Conservation for the Future: Protecting the Far North’s Breathing Lands

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© Groundswell Photography

The arctic coastline of Ontario’s Far North spans 1,290km—nearly the same distance as the drive from Toronto to Fredericton, New Brunswick. The sparkling waters contain some of the greatest biodiversity and intact wilderness remaining on the planet, and yet, these tidewater shores are unknown to many southern Ontario residents.

This massive interface of ocean, wetlands, and free-flowing rivers, home to beluga whales, walruses, and polar bears, as well as billions of migrating and breeding birds, drives the vitality of a broader ecosystem and supports many First Nations. Indigenous leaders have sought to safeguard their home territory for decades. Now, the region is finally emerging as a critical natural buffer against the climate emergency and extinction crisis.

The newly proposed Mushkegowuk National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) reflects a new form of preservation that conserves biological diversity, harnesses the power of nature in mitigating climate change, and emphasizes the importance of traditional ecological knowledge and Indigenous sovereignty.

“We have been the stewards of these lands and waters for millennia,” says Jonathan Solomon, former Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Council. “Now we want to protect the coastal and marine ecosystems that underpin the Omushkego way of life for future generations.”

The Conservation Area would encompass the entire coastal corridor of northern Ontario between Manitoba and Quebec, extending offshore into the federal waters and Nunavut islands of James and Hudson Bay. Cree Elders refer to this unique seascape as the “Birthing Place,” says Lawrence Martin, the manager of Mushkegowuk Marine Conservation, part of an Indigenous council representing communities in the area. This name reflects the coastline’s remarkable population of iconic marine mammals and long-distance migrating birds that have been pushed to the brink of extinction elsewhere—and it’s one of the primary reasons local communities want it protected.

© Courtesy of Wildlands League

Martin hopes Canadians will rally behind an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime initiative spearheaded by a partnership between Omushkego communities, Wildlands League, and Oceans North. This past August, the federal government committed to taking the next step in protecting over 90,000 square kilometres and started the process of creating Canada’s newest NMCA. Not only does the opportunity to represent a huge contribution to the country’s objectives of protecting 25 percent of its land and inland waters by 2025 and 30 percent by 2030, but it would also help achieve our climate goals. Radiating inland from the coast, the Far North is globally significant for yet another reason. Here lies the third largest wetland in the world, which holds more carbon per square metre than a tropical rainforest and is referred to as the “Breathing Lands” by Elders.

“We’ve always recognized how this place gives life. We want to save it—not only for ourselves but for the whole earth. We all depend on this being kept intact.”

Lawrence Martin, Mushkegowuk Council

Parks Canada has a mandate to identify and protect outstanding examples of the country’s 29 marine areas. So far, only five in the Great Lakes, Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific regions are formally represented by NMCAs and other marine parks. The federal government’s collaborative, nation-to-nation agreement with the Mushkegowuk Council
begins establishing such a designation for James and Hudson Bay. Working with locals, academic researchers, and government, scientists have started studying the biodiversity and cultural values of the region, as well as measuring its role in mitigating climate change.

Says Anna Baggio, the conservation director at Wildlands League: “To have something so big, so whole and with all its parts working together is what makes this place special. It’s the intersection of water, wildlife, and carbon, and it’s part of the identity of the people who live there. From a conservation standpoint, it gives you a look at what we could preserve for the future.”

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Wildlands League is one of Canada’s pre-eminent conservation organizations. We protect wilderness. We collaborate with communities, governments, First Nations, scientists and progressive industry to protect nature and find solutions that work for the planet and for all. We are a not-for-profit charity that has been working in the public interest since 1968, beginning with a campaign to protect Algonquin Park from development.

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