Maitland Conservation leading the charge to save the region’s natural habitat

 By Cory Bilyea

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

  Rebuilding, restoring, and regenerating for future generations to include Indigenous consultation

MAITLAND/NINE MILE WATERSHEDS- Maitland Conservation (MC) is slowly trying to rebuild, restore and regenerate resilient forests and wetlands in the Maitland/Nine Mile watersheds and communities, but more needs to be done to speed up the process as the impacts of climate change continue to wreak havoc around the world and in the region.

According to data collected by MC, it would take over 750 years to restore all the flood plains, river valleys, and riparian areas in the watershed with existing resources.

The work involves engagement with local landowners, farmers, communities, and governments to do restoration work that helps the environment and the landowner continue their business.

MC is also beginning to consult with Indigenous knowledge keepers, historians, and researchers, garnering historical knowledge of the area and learning more about Indigenous land stewardship.

In order to know where we are going, we need to know where we’ve been.

Research into what was here prior to the 1800s, when this area was first settled and before the great forests of Southern Ontario were gone, is being conducted by many Indigenous and Metis people right now. Their discoveries include a vast and rich culture intertwined with the people who took care of the land.

First contact brought tremendous destruction to the land. The disregard for what was here, driven by the need for progress, industry, and greed, allowed for the destruction and extermination of much natural fauna and flora.

This destruction interrupted the delicate and intricate network of a balanced, life-sustaining ecosystem that survived for thousands of years under the stewardship of the people.

Introducing foreign species that further damage the remaining forests is proving to be incredibly hard to manage and another area of concern for local conservationists.

MC Watershed Ecologist Erin Gouthro is currently investigating local forests. In her research, she has discovered that 89.51 per cent of the forest ground vegetation on privately-owned land in North Perth consisted of invasive or non-native plants, with 10.47 per cent being native to the area. A mere 0.02 per cent of the area had tree seedlings growing.

“Human movement and the importing of species has caused more than just outbreaks of buckthorn, purple, loosestrife, and phragmites. Movement and importing species from other parts of the world has also caused Dutch elm disease, European ash borer, and Japanese pine beetles (in the west). Also imported are blights, fungi, and cankers,” said food sovereignty activist and seed keeper Terre Chartrand.

Fixing things means learning, and Chartrand says if people could take themselves outside the familiar parks and bush lots “and take your mind away from a European notion of conservation and into an integration with land-based living and what that means.”

Land-based learning and living are terms often used by Indigenous knowledge keepers who use this practice to revive old ways of doing things, like land stewardship.

“I’m talking about tree shepherding. Forest tending. Food so incredible and abundant that even controlled burns were required to keep a balance,” Chartrand said. “And it was a balance because Indigenous People are one of the many native beings to where we live. We are not a blight, or a rampant spread. We are in harmony with the land around us, learning the ebbs and flows and adapting constantly enough to survive genocide.”

Vast forests, their inhabitants (birds, animals, fish, insects), and the people who lived among them were shoved aside to create what is now the prime agricultural land so fiercely held on to by the settler’s ancestors.

Current data collected by MC says that 78 per cent of the watershed is used for agriculture. Sixty per cent is considered to be prime agricultural land. At the time of data collection, the approximate value of the 470,000 acres was $5 billion.

A mere 18 per cent of the watershed is what is left of the upland/lowland forests that used to be here.

Many historians have documented their findings in writing. This data can be found in several publications, such as The Lines of Howick, published by the Howick Historian Society in 1996.

The introduction to the book explains when the Maitland/Nine Mile watershed area was first settled, how they came to occupy the area, and how the land changed from being “heavily wooded,” to what it is today.

The publication claims that “the Chippewa Nation of 440 individuals inhabited and claimed large parts of today’s Perth, Middlesex, Lambton, and Huron counties. In all, 2,200,000 acres, which included part of present-day Howick Township.

On April 26, 1825, the book claims, the Chippewa People sold the land to the Crown for ?1,100. In Canadian currency, that equates to $1,788.59 for over 2 million acres.

