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If a Tree Falls

The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement

by Jamie Ross

A stock photo of a Canadian boreal forest, as seen on the CBFA website.
A stock photo of a Canadian boreal forest, as seen on the CBFA website.
The CBFA photo gallery
The CBFA photo gallery
Natural Resources Canada, 580 Booth Street, Ottawa: Not a boreal forest. (image from Google Maps)
Natural Resources Canada, 580 Booth Street, Ottawa: Not a boreal forest. (image from Google Maps)

If a tree falls 600 km north-east of Toronto, what is the sound to an average Canadian?

The answer is a complicated one: To some, this tree would be part of a valuable billion-dollar resource industry, ready to be harvested. To others, these oft-photographed forests, flown over in Canadian tourist videos, represent a vital ecosystem – something to be protected.
In May 2010, the collaboration of nine large environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace and The David Suzuki Foundation, and 21 major forestry corporations lead to the signing of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA), supposedly limiting the logging of the sensitive boreal forest, preserving this living natural legacy, specifically for the Woodland Caribou inhabiting it but also for all of our children and for the planet. It was a historic agreement to protect our forests. Great.
On the surface, the agreement has suspended logging operations on 29 million hectares of Woodland Caribou habitat for three years in exchange for the unimpeded logging of 684,461 hectares of boreal forest outside of Caribou habitat. However, it came to light that the industry planned to log only a very small portion of this ‘protected’ area in the three years under the scope of the agreement – the forest freed up for logging represented nine times the area of forest projected to be cut and now defended under the CBFA. Also agreed upon was the halting of all ecological activist campaigns against members of the Forest Products Association of Canada and to remove evidence of such campaigns from public view. For a more thorough analysis, see Dawn Paley’s article entitled Fracturing Solidarity.
But far beyond the actual content of the agreement, its self-proclaimed importance, and its glaring short-comings, it is crucial to explore the actors deciding public policy in this instance. The CBFA was debated upon by a consortium of national resource extraction companies and a handful of large environmental advocacy organizations, businesses all, most with their headquarters in the Canadian metropoles. One might suggest that this is a refreshing step from the adversarial tactics of organizations like Greenpeace – representatives of Canadian civil society addressing the rapaciousness of industry to safeguard our resources, even if only for the three years subject to the agreement.
And yet an infinitesimally small number of Canadian citizens have or ever will set foot in a boreal forest – a much smaller number of people than those who will tread on any given stretch of Cuban beach. Yet somehow, and very deeply, a lot of us are moved to ‘protect’ and ‘save’ these trees from logging and other environmentally unfriendly resource extraction ventures.
Why someone would feel personally invested in the health of an ecosystem somewhere which could be many countries away in another part of the world is curious indeed. We grow up learning the geography of a vast territory, learning that it belongs to all of us, from sea to shining sea. “I’m invested in these forests because I’m Canadian,” we like to think. It’s one of those things that root our identity, a mainstay in our national cultural output – the hinterland who’s who of the Group of Seven, Susannah Moodie, and Margaret Atwood.
This is a trick of memory, exceedingly common among my fellow inhabitants of a colony which is not so new anymore, at least by some measures.  In 1996, a new ethnic group was added to the census in Canada – ‘Canadian’. Those who so responded were almost entirely descendants of the European settlers who peopled the French and English colonies.
It is interesting that these people choose not to identify with their ancestral ethnic origins but rather adopted a newly minted, national ethnicity. Unfortunately we cannot accurately gauge the growth of this nascent pseudo-ethnicity, halfway between citizenship and ethnic group, because it was simply not an option in censuses prior to 1996. However, in 2006 5.7 million non-aboriginal Canadians claimed only Canadian ‘ethnicity,’ an increase of nearly 8%. These people have lost contact with their biological origins, their ancestral origins, presumably due to ignorance of one’s roots, or maybe a multiplicity of ethnic origins. Perhaps the emergence of this new category is due to a perceived personal loss of the cultural requirements for ethnicity or maybe a perceived generational divide between the places of one’s origins. It seems safe to say that non-indigenous Canadians have identified in a significant way with Canada, in its cultural and geographic space – the varied and heterogeneous land encompassed within the nation’s borders. I learned about ‘our boreal’ in school, along with ‘our tundra’ and ‘our oak savannah’.  I’m proud to even have visited two of those ecosystems – well on my way to seeing how an urban Canadian would want to protect them. I was taught to stand as I sung “Oh Canada, our home and native land” – to sing the new truth into being.
The magnanimous title of the CBFA’s website for ‘Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement: An Historical Agreement Signifying a New Era of Joint Leadership in the Boreal Forest’ includes an extensive photo gallery highlighting the pristine natural beauty of the land, complete with caribou walking majestically through their homeland [see image 2]. In one of the photos, a lone man sits of a ridge, beholding a vista of nature before him. Reminds you a bit of a Group of Seven painting, eh?
But what about the people whose homes are found within these ecosystems? Where have they gone? About 80% of Canada’s aboriginal population lives in forested areas – including one million people in over 500 First Nations and Métis communities in boreal zones. And of course the companies have given them space in the text:
“The Agreement explicitly recognizes that Aboriginal peoples have constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights and titles as well as legitimate interest and aspirations. The Agreement is intended to be without prejudice to, and in accordance with, those rights and titles. The participating companies and environmental organizations believe both successful forest conservation and business competitiveness require fair, inclusive involvement of Aboriginal peoples and their governments."
This is about as close to meaningful consultation and an attestation to sovereignty as a sneeze in the face. The two players are no fast friends of First Nations struggles, and the government, which has at least some nominal requirements for good faith consultation with First Nations over their lands, is completely absent. The environmental mainstream has been long known to co-opt aboriginal struggles or out-right oppose assertions of First Nations’ sovereignty if it runs contrary to their ecological goals. The flagrant disregard of resource extraction corporations for aboriginal rights is self-evident in ongoing conflicts.
