What is the way forward for Aboriginal peoples and natural resources?
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“Will aboriginal knowledge and values change the way we look after our forests?  What can we learn from First Nations about how to become better stewards of the land?”

These are among many questions asked by Peggy Smith, researcher at Lakehead University exploring First Nations involvement in natural resources management in Northern Ontario.

Smith is working directly with First Nations in Ontario. “I take a community based approach in my research, so that means getting involved with the aboriginal organizations and engaging them as partners in the research,” says Smith.

One project focuses on community forestry and the relationships between municipalities and First Nations. Historically, these two haven’t worked together but Smith hopes to positively influence the existing relationships.

The three key elements of community forestry are to include local decision-making in forest management, to ensure that benefits are being returned to local communities, and to adopt a multiple use approach in forest management by including ecosystem services, recreation, and non-timber forest product, for instance.

In the face of a crisis within the Canadian forestry industry where thousands of jobs have been lost and dozens of mills have closed, looking at community forestry is more important than ever.

“These last ten years have become a time for looking at the system: how it works, why this crisis occurred, how can we prevent something similar from happening in the future. There’s been a lot of discussion about community forestry as an alternative,” says Smith.

While the system currently in place would not be called community forestry according to Smith, it’s moving, very slowly, along a trajectory towards community forestry.

In addition to community forestry, Smith’s research also explores the perceptions of First Nations around climate change, the idea of First Nations around community well being in the face of development, and the impact of conservation efforts on First Nations communities in the Far North of Ontario.

“The most challenging [part of my research] is probably working in a milieu where there is such a difference in the balance of power,” says Smith. “Working in a situation where the provincial government has all of the control […] and money, versus First Nations who are trying to come out of this era of exclusion, who are dealing with lower education levels, who have not traditionally been listened to [… ] and who have very little in the way of funding.”

Despite these challenges, Smith will continue to bring people together through meetings, conferences and workshops to support knowledge sharing and create a space for dialogue.

The most exciting aspect of this research for Smith is the great potential for First Nations perspectives and values to inform discussion about better land management and the possibility of shifting the power of decision making to a local level.

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