Natives Are Defending Ontario Forests

by Dr. John Bacher (PhD) and Danny Beaton

Our Mother Earth is protectively robed in a cloak of beautiful forests, but in southern Ontario they are threatened by urban sprawl. Most of the remaining forests away from the northern taiga bogs and the rocky Canadian Shield are wetlands, which farmers have gained the wisdom to understand are unsuitable for agriculture. These vital wildlife refuges are now threatened by a policy review that has escaped coverage in the mainstream media outside of the Niagara Region.

Danny Beaton (left) and John Bacher (right) at Niagara Falls in 2016. Photo by Sandy Devih Heeralal

Danny Beaton (left) and John Bacher (right) at Niagara Falls in 2016. Photo by Sandy Devih Heeralal

The cornerstone of public policy in Ontario, whose concepts have emerged from the United States’ Clean Water Act and subsequent battles by environmentalists in the courts, is protected, achieved from the wetland policy mandated in 1992. It was achieved following a process triggered by the New Democratic Party (NDP) government of Ontario, and initiated by the previous Liberal government.

The core of the wetland policy is that once it has achieved a scoring of 600 points, a wetland is considered ‘provincially significant’, and is therefore legally prohibited from development and ‘site alteration’. Apart from having plant species that thrive in wet environments, what pushes the point score to the needed threshold is the presence of species at risk.

The wetland policy was one of the achievements by the NDP government when it was intensively consulting with native peoples on needed environmental reforms. During this time, the respected Iroquois Confederacy Chief Arnie General would complain about the need for better mileage allowances, although he tried to economize through getting around in a mini two-seat car.

During the early 1990’s when the wetland policy was being developed, Danny Beaton – a Mohawk of the Turtle Clan – worked closely with General and other environmentally concerned native leaders, such as Norm Jacobs. This experience put him in a good position in 2015, when brave public servants sent alarm signals privately to environmentalists, warning that two disturbing changes in public policy were being made to open up southern Ontario’s wetland forests to developers.

The two proposed changes were to the Conservation Authorities Act and the Provincial Wetland policy. Currently, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) evaluate wetlands. The policy change was to alter the Conservation Authorities Act in order to permit the staff of municipally appointed Conservation Authorities, subject to influence from developers, to evaluate wetlands. The other change was to allow currently protected, provincially significant wetlands to be destroyed by developers if compensation in the form of what was called, in a provincial consultation paper, ‘bio-diversity offsetting’.

In September 2015, Beaton journeyed to Newmarket, where the consultation on the Conservation Authorities Act was taking place with environmental groups. Beaton’s inspiring words denouncing the firing of the conservation authority staff, those who had worked to protect wetlands, woke up the environmentalists present. This discrediting of proposed alterations to the conservation legislation had the impact of developers putting even more pressure on the province to implement ‘bio-diversity offsetting’.

Developers targeted the 500-acre Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara Falls for what they termed a ‘pilot project’ in ‘bio-diversity offsetting’. The old growth forest – predominately oak – is a refuge for a number of endangered species. These include three species of bats, the rare Black Gum, the Wood Thrush, Acadian Flycatcher, Chimney Swift, Monarch Butterfly, the Nine Spotted Lady Beetle, and the Snapping Turtle. The forest is rich in vernal pools that provide critical habitat for obligate species, such as the Blue Spotted Salamander, and the Wood, Chorus, and Grey Tree Frogs. It also contains rare Buttonbush and Rufous Bullrush communities.

On April 12th, Beaton went to the Niagara Falls City Council to rescue the threatened Thundering Waters Forest. He spoke about the dangerous precedent that was attempted to be set at Thundering Waters, which could spread destruction to forests throughout Ontario.

City Hall Council Niagara Falls 2016.  Photo by photo by Sandy Devih Heeralal 2016

City Hall Council Niagara Falls 2016.  Photo by photo by Sandy Devih Heeralal 2016

Beaton’s words helped to inspire an Oneida resident of Niagara Falls, Karl Doxtater. He mobilized his extended family in Niagara Falls to take part in the struggle to save the Thundering Waters Forest. Doxtater also subsequently played a major role in mobilizing native leaders in the struggle on both sides of the Niagara River.

Doxtater played a key role in organizing a rally by the Indigenous Solidarity Coalition of Niagara on July 7th, 2016, in front of the City Hall of Niagara Falls. Here, native leaders who took part included Celeste Smith, Allan Jamieson, Lester Green, and Kelly Frantastic Davis.  Smith, who is of the Wolf Clan of the Oneida of Grand River, called for a “… moratorium on the development of the Thundering Waters Forest until a clear, transparent, public process can decisively establish a full social, environmental, and economic benefit of this forest remaining completely intact.”

In his many writings defending the Thundering Waters Forest, Doxtater penned the moving essay: ‘Life Cycle of a Niagara White Oak Tree’. The essay is a tribute to the tallest and oldest tree discovered in the threatened forest. Expert ecologist Dr. Barry Warner – a Mohawk of the Turtle Clan – estimates the tree to be 250 years old.

Doxtater wrote that “… almost 250 years ago, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, William Johnson, stood only a few miles” from the now great oak. It was just a seedling. Then in the Treaty of Niagara of 1763, Doxtater explains that Johnson “… planted the seeds for a covenant of peace that became formative in the country now called Canada. This agreement, the Treaty of Niagara, which came on the heels of the Royal Proclamation, laid the foundation to formalize the importance of Niagara as a traditional land of peace, strength, and integrity. Johnson understood better than any of his contemporaries that the only path to peace was by including the principles of people original to the land. Those legally affirmed principles of land stewardship – such as equal access to resources like water and air for all living things – now tower over the Western cultural appetite for endless exponential growth.”

Beaton and Doxtater woke up the residents of Niagara, and a few leaders of the environmental group. It is to be hoped that their message of the urgency to protect threatened forested wetlands, as well as its dependent wildlife, is heard more widely.

by Dr. John Bacher (PhD) and Danny Beaton