Voices of Change — Climate Change Planning in Canada's Boreal Forest

Voices of Change

A young First Nations man stands on the front lines of climate change in the Boreal Forest.


“Our spirituality and our culture are intimately tied to the land, and as that land changes it’s affecting our culture and our ability to live, self-sufficiently, on land we’re lived on for thousands of years.”

-Daniel T’seleie, K'asho Got'ine Dene First Nation

In Canada’s northwest boreal forest, in scattered, small communities knit together by common culture and timeless tradition, the Tlicho people have lived close to the land with the help of nature-based survival skills that are passed from parent to child, generation after generation. Today the Tlicho and other First Nations face a new, unforeseen test – global climate change – and the youth and elders of these communities are working together to find new skills to meet this challenge.

On the Front Lines of Climate Change

Daniel T’seleie of the K'asho Got'ine Dene First Nation is helping to find a new way. He works as an environmentalist and community planner for Ecology North, an environmental group based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. He learned to hunt and to fish on long hunting trips up the Mackenzie River with his father. “He taught me to respect the land and to utilize traditional skills and hunting practices that our people have used for thousands of years.”

Daniel works with Tlicho communities north of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, a land of small towns that lack roads but are rich in wildlife and other natural resources. These towns are on the front lines of climate change, where average temperatures already have risen dramatically and where the elders tell Daniel the world is changing in ways they’ve never seen before – changes that threaten their way of life.

“Here in the north we see the effects of climate change every day,” he explained. Sometimes, the changes threaten the man-made environment. Softening permafrost, for example, is shifting beneath concrete footers and threatening to rupture the fuel lines that attach storage tanks to homes. Most of the communities where Daniel works have no permanent roads to them, and rely on expensive air taxis to get supplies or medical treatment. A network of ice roads provides far cheaper transportation in winter, but those roads are open fewer days each year as winter temperature rises.

In communities where about half the families hunt for sustenance, the changing climate is, quite literally, taking food from their tables. There are fewer caribou and they have altered their ancient migration routes, forcing hunters to travel farther to reach them. Small game, from ptarmigan to rabbits, is less common and less robust. Fewer songbirds arrive in the spring, berries are less abundant.

Finding a New Way

Through planning, Daniel is helping these communities prepare for some of these changes, but some changes will be more complex than a leaking fuel line. The elders also report a general lack of good health, Daniel says. “A lot of people feel that the extreme cold is beneficial to their health. They tell me, ‘we have the right to be cold.’ ”

The work of Daniel and others has the potential to inspire local communities to develop climate change adaptation plans, protected area plans, and other forms of conservation planning. For the Northwest Territories Protected Areas Strategy program, on which the Conservancy is working, such attention and investment from local communities is absolutely critical to success.

“Our spirituality and our culture are intimately tied to the land, and as that land changes it’s affecting our culture and our ability to live, self-sufficiently, on land we’re lived on for thousands of years.”

Daniel dreams of self-sustaining native communities with a minimal environmental footprint, but those dreams will prove difficult to realize if something isn’t done to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. So Daniel is traveling far from his home in the Northwest Territories to the United Nations’ climate change conference in Copenhagen in December, as part of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, to demonstrate support for an effective global approach to solving climate change.

Daniel hopes that by sharing the elders’ stories, he can help the world community move toward action on climate change. Close to home, he hopes his work inspires local communities to develop plans for adapting to the effects of climate change.

“We need to take strong action on climate change,” he says.

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