Indigenous peoples must be heard above the roar of Canada’s forest fires

08 August 2021

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CANADA – As Toronto and cities from Vancouver to Montreal deal with smoke pollution from fires raging hundreds — and even thousands — of kilometres away, it is Indigenous peoples who face the brunt of the summer’s devastating blazes. These infernos grow bigger and more numerous by the day in this record-scorching heat, and they are threatening Indigenous communities and traditional lands across the vast northern boreal forest.

Fires themselves are nothing new. They are a natural part of the forest life cycle, and Indigenous communities have dealt with them — reactively and though preventative measures — for millennia. But the changing climate has intensified fires through longer and dryer summer months, leaving many of us working on the fire line wondering how we might adapt to this “new normal.”

That’s why Indigenous techniques must be harmonized with forest management strategies, and yet too often they are ignored. Our knowledge is dismissed or underutilized; our warnings are lost in the roar of the flames.

This must change. Indigenous expertise is needed now more than ever as we enter a new era of fire.

Climate change is fuelling more destructive fire seasons, and as a result, our country faces severe shortages in emergency response teams. B.C. declared a state of emergency, Mexican and Australian fire crews have been flown into Ontario — and now B.C. — and the Canadian Forces established a forward operating base in Edmonton. Nearly every domestic resource is deployed or on standby, and the search is on for any available support from around the globe.

Now is the time to recognize that local Indigenous knowledge in land management can bolster firefighting efforts across the country. Our communities are often on the front lines of fires, and because we draw on traditional expertise and have been self-reliant on our lands for millennia, we have learned to work with fire.

Scientists agree this knowledge can help Indigenous nations and Crown government agencies adapt to the realities of increasing fire on the landscape.

Teams of Indigenous Guardians can lead the way. With over 70 Guardians programs managing traditional territories on behalf of their nations, Guardians combine western and Indigenous science to restore animals and plants, test water quality and monitor development.

They also respond to search and rescue incidents, and have become essential service providers for remote public safety. Guardians are on the land every day and can spot new burns before they get out of control. They know the terrain, where the water is and how flames move over the landscape. Most importantly, they know which elders are in the bush and need extra time to get out of harm’s way.

With added investment, more Indigenous Guardians can respond to increasingly unpredictable fires. They can also expand cultural burning practices that have been documented to reduce dangerous fuel loads while improving biodiversity.

Indigenous fire management has proven effective around the globe, including in Australia, where Indigenous Rangers manage millions of hectares. They view fire as a crucial function and know how to time burns based on local knowledge of the environment.

Their approach works. Devastating bushfires have been halved in the last decade on Aboriginal lands of northern Australia. Their government recognized that stewardship needs sustained support, and invested $840 million in Indigenous Rangers and Indigenous Protected Areas from 2007 to 2023 which reduced fire danger and strengthened their communities. Research shows every $1 invested in rangers and Indigenous Protected Areas can generate $3 in social, economic and cultural benefits.

Indigenous Guardians deliver similar benefits in Canada, but many programs struggle to maintain funding. With added investment and training, Guardians can protect public health and help reduce the level of carbon emissions released from forests.

Without action, the boreal could release extreme amounts of carbon emissions from forest soils, further fuelling the cycle of drought, heat and other climate impacts. Indigenous nations are stepping up to the challenge. It’s time to invest in a network of fire management teams who are already where we need them the most: on the ground.

Brady Highway leads a fire crew in northern Saskatchewan. He is a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, and the project manager for wildfire strategy for the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.
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