Mushkegowuk Council pitches marine conservation area along James, Hudson Bay coastlines

Members of the Mushkegowuk Council are proposing a massive marine conservation area along the shorelines of James Bay and Hudson Bay in northern Ontario.

“It’s up to us to fight to keep it green, to keep it pristine, to keep it breathing,” Mushkegowuk Council Deputy Grand Chief Amos Wesley said at a news conference in Kashechewan First Nation on Wednesday.

The council, made up of eight First Nations in Treaty 9, has completed a feasibility study for a proposed National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) that will run from the southwestern tip of James Bay and then north and west into Hudson Bay.

It is an enormous area – 86,000 square kilometres to be exact – or slightly larger than the province of New Brunswick.

The area is home to polar bears, beluga whales and migratory water birds. First Nations along the coast say they want to preserve the local environment for generations to come.

“I use the land, my dad uses the land, my uncles use the land,” Natasha Martin, the other deputy grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, said. “I would never put in jeopardy anything that would affect that and the reason why I’m talking like this is because I want you to understand how passionate I am for the land and how important this project really is.”

Sam Hunter, an environmentalist from the Weenusk First Nation, said climate change is yet another reason the area must be preserved.

“The number one carbon sink in the world is the ocean, followed by the peat lands,” he said. “To understand how to reduce your carbon footprint is very important. I think understanding these carbon sinks is one thing. The most important thing is reducing your carbon footprint.”

While there is consensus on the need to conserve the area, how best to get there is a different story.

Based on past history, distrust of the federal government is high and Madeline Scott, a councillor with the Fort Albany First Nation, told those in attendance at the press conference that First Nations need to think long and hard before signing any agreement with any government.

“I urge all young people to be careful of what you agree to,” she said. “I urge the leaders – be careful what you are going to agree to because it’s going to hurt our children, our great grandchildren.” Lawrence Martin, a former grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, said he understands the concerns but with time the First Nations can move to an agreement everyone can live with.

“It seems to be a lot easier to get consensus from the community members,” he said “They all agree that we need to protect the land and resources. They want to protect everything that we talked about here today but it’s the chiefs and councils that are afraid to make that commitment – to sign any document. You know I think it just requires more time as what was stated here.”

The feasibility study is just a first step in the process and further negotiations and consultations with federal, Ontario and Nunavut governments will be required.

“Today marks a major step forward for the Mushkegowuk Council, the Omushkego Cree people, and the Government of Canada,” said federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault in a statement.

“Together, we are moving closer to achieving the official protection of this incredible area, helping species at risk recover, and working to further mitigate the effects of climate change. Congratulations to Mushkegowuk Council, Parks Canada, and everyone involved in reaching this important milestone.”

The federal government has committed to preserving 25 per cent of marine and coastal areas across the country by 2025 and increasing this to 30 per cent by 2030.

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