The foundations of Canada’s forestry sector are changing as First Nations, strengthened by legal victories and legislation, look for more control of the woods.
A greater share of forestry rights could help open the way to greater economic independence, and is backed by a growing body of case law that affirms treaty rights, land title and duties to consult, said Peggy Smith, a forestry expert at Lakehead University.
“Those laws are having an impact across the country, and I think provincial governments that issue forest licences are much more aware now of the duty to consult and responsibility to engage with First Nations before they make even strategic-level decisions,” Smith said.
There have been significant changes in recent decades on the question of who gets the right to manage and harvest Crown forests, though rights are still largely locked up in long-term agreements with major forestry companies.
In the early 1980s, Indigenous-held tenure made up about 0.05 per cent of Canada’s total wood supply, while in 2017, with less overall supply, Indigenous Peoples held 10.5 per cent, according to a report from the National Aboriginal Forestry Association.
The share had not changed much since a report in 2013, but that could change as several provincial initiatives get underway and provinces commit to the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In British Columbia, where Indigenous tenure stood at 11.6 per cent in 2017, the NDP government passed a bill at the end of May to give it the right to review forest tenure transfers between companies.
The law allows the government to block transfers not in the public interest, which could open the potential of diverting more tenure to First Nations, said Charlene Higgins, CEO of the B.C. First Nations Forestry Council.
“Nations want a bigger say in the management and use of forest lands and resources in their territories, and access to more tenure. That’s the key to Bill 22, not only to level the playing field, but to support the government’s commitment to reconciliation and implementation of UNDRIP.”