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Anne Marie SamOctober 24th, 2011
By Maura Nelson
The Canadian Boreal – a home endangered
photo credit Tim Swanky, UNBC
“The land makes us who we are. What identity will my daughters have when our keyoh (traditional land holding) is a tailings pond? If the land is covered with a mine, then who are we going to be in the future? It’s a scary thought, we can’t just move to another place. It’s our livelihood, our way of life, we still rely on the land for our food; it is a big part of who we are. Our territory is our responsibility; we can’t just move around. The land is so sacred we are not supposed to talk about it. We are being forced to talk about it now because we have to defend it. We didn’t talk about it before because it is just so sacred. It is the Mother Earth in us.”
Anne Marie Sam shared this with me by telephone, speaking from Prince George, BC, where she was participating in “The Canadian Boreal – Our Home”, a national meeting of First Nations leaders discussing their role in sustainable management and protection of the boreal forests.
Anne Marie is a Dakelh (people who travel by water) member born into the Frog Clan of Nak’azdli. Anne and her family are from Nak’azdli reserve, adjacent to Ft. St. James in northwestern British Columbia, a part of the Carrier-Sekani Tribal Council. Her young life was strongly influenced by time spent on the land with her extended family, headed up by grandparents, and including aunts, uncles and cousins. From a young age, the children were expected to help in all aspects of food gathering and preparation for winter storage. Summers were spent in this work. The boreal forest was a rich source for them. Nak’al Bun (Stuart Lake) is crucial to the Fraser River Salmon Run. The early Stuart Salmon run makes its way to Stuart Lake and continues on further north to the spawning grounds. The salmon are a key food source. To supplement the Salmon each family is responsible for areas known as Keyoh. The Nation River Keyoh was an important part of Anne’s childhood and now Anne is able to share with her children the connection to the Nation River. The Keyoh is the area of survival where they go berry-picking, medicinal plant collecting, and lake fishing. Hunting grounds for bear, caribou, moose and beaver, geese and ducks abound in the boreal forest near her home. Anne was mentored in food gathering and preparation tasks that were age appropriate within the community of her greater family. Her importance in the survival of their clan was understood, and this instilled in her pride, a sense of place, and of her contribution to their society from a very early age.
This strong sense of self is particularly impressive when set against tragedy in her young life. Before Anne was one year old, her father died in a sawmill accident, leaving Anne’s 21-year-old mother to raise her two young daughters along with the assistance of the extended family. Time was spent on each family keyoh, experiences that cemented family ties.
“We were always grounded and we knew who we were: we were part of the Frog Clan. We were loved, cherished and taught many life skills within our family.”
As a young adult, Anne pursued post-secondary education, first an undergraduate degree in history, and then completed the course requirements for a master’s degree in history and First Nations Studies Her energy for advocacy of the boreal forest and her Nak’azdli culture and lands are astonishing. She has three children (two still very young), a master’s degree in progress, and recently completed a term as a councilor on her band council. Her attention is focused on a mine, Shus Nadloh (Mt. Milligan) which has been proposed for her own keyoh. She is the Chair of the group First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM), an impressive gathering of female chiefs, councillors and former chiefs who are working to reform the mining process in BC to balance the economics of mining developments with respect for First Nations rights and culture, and the need for First Nations stewardship of their lands and traditional territories.
First Nations input prior to development, promotion of First Nations land use plans, and lobbying governments to restrict the ease with which exploration claims can be registered are three examples of their work. The group’s focus is on the social and cultural impacts of mining, impacts borne heavily by women and children. Healthy boreal forest ecosystems are crucial to their traditional practices, so the environmental concerns easily join with cultural concerns. Her work in boreal forest and mining advocacy takes Anne away from her family on average for a week out of every month.
When developments such as mines are proposed, there are usually socio-economic and environmental studies that take place, contracted and paid for by the company proposing the work. Anne’s work with the Shus Nadloh mining proposal led to a different approach. Studies were paid for by the mining company, but the band was able to bring in their own consultants to create a socio-cultural review of the development process, rather than relying solely on the consultants hand-picked by the mining company to do socio-economic and environmental reviews. A socio-cultural study looks beyond money and jobs being brought into a region, further examining the maintenance or restoration of cultural health throughout the economic development process.
“It is important to look at the animal life and vegetation in the boreal forests as part of development. It is also important to look at the human life and indigenous cultures that exist in the forest.”
Anne’s work in boreal advocacy as a member of FNWARM and as an individual involves a holistic approach to forest-based developments which include harvesting of trees, hydroelectric projects, pipeline routes and extraction of non-renewable resources by mining. The indigenous cultures know the intricacies of the boreal forests and the animals sustained by them. Each band or tribe knows what their culture needs from this land to regain their former health and strength; Anne is promoting the need to find balance between sustainability of developments and cultural/environmental health. She is working tirelessly to help promote this balance. Regaining a more sensitive use of all boreal forest ecosystems will, by nature of their sensitivity, promote cultural health in their residents. The forest will benefit from this approach, with improved likelihood of integrity in key areas, and an overall retention of habitat. This holistic approach benefits humans far beyond the indigenous inhabitants of the forest. A healthy boreal forest is ammunition against climate change which impacts all life on the planet. Anne Marie Sam’s work exemplifies the expression “Think globally, act locally”.