Spotlight: Indigenous communities and the forest economy

The forest sector transformation underway in Canada over the last two decades hasn’t been limited to making changes in technology, products and markets. These changes are also improving Indigenous peoples’ access to forest resources and increasing their control over decisions about how forests are used, harvested and managed.

About 70% of Indigenous people in Canada live in or near forests.

The forest sector is one of the largest employers of Indigenous people in Canada.

About 9,700 Indigenous people are employed in the forest sector.

Land claim settlements, modern treaties and inclusive forest management practices are all creating opportunities to meaningfully advance the process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in this country.

Today, forest businesses and economic development organizations owned and run by Indigenous people are finding new ways to work with forest companies, provincial and territorial governments, forest research institutes and non-profit organizations. The aim of collaborative training, education and knowledge sharing is to achieve economic benefits while also ensuring the sustainable management of forests.

Through joint-venture projects across Canada based on mutual respect and cooperation, Indigenous communities and individuals are trailblazing with innovative approaches to forest research, land use planning, harvest decision-making, product development and market access. These projects are not only creating long-term economic and community development opportunities, but also safeguarding culturally, spiritually and biologically important ecosystems.

Using traditional knowledge of non-timber forest products to meet new market demands

Global consumer interest in buying locally produced foods and naturally sourced health products has recently spawned another major trend: foraged foods. Demand for forest greens, berries and mushrooms and other fungi is boosting sales of non-timber forest products.

Photo of a close-up of chanterelle mushrooms on the forest floor.
Chanterelle mushrooms are not commercially cultivated and only grow in the wild.

Since 2014, the Timiskaming, Abitibiwinni and Lac Simon First Nations in Quebec’s Abitibi-Témiscamingue region have been researching the economic and market potential of a dozen non-timber forest products. And soon these three Algonquin First Nations hope to be giving consumers a range of such products from the boreal forest.

Market research results are promising, especially for the food, aromatic and natural health product sectors. The main customer base is in Ontario, Quèbec, the United States and Europe. More field tests and market research are underway, and community members, including youth, are being trained as harvesters. The communities are also planning to build a processing plant and create a business for selling and distributing local products.

The benefits of this initiative are expected to go far beyond jobs and revenues. The harvesting of non-timber products will give younger community members the chance to gain important traditional knowledge from Elders.

Using wood waste to enrich soils and local economies

Photo of biochar wood chips.
Biochar helps soil retain nutrients and water and store carbon longer than uncharred organic matter.

The densely forested region of Quebec’s Saguenay– Lac-Saint-Jean region is home to about a dozen sawmills. Sales of sawn logs have long been profitable, but the mills’ main waste product, wood chips, has had little commercial value. This situation, however, is changing fast.

Chips and other wood residues are now being made into biocoal, a new family of products with many potential applications.

One of these products, biochar, is a carbon-rich material that can be used to amend and remediate contaminated soils and to enhance soils on organic farms. Testing of biochar shows reductions in water and fertilizer use and in overall maintenance costs of treated areas, which suggests the market for biochar is lucrative.

Since 2012, the Filière forestière des Premières Nations du Québec (FFPNQ) has assessed various aspects of the production of biochar and biochar byproducts. Positive findings prompted the creation of BioChar Borealis in 2015–2016, a joint venture between the Pekuakamiulnuatsh Takuhikan First Nation of Mashteuiatsh and the regional county municipality of Domaine-du-Roy.

Biocoal is created by heating wood biomass, such as wood chips, without oxygen. Depending on the level of heat applied, different products result, ranging from carbonneutral coal to soil treatment materials and purifiers for water, gas and gold.

In 2017, the Government of Canada and the Government of Quebec announced their support for a biochar and biochar by-product production project in the Pekuakamiulnuatsh Takuhikan community. The community is working with the Agrinova college technology transfer centre associated with the Collège d’Alma to acquire specialized equipment to turn biomass, including sawmilling residues, into biochar.

Every successful forestry venture, like the examples featured above, is creating a positive environment for other new forest initiatives to grow and guiding meaningful progress along the path to reconciliation with Indigenous communities across Canada.

Sources

Natural Resources Canada–Canadian Forest Service, Indigenous Forestry Initiative, Biocoal – a new market for a new Québec First Nations group, 2017. [Unpublished success story.]

Natural Resources Canada–Canadian Forest Service, Indigenous Forestry Initiative, Non-timber harvest an ideal future for Algonquin First Nations, 2017. [Unpublished success story.]

Statistics Canada. Labour Force Survey (special extraction).

  • Natural Resources Canada–Canadian Forest Service’s calculations based on Statistics Canada, 2011 Census of Population, 2011 National Household Survey.
  • Demographic data from the 2016 Census of Population was not available at the time of this report’s publication.
  • A “forested area” is defined as an area with over 60% tree cover for this Spotlight article.
Photo credit
  • Photo of spruce biochar chips courtesy of Agrinova.