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Woodland caribou and many other species could benefit from these protected habitats.

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The Innu of Essipit unveil a huge project ;protected area

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The Innu wish to protect forest areas that have been little disturbed.

  • David Rémillard (View profile)David Rémillard

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The Innu of Essipit are determined to protect 30% of their territory by 2030, the international objective determined at COP15 in Montreal last year. To achieve this, this First Nation has unveiled a vast project for a protected area and connected habitats.

The Council of the First Essipit Innus Nation presented Essipiunnu-meshkanau on Thursday, a protected area of ​​1,202 km2 which would increase the protected area on its Nitassinan, namely its ancestral territory, from 12.6% to 30%.

The proposed protected area, which cuts across the North Shore and Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean, would have different conservation cores linked together. It would also be connected to already existing protected territories, such as the Sainte-Marguerite River Valley biodiversity reserve.

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A map of the Essipiunnu-meshkanau initiative (1202 km2) and its connectivity areas with others protected areas.

With this project, we want to protect and connect areas of importance for our community, for species like caribou and for biodiversity in general. We are aiming to establish a real conservation network, says Michael Ross, director of territorial development for the Innu Essipit First Nation.

The Innus of Essipit plan to submit their proposal to the Quebec Ministry of the Environment in winter 2024 and want the identified sectors to be set aside by 2025.

The territory targeted by the Innu of Essipit is home to many endangered or threatened species. Part of it is notably included in the distribution area of ​​the Pipmuacan caribou, whose herd has been in marked decline for several years.

In addition to caribou, birds such as the Barrow's goldeneye and Bicknell's thrush are among the vulnerable species that live in the Essipiunnu-meshkanau territory.

It's an interesting area because they are high plateaus and summits with ecosystems and species linked to this kind of environment, underlines Michael Ross. It’s a fairly rare type of environment here in Quebec.

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The Innu of Essipit want to protect the biodiversity, including several vulnerable species.

This protected area project also allows the Council of the Innu Essipit First Nation to assume leadership on its territory. Recalling the principle of self-determination of indigenous peoples, the First Nation presents its project in the hope of sitting down with the government of Quebec to establish legal guidelines.

This is a proposal that we are making public for the first time and it is an example of indigenous governance of our own territory, explains Michael Ross.

M. Ross agrees that similar projects have not yet produced results with the Quebec Ministry of the Environment.

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The Innu of Pessamit, neighbors of the Innus of Essipit, have been trying for years to protect the Pipmuacan reservoir and its caribou population.

The Innu of Pessamit, for example, have been calling for the creation of a protected area at the Pipmuacan reservoir since 2019, but without success. In the Quebec region, the Hurons-Wendat have obtained the province's commitment to create a protected area for sustainable use, but the project is stalling.

Despite everything, the Innu of Essipit intend to move forward. They will soon meet local stakeholders in the hope of obtaining a consensus around the protected area project. Mr. Ross expects to hit a wall in a few places, particularly with the forestry industry and the communities that depend more on it.

On this subject, the Innu are not closed to all logging on the targeted territory, but they are considering designating conservation centers where the rules would be stricter. We're not closed to any concept at the moment, says Michael Ross.

The Innu of Essipit are supported in their project by the Society for Nature and Parks, Quebec section (SNAP Quebec). This organization sees this as respect for all the principles for biodiversity adopted and recognized in the Montreal Agreement concluded at COP15.

One of the main causes of biodiversity loss is the fragmentation of the territory, therefore it is the fact of having isolated environments which lose their functions at the ecosystem level. Not only must we protect habitats, but we must ensure that protected areas are connected, explains Alice de Swarte, senior director at SNAP Quebec.

This organization, which presents itself as a partner to support the Innu, believes in indigenous know-how in achieving territory protection objectives. Indigenous peoples are on the front lines of environmental change, but they are often the ones with solutions and a vision that benefits everyone, underlines Ms. de Swarte.

SNAP Quebec is putting pressure on the Quebec government to deliver on the commitments made at COP15 last year. The Innu project, according to Ms. de Swarte, arrives at a pivotal moment. She sees it as a test to see if Quebec will work hand in hand, from nation to nation. She accuses the province of having delivered few results in this area until now.

It is necessary to demonstrate fairly quickly that ;they are ready to move from words to action.

For its part, the federal government has agreed to support the Innu project of' Essipit. An envelope of $1 million has been allocated by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

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