THE BLOG

The Biggest Environmental Victory You've Never Heard About

08/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Looking for a little good news? Try this: earlier this month, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the largest forest conservation deal in Canadian history, and set an historic precedent for the rights of Indigenous people at the same time.

On July 14th, the Ontario government agreed to prohibit development on at least half of the remaining wilderness areas in the region's northern boreal forest -- protecting about 56 million acres.

To put this in perspective, 56 million acres is about half the size of California, or 80 times the size of Yosemite National Park. It's about equal to nearly all of the remaining roadless areas in the entire United States. If the government keeps its promise, we'll have protected the largest untouched forest in Canada and the 3rd largest wetland in the world.

Not too bad, eh?

As much as this is encouraging news for critters and the climate (northern boreal ecosystems store about 97 billion tons of CO2), it's also an important milestone for human rights in Canada, and maybe even the future of environmentalism.

Here's why. In addition to committing to protect important wilderness areas, the Ontario government also acknowledged its responsibility to seek the consent of its Indigenous people, stating, "Because any decision on development has the greatest affect on communities, local planning will only be done in agreement with First Nations."

That might seem like a simple statement, but it has huge ramifications. As we learned in grade school, the last several centuries of human history is filled with ugly, tragic stories of Indigenous people being decimated or forced off their land by settlers and, more recently, industrial development. From the Amazon to Alberta, Indigenous communities continue to be threatened by oil, logging, mining, and other industries. But if the Ontario Government keeps its word, the 36 First Nations communities living in this region would have the right to refuse destructive projects on their territory.

That's a huge victory, and it was won by a unique coalition that realized that environmental and human rights are one and the same. Indigenous communities such as Grassy Narrows, KI, Ardoch, Six Nations and others have been on the front lines of battles to assert their sovereign rights. In coordination with an international alliance of environmental, labor, and immigrant rights organizations, students, faith-based communities, and human rights groups, they've blockaded logging roads, lobbied the provincial government, and have created the political space for change. "It is critical that any development of natural resources in the Far North must respect Aboriginal and treaty rights while supporting an environmentally sustainable economic future for our people," says Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Stan Beardy.

What's next? First, we need to follow through to make sure this victory is fully realized. Visit here for the latest update. Meanwhile, a similar coalition of diverse interests can encourage other provinces in Canada to follow Ontario's lead. On the heels of the boreal victory, last week the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations filed a suit against the Alberta and federal government, asking the court to rule invalid the government authorization for thousands of oil projects on the band's core territory.

It is clear that we are witnessing a transformation of the values and voices that determine resource extraction in Canada. The boreal is "unspoiled and undisturbed," Ontario Premier McGuinty says. "And if there's one thing we know for sure, it's not going to stay that way forever unless we do something...It's our responsibility as global citizens to get this right and to act now."

Amen! Care to join us to make sure he keeps his word?