A New Off-Reserve Voice to Jump-Start NACOSAR

Interviewed by IKANAWTIKET Regional Facilitator Joshua McNeely
Source: Netawek Ikjikum Vol. 6 – Issue 1 & 2 June/Sept 2010

Federal Environment Minister, Jim Prentice, made several new appointments to the National Aboriginal Council on Species at Risk (NACOSAR) in June. The Council of six Aboriginal persons, also nominated by the National Aboriginal Organizations to reflect, as best possible in across six persons, a diversity of regions, backgrounds and knowledge about biodiversity and Aboriginal issues. The Council’s duty is to advise the Minister of Environment on the administration of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) and to provide advice and recommendations to the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council (the council of all federal, provincial, and territorial ministers responsible for species at risk within their respective jurisdictions).

This is a monumental responsibility for six Aboriginal advisors, but also an unprecedented opportunity and starting point for Aboriginal Peoples to become involved in the decisions which most affect us.

I sat down with one of the new NACOSARians, IKANAWTIKET volunteer Jeff Stevens, to learn what his vision is for the future of species at risk.

Jeff Stevens

Joshua: Good afternoon Jeff and congratulations on your appointment to NACOSAR.

Jeff: Thanks, it came as a surprise to me. I’m a fisher and a hunter – not a high class politician or university professor.

Joshua: Well, it doesn’t surprise me Jeff. The Species at Risk Act recognizes that Canadians, especially decision-makers, need to learn from Aboriginal Peoples who are educated on the lands and waters, and who are guided by an Aboriginal eco-centric world view and long continuum of knowledge handed down by our Elders. The Minister receives plenty of scientific, industrial, and bureaucratic advice. What he really needs is advice from people who daily see the effects of our impacts and inactions. The Minister needs Aboriginal advisors who are connected to the people and who can advise him about how the government is or is not implementing the Act to include all Aboriginal Peoples.

I guess my first question to you is how did you, the hunter and fisher, become an advisor to the highest authority on the administration of this Act. Where do you come from and what is your personal history?

Jeff: Well to answer your first question, I think it is obvious…I come from my mother (chuckling)… I mean that in two senses. First I am born and raised by my mother and father, and for me I can extend that to my grandparents, cousins, and several in my community. What I mean is that everything that I’ve learned, everything that I hold dear, I’ve learned from those people. My mother got me into collecting old bottles. Now I have barns full of really interesting historic stuff that I’ve collected and bartered for over the years. My one grandfather took me out into the woods to harvest fire wood. I learned to respect him and those trees. To this day, I feel his spirit come to me when I smell the ash wood. I think he is one of the reasons why I chose to become an arborist. My other grandfather and older cousins took me fishing all the time when I was really young. There I learned to respect the rivers. I was always fascinated at the strength and power of the fish who would whiz by me, while I struggled to cross a stream.

But when I say I come from my mother, I also mean that in a deeper sense. Living and working in the woods has taught me that I am a part of nature. My mother is also the Earth and she nurtures me and protects me and teaches me in additional ways to what my family has.

Joshua: Did you ever try any other professions?

Jeff: Well, I do like welding and I gave that a try once. Another time when I was young and naive, I heeded the prospect of good money out west in a fish plant, but nature was always calling to me. I love to be outdoors working in the woods and streams. So I gave that up and came back to Nova Scotia so that I could do what I love. The pay isn’t as good, but it keeps me fed and a roof over my head.

Joshua: I remember the day you volunteered for IKANAWTIKET. You just kept asking questions and trying to find out what you could do.

Jeff: Yeah, seems to be a trait of mine (chuckling)… I just keep asking questions. I’ve ‘asked’ myself into all sorts of interesting opportunities, and from those opportunities I’ve leaned a lot more than many of those educated folks. Of course that leads me to ask more questions. It’s a vicious cycle you know… and so simple. Now, I find myself an advisor to the Minister – all because I ask questions and learn from those around me.

Joshua: Two years ago, the Native Council of Nova Scotia appointed you as their representative to the Atlantic Whitefish Recovery Team. What has that experience been like?

Jeff: That’s been a real eye-opener. Before then, I thought that the government had all the information they needed to draft a plan to save a species. Every time I picked up a brochure, I got the impression that the government or some environmental group had a handle on things. At best, the brochure would suggest that I donate some money or become involved in some sort of project. Then I attended my first recovery team meeting and there were only a dozen or so people. “Wow” I thought. “Where are all the elders, and the municipality land zoning department, and the high school teachers, and the factory owners, and the sociologists…?” I mean the people that are on the team are dedicated and good at what they do, but they only cover the science and the government side. Species at risk is much more than biology though, is it not? Where are all the ‘other’ people – the ones who will make sure that we protect species? Like my grandfather who taught me to only cut down the trees that I needed today, and to be very careful about how I cut them so that I don’t disturb any of the others. He wasn’t a scientist and what he would see as important for a recovery strategy is very different than what a scientist sees as important.

Joshua: So, you’ve been around. Seen many places and met many people. You’ve experienced working intimately with others to save a species under the Act. What is your vision for NACOSAR and for SARA?

Jeff: That is a no brainer. We must have a united Brotherhood for the species. You’re right, I’ve talked with many people and I’ve walked many miles. We all have very similar stories as Aboriginal Peoples. I’m disgusted at the politics today, both native and non-native. What I want is for us to start sharing our stories with each other. Together we have the strength to make change. It is up to us to stand up for what is right and to take charge. This is our future.

Joshua: What do you need, as one of six NACOSARians, to make that happen?

Jeff: What I need most is for people to show their human side. What I mean is that we should all go for a walk in the woods, or go out on the water, or what ever your favourite outdoor activity is. Soak the experience in. Feel the sun, and the breeze, and the rain. And remember who you are. You are a son or daughter of our Mother Earth. And then share that story with others around you. Share it with me. I’m just an advisor to the Minister. I don’t pretend to know everything. But I will promise that if you share with me, I will do the best that I can to make sure that is shared with high levels of our government, so that together we can have change.

On the political side of things, NACOSAR must have ‘A Face and A Place’ with the Minister. We must have a space within the Environment Canada offices so that we can have access to advise the Minister, and a proper budget so that we can meet and learn from Aboriginal Peoples across Canada. If we can’t get that, then I don’t think the Government is serious about working with Aboriginal Peoples on SARA.

Again, we would like to congratulate IKANAWTIKET Jeff Stevens on his appointment to NACOSAR. Our door always remains open to you and the rest of NACOSAR.

To send your thoughts or concerns to Jeff, you can reach him at the.stevens@ns.sympatico.ca.

You can also make your voice for species at risk heard by becoming involved in IKANAWTIKET, like Jeff has:

Contact Joshua McNeely at ikanawtiket@mapcorg.ca or (902)895-2982.

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