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Living with boreal forest fires: Anishinaabe perspectives on disturbance and collaborative forestry planning, Pikangikum First Nation, Northwestern Ontario

Living with boreal forest fires: Anishinaabe perspectives on disturbance and collaborative forestry planning, Pikangikum First Nation, Northwestern Ontario


Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2, CANADA.


A substantial body of literature documents how Indigenous peoples of North America used fire to manipulate vegetation communities, achieve livelihood goals and create landscape features. Less explored are the sets of knowledge and relationships that have arisen from Indigenous peoples' long associations with fire at different spatial and temporal scales. How do people understand ecological processes such as forest destruction, initiation of succession, reorganization of forest communities that present themselves as part of fire disturbance? How do fire events occurring at varying scales affect livelihood activities? How can this body of knowledge of ecological processes find expression in modern resource management planning? This research explores the understandings and relationships that the elders of one Anishinaabe community, Pikangikum First Nation, in northwestern Ontario, have with boreal forest fire disturbance. This research took place as part of community led forestry planning being undertaken by Pikangikum elders with the assistance of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR). It is the product of collaborative research between June 2006 and February 2009 employing semi-directive interviews, field trips with elders and trappers and community meetings with elders and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources employees.

Through this research I recorded:
  1. Elders' comparisons between the impacts of forest fire on disturbance and renewal processes with those of clearcut logging;
  2. Pikangikum elders' understandings of fire's role within the boreal forest landscape including its impacts on plants, animals, livelihood activities and cultural landscapes of Pikangikum First Nation; and
  3. Pikangikum elders' historic and desired forms of engagement with fire. Elders possess detailed knowledge of the behavior and impacts of fire, its ecological legacies and its effects on Pikangikum livelihood activities. This knowledge incorporates interactions between fire and multiple features (i.e. weather, topography, species, fuels conditions, etc.). Much of the elders' knowledge is parallel to empirical observations of fire's impacts by western trained forest managers.
Pikangikum elders understand the world to consist of networks of interacting beings, many of whom possess the capacity to make choices, or agency. Fire is one such being. This view distinguishes the Anishinaabe worldview from that of Euro-Canadians. The implication of the view of a sentient world of agents is that Pikangikum elders are inclined to maintain relationships in order to ensure forest renewal occurs. Elders indicate a number of factors in clearcut forestry practices that are disrespectful and destructive of the relationships necessary for renewal. These observations can be translated into forestry practices including: leaving soils undisturbed, using fire to remove slash and prepare seedbeds, and allowing natural regeneration to occur from endogenous seed sources.

Pikangikum elders described ways they wish to engage with fire that can be categorized as dialogue, teaching, and practices involving fire. Their interests include:
  • Continuing dialogue with OMNR about the role of fire within the Whitefeather Forest Area;
  • Extension of OMNR fire suppression to the entire Whitefeather Forest;
  • The ability to instruct community youth in the proper way to manage fire on the land;
  • The recognition of traditional burning practices as legitimate forms of community led land management;
  • The investigation of ways in which elders' knowledge may be employed in developing silvicultural practice; and
  • The ability of Pikangikum residents to find employment as firefighters.
This research contributes to literatures surrounding our understandings of social-ecological resilience, traditional ecological knowledge, and cultural landscapes. The understandings which elders have of the processes of ecosystem disturbance and renewal are distinct from those held by western trained scientists because they consider non-human beings as potentially possessing agency. They focus on maintaining relationships and the ability to continue livelihood activities upon the land as a means to determining if a disturbance has the potential to impact the land community's ability to renew itself. The elders provided detailed contributions to our understanding of the impacts of traditional burning practices occurring at site scales for the region of northwestern Ontario. Their description of large scale destructive capacity of forest fires and recovery processes include the actions of non-human beings which contribute to the production of intentionally ordered spaces. This approach alerts us to the potential shortcoming of current definitions of cultural landscapes which consider the legacies of human activities upon the land. This approach may need to be reassessed in order to capture the agency of non-humans within the full suite of meanings present within a landscape. The elders' ability to see the relevance of their knowledge within the new and novel context of timber harvesting highlights the adaptive nature of traditional ecological knowledge. This study underscores the need for traditional knowledge holders to be able to express their understandings of ecosystem processes and worldviews within collaborative planning of resource developments.