• Some Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation members canoed the Fawn River Watershed last summer to renew their links to the land

    Some Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation members canoed the Fawn River Watershed last summer to renew their links to the land. (Photo: Allan Lissner/KIlands.org/earthroots.org)

Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic

Last August, a group of canoeists traced an ancient trading route that winds through northwestern Ontario from Big Trout Lake to the shores of Hudson Bay. The two-week, 350-kilometre descent of the Fawn and Severn rivers included wildlife encounters, whitewater thrills and fresh-fish dinners.

But there was also purpose in the paddle strokes of the eight members of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation who made the journey from their community 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. They were renewing ageold links with lands they have been fighting to defend from mining development for years. This summer a new group of youths hope to repeat the journey.

According to Richard Anderson, the band’s former watershed community worker, maintaining the historic canoe routes asserts Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug sovereignty of the watersheds of Big Trout Lake and the Fawn and Severn rivers. “Water is all we have up here,” he says. “And everyone understands that we’ll need this water in the future.”

Five of North America’s twelve remaining undammed and unregulated watersheds south of 55 degrees latitude are in northern Ontario, including the Fawn-Severn. The region is also home to the Hudson Bay Lowlands, which at 245,000 square kilometres make up the world’s third largest wetland and act as a critical carbon storehouse. “We’re just starting to appreciate the ecological value of these lands,” says Anna Baggio, director of conservation planning for the CPAWS Wildlands League, a wilderness advocacy non-profit group.

So are other organizations, but for entirely different reasons. Mining companies looking for gold on traditional Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug territory sparked a conflict that climaxed in 2008, when six band members were jailed for obstructing operations. In 2011, the band responded by passing a motion to ban “all industrial activity from the watershed of Big Trout Lake and the Fawn River forever,” an area of 13,025 square kilometres, under its own system of indigenous law. Ontario, which doesn’t formally recognize indigenous law, eventually bought out the controversial claims from mining companies Platinex and God’s Lake Resources for a combined $8.5 million, and in March 2012, the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines made an interim withdrawal of 23,000 square kilometres from mineral claim staking, encompassing a portion of the Fawn River watershed.

“While Ontario does not endorse KI’s position,” says Cindy Blancher-Smith, the assistant deputy minister of mines and minerals, “the hope is that this step provides greater certainty to industry.” Further conflict between the band and mining companies may have been avoided for now. But meanwhile, development continues in a 5,120-square-kilometre patch of boreal forest known as the Ring of Fire, southeast of the reserve on Big Trout Lake. Here, prospectors have discovered North America’s largest known deposit of chromite, a mineral used in the production of stainless steel. Blancher- Smith notes that meetings between the government and local communities about proposed developments in the region are ongoing. “The KI situation remains unique,” she says, “and doesn’t influence the province’s approach to aboriginal relations in the Ring of Fire.”

Anderson insists his band has no interest in negotiating mineral developments. “We’ve seen what mining can do to the land and waters,” he says, citing reports of development-related water pollution near Kingfisher First Nation, a neighbouring community just south of Big Trout Lake. “We don’t want any part of it.”

For more information on the expedition, visit KILands.org and Earthroots.org.

The water snakes through the homeland of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation. (Photo: Allan Lissner)

KI Elders sing hymns in Oji-Cree on the shore of Big Trout Lake after blessing the travellers for a safe journey and a safe return home. (Photo: Allan Lissner)

The group canoed 350 kilometres over two weeks.

In 2008, six KI leaders were jailed for refusing to allow mining in the headwaters of the Big Trout Lake and Fawn River, which they feared could poison their water and fish. Pictured are Bruce Sakakeep, Councillor Darryl Sainnawap, Chief Donny Morris, Councillor Sam McKay, and Deputy Chief Jack MacKay. Councillor and Grandmother Cecilia Begg was sent to a women's prison. (Photo: KILands.org)

KI children march in the community to support their jailed leaders. (Photo: KILands.org)

Orion McKay, Rory Chapman and Joel Chapman enjoy a meal of fresh caribou. (Photo: Allan Lissner)

KI Guide Terry Childforever shares observations on changes in river ice due to climate change. Childforever has paddled this route a dozen times. (Photo: Allan Lissner)

Brook Trout thrive in the Fawn River but are increasingly rare elsewhere because they require very clean water.

Louie Tate displays a feather found on the route. (Photo: Allan Lissner)

The forest floor is full of edible berries including the creeping snow berries (which taste like mint) and the bunch berries pictured here. (Photo: Allan Lissner)

The KI Watershed Expedition paddlers pose at Polar Bear Rapids (also known as White Seal Rapids) on the Severn River near Hudson's Bay. (Photo: Allan Lissner)