“The northern boundary of the treaty was surveyed in 1828 by W. Burwell of Port Talbot. It roughly bisected the Maitland, then called the Menesetunk, where it passed through Howick.”

On Aug. 9, 1836, the “Saukings” met with Francis Bond Head.

Four representatives “signed their totems” and surrendered an additional 1.5 million acres, and “their band moved to Manitoulin Island and the Bruce Peninsula. The government paid the Saugeen’s ?1,200, about two pence an acre.”

The value of 1,200 from 1836 is equivalent in purchasing power to about 128,600.14 today.

In 1836, SON agreed to Treaty 45 1?2, which surrendered 1.5 million acres of its lands south of Owen Sound to the Crown. In exchange for those rich farming lands, the Crown made SON an important promise: to protect the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula for SON forever. But, 18 years later, the Crown came back for a surrender of the Peninsula. The Crown said that they could no longer protect SON’s remaining lands from settlers, and Treaty 72 was signed in 1854, where SON surrendered most of the Peninsula, Olthuis Kleer Townsend (OTK LLP) Lawyers for SON treaty claims.

The remaining land that was known as “Indian Territory” became “Crown Land” in 1840 after the “Great Father” apparently paid the Saugeen People for their treaty land.

“In 1842 administration was attached to the Huron District and centred out of Goderich,” the Howick publication said. “The heavily wooded land was known as the Queen’s Bush.”

The first surveyors began to arrive in the region, bringing with them “chainmen and axemen,” and the destruction of the forests began. Two-hundred years later, the error of those ways is becoming more apparent every day as climate change ravages the world.

Unfortunately, knowledge and prayers alone will not save this planet. Concrete and immediate action must continue, and that requires some funding to continue the work.

All levels of government should be reinvesting in the land; the funding available is not enough.

The disinterest in addressing the crisis is prompting local special interest groups to seek help from other avenues, like the media, to get the issue into people’s living rooms and show them the data, the proof that this can no longer wait for the government to do another “study.”

Broken campaign promises, continued dishonesty, and destruction with complete disregard for conservation or stewardship have caused a breakdown in many people’s trust in the Ontario government.

The Ontario government’s recent passing of Bill 23, which allows for the sale of previously protected wetlands, proves that they are not listening to the many voices raised in protest. Instead, these voices continue to fall on deaf ears.

Progress, industry, and greed continue to drive the government, with remarkable disregard for the natural habitat and subsequently its inhabitants, to the detriment of the earth, the water, and the land.

Phil Beard,  MC General Manager, Wingham Community Garden volunteer, Wingham Community Trail Committee member, and climate activist, is heavily involved in researching the region’s history and doing what he can to make positive changes to the land, for its residents, and for the future generations of all living beings.

Beard told the Advance Times that in 2018, then MC chair Jim Campbell penned a letter to the Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks Rod Phillips, inviting him to visit the Maitland watershed in 2019.

“I would like to show you the work that MVCA is doing with municipalities, businesses and landowners to help them reduce their carbon footprint, adapt to the growing impacts of climate change and develop a more resilient and prosperous watershed,” Campbell said in the letter.

Beard said that to date, a response had yet to be received from the Ministry.

MC is currently working on its three-year plan, which includes how they are working to restore ecological health and resiliency in the watershed, reduce their use of fossil fuels, and have healthy, prosperous communities in rural Ontario.

“We will cover more ideas than just what (MC) can do as building resiliency and prosperity will require an unprecedented level of cooperation and collaboration between all levels of government, the private sector and the non-governmental sector if we are going to succeed.”

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This series will look more in-depth into the region’s pre-contact species that are currently extinct or nearly extinct; how fossil fuels, changes in the jet stream, climate change, and land management is impacting the watershed; how the MC and the Indigenous land stewardship initiatives happening now can help to mitigate the impacts of climate change and regenerate the regions natural habitat; and how to move forward more harmoniously with the land and its inhabitants to preserve a legacy for future generations.

  Cory Bilyea  Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for the WINGHAM ADVANCE TIMES. The LJI program is federally funded.

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