Ruling could help Manitoba First Nations

Colleen Simard Colleen Simard There was some big news in Indian Country a few weeks ago. Three New Brunswick natives won a Supreme Court of Canada case in favour of their aboriginal right to domestic native logging.

Back in December 1999, Darrell Gray, a Mi'kmaq from Pabineau First Nation, was charged with illegally cutting down four maple trees on Crown land. Gray still had his chainsaw in his hands when he was charged.

In January 2001, Dale Sappier and Clark Polchies, Maliseet men from Woodstock First Nation, were stopped by conservation officers.

They had 12 maple, and four birch logs in their possession. They didn't have a licence to cut down the trees. They were also charged with illegally harvesting wood on Crown land.

Their cases made their way up the court system over the years.

Eventually both became a test case in the Supreme Court.

Cutting down those trees may have been illegal in the eyes of the provincial government, but these status Indians had a different way of looking at it. They believed their right to log for personal use was a logical part of their aboriginal rights. The Supreme Court agreed.

The ruling said the Maliseet and Mi'kmaq of New Brunswick have an aboriginal right to harvest wood on traditional land for personal use. A court case in 2005 has already ruled against commercial native logging as an aboriginal right. But it seems some bartering within communities may be acceptable. Time will tell.

The Supreme Court said historical records proved local natives traditionally logged in the area long before Europeans set foot in North America. The court took into account historical records that clearly showed the Maliseet and Mi'kmaq harvested wood for fuel, building transportation, housing and tools.

What makes this judgment really interesting is the refreshing perspective that native rights should be allowed to evolve and modernize, just like aboriginal people themselves.

That means we don't have to go back to building tipis to exercise our personal harvesting rights. We should be allowed to build modern houses and furniture for ourselves if we choose to.

This precedent for native logging rights in New Brunswick has far-reaching effects on reserves across Canada and right here in Manitoba, too.

In fact, this decision could change native housing on reserves forever. Everyone knows there's a serious housing crisis on many reserves. I'm no native studies professor, but I'll bet almost every First Nation community across Canada used wood traditionally for the basic necessities of life.

First Nations like Pauingassi in central Manitoba -- a reserve with a severe housing shortage -- should define the boundaries of their traditional territory. They should document the history of their bands' logging usage in everyday life. Then they should train community members and establish an environmentally sustainable system of logging for the personal use of band members.

It may cost a provincial court case, but a landmark example has been set.

Just think, no more shipping in expensive furniture from far-away cities. No more inferior pre-fabricated housing. No more housing shortages, overcrowding or mouldy homes that make your family sick.

You'll even lower heating bills, since you can use local wood to heat your home.

There are other positive spin-offs, too. By building our own housing on reserves you've just created a strong local economy. You could set up a small community sawmill, or a workshop for community members to learn woodworking.

There would be ongoing training and employment for community members.

The benefits of creating houses, jobs and valuable work skills are the cornerstones of a self-sustaining reserve. It isn't an unreasonable goal. So let's get chopping.