Canada’s boreal forest makes up 20-30% of the world’s, according to an oft-quoted statistic. But here we’re still puffing from the nationalist pipe. Let’s take our eyes away from the map to look around us. Where are you right now? I am in northern Montreal – it is the height of spring, my back door is open and there is a cool breeze coming in off my balcony. There are trees in the alley, leaves almost open on one and buds on another. Cats. My tomatoes are swaying in the wind. Chives are up. You are someplace. What is living around you?
There is no such thing as a national ecosystem. The geographers in Ottawa are lying to you. The New Era of Joint Leadership photo gallery is lying to you: those photos are no-place. There is no such thing as a national place, an ecosystem-place, a boreal-place. There are only local places.
Canada is a massive nation which is superimposed on the territories of hundreds of indigenous nations. Their territory is the only territory in the world that is theirs. Consider: All the forests in France will not be protected for three years in exchange for deforestation of the entire country of Romania, which has forests of a similar ecology, because these nations have widely respected sovereignty. It is agreed upon that there are places in Romania which have significance for the occupying people that are not interchangeable with similar locations in France. Once forests are clear-cut, the chances of a healthy forest returning in its place are exceedingly low. By the time enough biodiversity develops, the soil will have eroded to the point of not being able to support life. Every indigenous nation has a right to its places.
When a bureaucrat with Natural Resources Canada writes the phrase ‘our forests’ for a brief for their website, they might do it from an office at their national headquarters at 580 Booth Street [see image 3]. The abstract notion of national territorial holdings has no place in our discussion. Our discussion of forests must be immediate rather than purely symbolic. Where do we live? Where do we work? What trees do we see every day? It is true, this hypothetical bureaucrat who forms forestry policy is surrounded by trees, but not by spruce or pine, but by a few maple trees in a spent, old lawn. If you have never been somewhere, or you’ve visited it on a vacation, of course you can destroy its living things; of course you extract its life-forms as resource. This is tourist colonization.
Unfortunately, so far the scale of mainstream Canadian thought on forests is all wrong. Everything must be interrelational and local. We must ask: What is the meaning of these actual places, not simply their ecosystem label? It is helpful, I feel, to think of the spirits of place, when learning to think with local specificity. To the pagan Norse, they were called land wights, to the Ancient Greeks, genii loci, topick gods in early Medieval England. Cultural Studies scholar Donna Haraway argues “We need these spirits, rhetorically, if we can’t have them any other way, in order to reinhabit, precisely, common places – locations that are widely shared, inescapably local, worldy, enspirited” (297). There are meaningful, enspirited places in cities all over the world, and special places in the boreal forest too. For one to have a valuable, productive relationship with a place, it is crucial that we consider actual places and the specific, individual humans, plants and animals who live there.
The investment in this abstract, virtual sense of place in the national psyche runs adjacent to the contemporary divestment in urban and especially suburban Canadian public space. I believe that the heavily theorized placelessness of the automobile landscape, of shopping malls, gas stations, and chain food outlets normalizes and predisposes peoples’ identification with whole ecosystems such as the Boreal Forest and the Arctic to the point where they become virtual stand-ins for places.
Ecosystems are rough scientific amalgams of millions of places. The definition of boreal forest is not exact – boundaries are blurred.  If we strip real lived experience from the definition of place, there goes the forest. So what will we do with all these poor Canadians who ‘belong’ to place-like environments they have never experienced – many of which are actual occupied, inhabited places for the indigenous people who have a few millennia on them? That’s the million dollar question.
An actual tree can never mean anything meaningful to anyone who does not live in direct contact with it; it can only represent something symbolically. When a sense of place is wrested from real physical occupation, the living things of that ‘place’ become expendable. To the Canadian interested in ‘protecting the boreal,’ the trees in a Group of Seven painting will always shine golden in the oil sunset.
Let us come back to the question posed at the beginning of this article: it was a trick. Not enough information was given – there is no such thing as just any tree 600 km north-east of Toronto. The tree in question is a 33 year old Black Spruce near Ôbacigwâtikokâk, unceded Algonquin Territory and there is a spider sitting in a web in some of the lower few branches and two humans have touched it in its life. Unceded, a word not built into Microsoft Word’s dictionary, means that this is territory not surrendered to any other sovereign body by treaty – it belongs to the indigenous people who first inhabited it. The Spruce is outside the range of the caribou, and as such, it is unprotected by the CBFA. I think I can almost hear the saws, and sadly, it’s probably not just the idea of saws.
Jamie Ross is a Montreal-based non-indigenous writer, who is working on an experimental documentary called Fallow/La Friche and a book on the demographic shifts leading to the reforestation or ‘unsettling’ of Eastern Ontario, where a majority of his European ancestors settled in the 19th century. (
Originally posted at
1)       Haraway, Donna. The Promises of Monsters: A regenerative politics for inappropriate/d Others in “Cultural Studies”, Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler, eds. Routeledge: New York, 1992
2)      Kerr, Don. The Changing Face of Canada: Essential Readings in Population. Canadian Scholars' Press, 2007
3)      National Resources Canada,  “Aboriginal Partnerships in the Forest”, The State of Canada’s Forests, 2007
4)      Paley, Dawn. Fracturing Solidarity: The Canadian boreal forest agreement in context. Briarpatch Magazine, vol. 40, No. 2 March/April 2011
5)      The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. Updated May 2010. Accessed April 2011.

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The Politics of Culture. We try to analyze the ideology and political meaning embedded in popular films, videogames, music, news media, tv shows, etc. Expect everything from essays to protest videos.

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