By Dr John Bacher and Danny Beaton, Mohawk of the Turtle Clan.
In Memory of Alicja Rozanska.
The Canadian government's environmental assessment is the thin green line for the attempt by the ecocidal government of Premier Doug Ford to put a dent in one of the world's biggest refrigerators at a time of calamitous global warming. This is his government's announced desire to make the proposed mining belt called the Ring of Fire Ontario's equivalent to the Alberta Tar Sands. This risks putting 35 billion tonnes of cooling peat turned into a greenhouse gas emitter, spewing forth some of the most dangerous vapours — methane.
What the environmental review is lacking, at least for now, is a perspective on how caribou herds threatened by the Ring of Fire scheme could, if properly restored, become the basis for keeping Ontario's permafrost cool. It now locks gases such as methane in safe storage. Permafrost melt threatens to send out airborne methane trapped under the permafrost.
Respected academic ecologists, most notably Professor Christian Beer of the University of Hamburg, have found a way to keep permafrost cool. This is to increase the numbers of grazing herbivores who browse above it. These scientists' studies have documented trampling down winter snow in a way that makes it a better insulator for frozen permafrost. In Northern Ontario, the only native animal that is capable of doing this is Caribou, although extirpated Musk Oxen and Bison (near the Manitoba border), could be restored and help pack down the snow to protect the permafrost.
Caribou have lost about half of their former range in Ontario. Most of this range cannot be restored as deer now inhabit it. The precious landscape that still exists needs to be carefully protected. Sadly, one of the key reasons Ontario's Endangered Species Act has been twice gutted, is to make it a weaker barrier to industrial exploitation in this caribou refuge.
The Endangered Species Act has commissioned a recovery plan for Ontario caribou. It has designated a Northeastern Recovery Zone for Woodland Caribou. This zone is the only part of the province where the plan is working in achieving its goal of a steady, but modest increase in caribou populations. This is largely because of the absence of roads, commercial forestry and mining in one of the world's biggest remaining intact blocks of mature conifer forests. Roads increase poaching by non-native hunters and trigger caribou deaths through collisions. They also aid natural predators such as wolves.
The Ring of Fire area, which has in the past been proposed to be protected through an expansion of Polar Bear Provincial Park, is an area where the more northerly Barren Ground Caribou and rarer Woodland Caribou mingle. The dry eskers (hilly ridges laid down by the debris of retreating glaciers), rise above the peat bogs. To protect the wet peat bogs vulnerable to pollution, it is proposed to have roads run along the eskers. These are the routes used by migrating caribou, travelling from Ontario's tundra which serves as calving grounds, to forested wintering habitat. Roads also speed up permafrost melt.
Roads can be catastrophic for caribou. This can be seen in the case of what was the world's biggest caribou herd in 1990, the George River herd of Ungava (Quebec-Labrador). This was a herd of 750,000 caribou, the dream size of ecologists to trample snow and protect permafrost. Critical to the herd's demise was the construction of a road through the calving grounds, that was built to provide access to the Voisey Bay Nickel Mine.
There are some who cynically believe that global warming has doomed the caribou. However, much like what happened in the past with the Atlantic cod — wiped out by overfishing — this is a smokescreen for problems of poor standards of environmental protection. It is contradicted by the remarkable success of the Porcupine Caribou herd, safeguarded by the strong determination of the Gwitchin, on both sides of the Alaska and Yukon border. They have excluded mines, roads and commercial logging from the Porcupine Caribou range. The herd is now around 280,000 caribou, the height of what has been historically documented.
It is a disgrace to Ontario that mining in the Ring of Fire is seriously being considered and backed by all parties with seats in the legislature. It should be replaced with a comprehensive strategy to protect permafrost from melt by stopping road construction, new mines and roll back on the northerly expansion of the commercial forest by Doug Ford. Caribou numbers need to expand to protect the ground under their feet.
Doug Ford has opened up development in Simcoe County, Dufferin County and King County. Farmland is being bought and sold to create roads from aggregate corporations letting more farmland go to waste for the urban sprawl industry. Not to mention how many trees are cut down for all of this industrious activity on the Green Belt, which was created to protect ecosystems, especially plant life, rivers, and streams.
Obviously Doug Ford has no background in the study of permafrost or northern ecosystems, plant life, trees or tundra, large trees or small, bush or berries. But because politicians can buy their way into power and pretend to care about society while really having no connection to earth values, life suffers at their hands. Because business has always superseded natural life and environmental protection. But what this trend of not caring for environmental protection has created is devastation and genocide. It has created global warming, or better, turbulent weather and climate change.
The Woodlands Indigenous People, Haudenosaunee, Ojibway Algonquin Nations and tribes learned to live in harmony for thousands of years in The Great Lakes Area. Farming, hunting and gathering in harmony with the Natural World; building canoes for transportation and timber for Longhouses without clear cutting a forest. Eastern and Western Woodlands People, more notably the Cree, even Lakota, have lived off the land for thousands of years without threatening Mother Earth or the future of our children. But technology is taking society on a devastating path to Doug Ford's Fantasy Island where profit and extraction, like the Tar Sands of Alberta, can destroy pure clean rivers, lakes, aquifers, vegetation and life.
Dr John Bacher stresses Northern Ontario is like having a natural refrigerator of permafrost and moss, holding methane gases in check. Just like the bumble bee pollinates crop production of blueberries squash, and many other fruits and trees. The bumble bee is a part of the web of life as small in size as they are.
Having Doug Ford open up the North for development is putting caribou, moose, wolf, deer and all creatures big and small in danger from southern developers — or as the Cree call us, Bambi. Nothing in Doug Ford's thinking comes close to the Indigenous Philosophy of "Being In Oneness" or Unity.
If we Google the specifics of the Tar Sands you will see that the Mackenzie and Athapaskan Rivers are now polluted and toxic. If we Google the film CBC did with David Suzuki titled ‘Billion Dollar Caribou’, about 20 years ago there were 750,000 caribou. Today, after extension roads built up to Northern Quebec, there are only 8,000. If we want to know the power of forests, TVO has created a new film ‘The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees’, featuring scientist and author Diana Beresford-Kroeger.
Without sacred vegetation human beings are nothing in the face of survival. Vegetation can live without human beings, but humans cannot live without vegetation — in spite of all of our arrogance. We are subjects to the Natural World. We cannot return to business as usual, even after a worldwide pandemic. The virus was supposed to wake us up before it's too late, but Doug Ford is not waking up.
Billion Dollar Caribou: https://curio.ca/en/video/billion-dollar-caribou-2807/
Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees: https://www.tvo.org/video/documentaries/call-of-the-forest-the-forgotten-wisdom-of-trees
All hail the woods: How and when forests store carbon: https://nsadvocate.org/2021/04/25/all-hail-the-woods-how-and-when-forests-store-carbon/
Photo Credit: Mohawk Elder in Sacred Garden photo by David Walsh April 2021.