territories. “We know where we feel at home,” Judy says, “in connection with the land and water that has been our identity. We keep turning to the Elders for teaching. We don’t have the land base we used to, and it cut us off from knowing our territory.” She adds, “In future, territorial demands upon data will add to the capacity for First Nation governance. We seek enhancement of stewardship over natural resources, our own health, and the technical capacity to stay in our roles as stewards of these lands.”