Last week I had the good fortune to travel, together with three Ecotrust Canada colleagues, to participate in/co-facilitate a gathering of Chiefs, Mayors, elders, industry and community representatives at a five-day workshop in Chapleau, Ontario. The workshop was called ‘Can we Build a Conservation Economy Here?’, with the ‘here’ in question referring to the huge, multi-dimensional region of North East Superior, Ontario – a region with so many similar challenges to those being experienced in rural B.C. that our team felt, by Day 3, like we had never left home!

Stories of mill closures, rapid population decline, public infrastructure losses, disenfranchised youth, environmental degradation, family businesses replaced by big box stores, and the ever-present danger of a next wave of large scale resource extraction as the only possible problem-solving path forward.

With these stories, though, came an attitude of so much hope. Hope for communities that are healthy and vibrant again. Hope for a spiritual and cultural revival that is respectful of aboriginal, metis, French and European histories and modern day offerings. Hope for healthier moose populations, more sturgeon, and businesses stable enough to create summer jobs for the kids. Sound familiar?  We thought so too!

Our journey together over five short days was inspirational and important. The Ecotrust team learned as much, or more, than we taught from those who gathered. Each day began with a traditional pipe ceremony in the Chapleau Cree Turtle Lodge, where we were gently but persistently reminded by the elders of the importance of acceptance, worship, and community care. From there we moved into workshop-mode at the Band office, working together to deconstruct the ‘old’ economy of this vast region, and then envision something powerful and new – an economy that is designed and built to the specifications of that region’s natural bounty and that utilizes the skills, interests, and aspirations of the people who want to stay living there. Just to share a B.C. moment with our new northern Ontario allies, we opted to call their new economic vision a Conservation Economy too.

Getting to that envisioned economy from the current model is not easy, of course. We explored in some detail the challenges of forest tenure reform in the context of the provincial policy framework; we considered the complexity of moving traditional wild-berry pickers into an organized business collective; we studied the challenges of bringing timber back to local mills at a price that is market competitive; and we looked at the multiple layers of change required to move a seasoned, singularly independent, backcountry tourism industry into a cooperative marketing framework.

But it’s possible, all possible, and in our considered opinion as the ‘visiting experts’ from B.C., well worth the investment necessary for these places and people in this time. The next step, unanimously accepted by the delegates on our final day, was to bring this vision for a Conservation Economy to life as quickly as possible (subtext: before all the kids had moved away to Toronto for work and the moose were all gone). Our homework? To create a five-year strategic blueprint for the North East Superior Region that is:

  • Guided by the four elements of the medicine wheel (responsibility to self, family, community and world);
  • Respectful of the natural cycles and purposes of each full moon (representing women/community energy);
  • Consistent with the power points of the sun (representing men/political energy);
  • Possible within the resource limitations of the region (human, financial and ecological); and
  • Economically viable – returning in equal measure on the metrics of financial, cultural, social, and environmental wealth and health.

It’s a big task, but a very real joy to see these ideas spreading, the enthusiasm so deeply held, and the possibilities emerging. We know that keeping rural places and spaces alive and well is part of keeping our planet healthy and our economy sound. As we become increasingly urban in our orientation, the risk of diminishing or losing all together these rural economies is a very real possibility – to the detriment of us all. Stay tuned…

Brenda Kuecks, President, Ecotrust Canada