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Connection With Land is the Fundamental Root of Wellness and Understanding of One’s Place in the World

Ilnu Cultural Educator and Forester, Valérie Courtois is determined in supporting the development and strengthening of Indigenous nations and their nationhood. In this interview with her, we discuss the importance of Valérie's work with the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, her advocacy for Indigenous peoples' rights, and what you as readers can do to support this work.
Valerie Courtois leading an intention ceremony onboard Ocean Endeavour

© Jen Derbach

Valérie leading an intention ceremony on the Mighty Saint Lawrence expedition

Valérie Courtois is a member of the Ilnu community of Mashteuiatsh, located on the shore of Peikuakami (Lac-St-Jean). Valérie holds a degree in forestry sciences from the Université de Moncton and has been the Director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative since 2013. She is also on the Board of Directors of the Corporation du Mushuau–nipi, a non-profit that encourages cultural and professional exchanges on the George River.

Valérie’s work on board the ship (and ashore) is hard to limit to a few words but includes sharing Indigenous peoples’ culture and legacy, interpretation of wildlife, nature, and flora, and sharing the history of the lands we are touching (and sailing through). She is a wonderful addition to the Adventure Canada expedition team and is a bright light who brings joy and knowledge to everyone she interacts with.

Can you begin by describing yourself and your professional work?

I am the executive director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI). I am a forester by trade but what I really do is work to support the development and strengthening of Indigenous nations and their nationhood because strong nations will make strong bold decisions on land conservation and stewardship.

That work is important to me because to me the connection with land is the fundamental root of wellness and understanding of one’s place in the world, and it’s our duty and responsibility as Indigenous peoples to be having that close relationship with our lands and waters and ice.

Portrait valerie courtois

What are the main goals of the ILI?

The ILI has a few main goals. One is that we are able to regain as much of the wording and decision-making over our lands and waters as possible. The second is that we are hoping that every First Nation in Canada and every Indigenous nation in Canada that wants a guardian program should be able to have one. And our third goal is that every nation that would like to create and establish an Indigenous protected and conserved area is able to do that.

Can you explain the importance of the boreal forest and the nature of the threats it faces?

First of all, the boreal forest doesn’t only occur in Canada, it’s circumpolar, it is the largest intact forest in the world. The Canadian boreal in particular is the largest intact forest in the world. North America’s boreal is the birthplace of between three and five billion birds every year. It has a quarter of the world’s wetlands. It has 20% of the world’s fresh water.

You know we hear about how the Amazon is described as the lungs of the earth, but actually the oceans are, but the second largest kind of part of the lungs of the earth is the boreal. So, it is important globally, that can’t be understated and because it’s still so intact, it still has the benefit of not only having good healthy populations of animals and plants but also good healthy populations of Indigenous peoples who have maintained a relationship with this region for about 10 000 years.

Valerie Courtois leading an intention ceremony onboard Ocean Endeavour 2

© Jen Derbach

What can our readers do to help support the work that you’re doing right now? Are there any other projects you would like to draw their attention to?

First, something that your readers can really do is to get to know the Indigenous peoples around them, on whose lands they live and benefit from, it’s really important that we start to build bridges between Indigenous peoples in Canada and other Canadians. Because the work of Indigenous peoples and conserving and stewarding lands isn’t just for our own benefit, it’s for the benefit of everybody. It is really important that we start to build these bridges and build that base support for our work.

A concrete thing that your readers can do is they could log on to landneedsguardians.ca which is our public-facing campaign to support the work of guardians. What we would love for them to do is to sign up and support our cause. The numbers that sign up and the information that we collect help us in our relationships with the federal government.

I also would love for people to vote and participate politically and express to their members of parliament and other politicians their support for the environment, for the land, and for the work of Indigenous peoples and protecting that land. Too often when we are in Ottawa and were advocating for increasing our authority and roles, we hear from members of parliament that say you know what in my riding I don’t really hear about this, and I don’t believe for a second that that is because there is nobody there who cares about these issues. I think it’s really important to be vocal and advocate for that.

Finally, if your readers are tourists and they like to discover places and discover people, do think about “voting with your feet” as we say in French. That is going and visiting, buying from, and connecting with local Indigenous tourism operations. Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, or Indigenous Tourism Association of Québec, given where we are, are excellent resources for learning and experiencing the breadth, diversity, and strength of Indigenous cultures in what is known as Canada.

Whether that is to visit the Innu of Ekuanitshit and the Archipelago Mingan and experience the traditional fishery of lobster and practice of making Bannock in the sand or going to one of the many lodges that Indigenous peoples have been purchasing and transforming, to just looking up online and checking out the very vibrant arts and jewellery culture that is now coming through online. All those jewellers that make those beautiful earrings depend on a healthy environment to source their materials, and so purchasing that and encouraging that sector would go a long way to supporting our work.