Professors, students and alumni are working with Aboriginal groups to find answers to big questions about the future of their forests
First Nations made British Columbia’s forests their home for thousands of years, but in the 20th century they were abruptly cut out of decision-making. Now they are slowly regaining their right to participate in the decision-making process and UBC Forestry professors, students and alumni want to support them.
“There is a dark past in forestry where First Nations were not meaningfully engaged,” says Gary Bull, a UBC professor of Forest Resources Management who has been working with the Nuxalk First Nation in Bella Coola.
In 2011, the Nuxalk First Nation was granted a 48,614-hectare Community Forest Licence. Bull recruited forestry and architecture students to work with the Nuxalk Economic Development Corporation and the community on nine projects related to forest products.
One School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture student has designed a culturally appropriate residence for community elders made out of wood from the surrounding forest. Another group of students assessed whether the community could use waste wood to produce energy instead of using diesel generators.
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Related: A dark history
But when it comes to decision-making, the community is divided. Some feel the old growth should be left alone and others want economic development with sustainable forestry. The collaboration between UBC and Nuxalk was intended to help the community decide how to manage their forests, develop their economy, and address their needs in housing and energy.
“We are working with the scraps left behind from big companies and we’re fighting over what’s left,” says Spencer Siwallace, a 2001 UBC forestry graduate who was the chief of Nuxalk when they first got their Community Forest Licence.
“We managed our forests sustainably for thousands of years and then there was this blip of unsustainability. Now the science and the regulations are catching up and Indigenous people are getting more involved in managing the resources.”
After graduating from the Forest Resources Management program, Siwallace worked in forestry for several years on Vancouver Island and in the Lower Mainland. He returned home in 2007 and was almost immediately elected Chief. Today he serves on the community’s council and worked with some of the graduate students to provide feedback on their work.
Siwallace points out that many people in his community see themselves as Nuxalk first, not British Columbian or Canadian. As such, they should be governed according to their own cultural values and laws.
This is the perspective that Bull hopes his students will understand. “Spencer challenges people to see a new way of looking at things. It is helpful to have people like him involved in the project so that students can hear these things from First Nations themselves.”
Since forest professionals must change the way they work with First Nations, Bull and his colleague Professor John Nelson want UBC graduates to get this experience before entering the workforce.
“To be effective you have to learn about their culture and values, their respect for elders and their ways of seeing the connections of the forest.”
They have developed strong relationships with First Nations across the province including the Nuxalk First Nation, the Klahoose First Nation, and many Keyoh holders near Fort St. James. In the past six years more than 160 undergraduate and graduate students have worked closely with First Nations on projects.
Bull says students are transformed by the experience. This is important as indigenous people around the world are slowly regaining some control over their natural resources.
“No matter who they work with, students are learning what it takes to find a constructive path forward.”
Video: UBC Forestry Alumni
Aboriginal forestry offers learning, career opportunities
When it comes to thinking about your plans after high school, forestry isn’t always top of mind. But for a number of Aboriginal students, studying forestry can pave the way to a fulfilling career.
“It’s an interesting time for First Nations to be involved in forestry,” says Jason Earle who is transferring into forestry this fall. “There are a lot of changes taking place. First Nations are striving for decision-making power.”
Earle has a chemistry background and started a science degree at UBC but decided to transfer to the Aboriginal and Community Forestry specialization after a conversation with Andrea Lyall, sessional instructor and Aboriginal Initiatives Coordinator at the Faculty of Forestry. Part of his program could involve spending a summer in Haida Gwaii learning about forestry from elders. Eventually he hopes to enter the industry as a forester-in-training and gain the professional designation of registered-professional-forester.
“I felt like it was for me, it was something I should have done earlier,” he says. “I’ve never felt so supported and encouraged.”
One of the best-kept secrets at UBC is that nearly 100 per cent of forestry graduates are employed after five years.
“Growing up, you hear about the typical jobs like being a doctor but there are so many different opportunities in this field,” says Sandra Ramsden, who will be graduating from the Faculty’s Natural Resource Conservation program this month.
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Ramsden wants to get into the field of fish and stream ecology with a focus on habitat compensation, restoration and management near hydroelectric projects. She was just awarded an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Assistantship and plans to head to graduate school but first she’ll be sharing her university experience with other Aboriginal youth.
Ramsden worked hard to secure sponsorship to study forestry. The five-year process involved extensive research, putting together a detailed education plan, and applying to her band, the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation in Scanturbury, MB, and other Aboriginal organizations for funding.
Over the holidays, Ramsden and Lyall visited schools around the Lower Mainland with high numbers of Aboriginal youth. Ramsden talked to them about studying forestry and the sponsorship process and was pleased with the response. Now she is taking her story to youth living in the communities that sponsored her.
“There is a huge social component to managing resources where we have to consider the way people interact with nature and how we rely on it,” says Ramsden. “I hope I can inspire people to think about this relationship.”
A dark history
Historically First Nations never signed over land rights in treaty settlements yet the B.C. government leased this land to forestry companies. Many agree that the arrangements saw everyone but First Nations benefit, and they went to court to challenge the system.
A 1997 Supreme Court decision recognized that Aboriginal land title exists in B.C. and that the government has a duty to consult with First Nations on issues related to Crown land. This decision was a turning point for the industry but trying to interpret what it meant has proven difficult.
Now, almost 20 years later, the answers are still not clear and the relationship between industry, government and First Nations is still on the mend, which is where Bull and his colleagues want to help.
After negotiating with forest companies and First Nations, provincial governments reallocated forests in various ways. Some First Nations have secured Community Forest Licenses and First Nations Woodland Licences.
“They are learning what it takes to manage the forests under present regulations,” says Bull. “They will build their technical capacity and then they will take over more management responsibilities on the forest land.”