Flames, forests and hope

From coast to coast, Indigenous-led efforts are underway to save our remaining wilderness. We bring you two hopeful, in-depth stories this week’s newsletter
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Matt Simmons walks with another person, both wearing hard hats and fire protection gear, through a smoky landscape

“The power of fire is so intense and humbling.”

Three weeks ago, I wrote to you about how northwest B.C. reporter Matt Simmons dropped working on a pretty incredible feature story to cover the premature wildfires that erupted in various parts of British Columbia. That piece, about a Gitanyow-led effort to use fire to heal the land, was published on our site a few days ago — the first in our brand-new series, In The Line of Fire.

Kira Hoffman, a fire ecologist who worked with Gitanyow, texted Matt the night before the cultural burn to invite him to come and witness it himself. Knowing he couldn’t pass up the offer, he headed out to the territory in late April to see how the ignition team calmly painted the dry landscape with blazes that help restore cultural connections, heal the land and strengthen communities. (He’s ordering a new hard hat, we swear!)

For thousands of years, fire was brought to the landscape to manage resources like food and medicinal plants and the animals that eat them. The suppression of Indigenous fire practices, along with other aspects of cultural life — among the genocidal policies enacted by colonial governments in Canada — made the forests more flammable. 

Now, the BC Wildfire Service is teaming up with Indigenous communities to support these burns. And with more than 30 burning projects already taking place in the province, a new chapter of collaboration has begun. “I think it’s a beautiful thing,” Gitanyow Elder Darlene Vegh said.

For Matt, the sensory experience of being so close to the flames was all-encompassing: the sound of it, the smell, the wall of heat, its movements and colours. “Watching how everyone interacted with the fire was so fascinating,” he told me. “There’s this amazing sense of calm and control — it was really reassuring.”

Three thumb-sized canisters containing pesticides are inserted near the base of a hemlock tree
In Mi’kma’ki, fighting to save the hemlock ‘grandmothers’ from a deadly pest

To the east in Nova Scotia, 90 per cent of the hemlock trees could die in the next 10 to 15 years — all because of the hemlock woolly adelgid, an invasive species that has also spread to southern Ontario. It can’t survive extreme cold temperatures, but a warming climate means the pest could adapt and find ways to infect other hemlocks beyond its current northern limits in Canada.

But there’s one patch — Wapane’kati, the old-growth eastern hemlock forest at Asitu’lɨsk, an hour west of Halifax — that can still be saved, thanks to a Mi’kmaq-led effort. This April, freelance journalist and photographer Crystal Greene went to the forest as volunteers inoculated trees against the bug.

Community members know they can’t save all their “grandmothers” — “but we can save enough of our hemlock forests that we will have a hemlock forest for the future,” one project support officer told Crystal.

Both these features, full of hope, shine light on how pairing Indigenous Knowledge and western science is forging new paths to protect the natural spaces we still have left. Check out Matt’s fiery piece, with incredible photos of the burn by Marty Clemens, and then go read all about saving the hemlock grandmothers in Mi’kma’ki

Take care and save what you can,

Karan Saxena
Audience engagement editor 

P.S. With your support, we can tell more stories about Indigenous-led forest conservation efforts. Will you become a member by giving what you can to sustain this solutions-focused journalism?
An illustration of streams carrying plastic waste, pharmaceuticals and other garbage into the Great Lakes

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We’re putting WHAT into the Great Lakes?

Ontario reporter Fatima Syed just dove into “emerging contaminants,” or all of the pharmaceuticals, microplastics and chemicals that Canada isn’t regulating or removing from our water. Next week, Fatima and other members of the Great Lakes News Collaborative will be chatting live about the stories collected in The Checkup, our cross-border look at the health of the lakes and the people around them. You can tune in Wednesday, June 12, at 7 p.m. ET on YouTube or Facebook.

🤍 Become a member
A mix of art supplies are scattered across a table. There is The Narwhal print magazine, glue sticks, Narwhal stickers and a variety of colourful books and papers.

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Art and design fellowship alert!

The Narwhal is excited to offer a new art and design fellowship for early to mid-career illustrators and/or designers who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour.

Our team is known for its ability to make complex challenges into understandable and beautiful stories. We’d like to dive deeper and bring new visual ideas to life that support our written storytelling. We know that the design industry is… err… not known for its diversity. This art and design fellowship was conceived to help change that a little.

Have you ever read a story on our site and felt you were brimming with ideas on how to make it sing with your art and design prowess? Or maybe you have an idea about a data- or design-heavy story about the natural world and need some creative and editorial support to tell it?

Go here to read more about the gigthe deadline to apply is June 30. If you know someone who might be a good fit, forward them this newsletter!

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This week in The Narwhal

Two people sunbathe on a beach
Out, together: nature welcomes queer people when society doesn’t
By KC Hoard
From Cherry Beach to Trinity Bellwoods Park, Toronto’s outdoor spaces have been sites of both liberation and violence.

A few fern fronds on a dark background
The little fern that could move a mine
By Francesca Fionda
A peaceful scene of a calm lake and low forests on a hazy day
After a long fight, Garden River First Nation is getting its land back — one cottage at a time
By Kierstin Williams
A partially flooded highway stretches through a watery valley
After disaster strikes, how much is it worth to rebuild?
By Steph Kwetásel’wet Wood
A woman in uniform holds a dog on a leash, who is jumping up on a boat to inspect it for zebra mussels
Manitoba is on the Canadian frontlines of an invasive species battle. Can it hold the line?
By Julia-Simone Rutgers
The Narwhal wins Canadian Association of Journalists award for reporting on Canada’s oil and gas lobby
By Arik Ligeti
Calm amid the flames is possible — and reasonable — when it comes to cultural burns. So grab a coffee and then remind your friends to sign up for our newsletter so they can hear the good news, too! 
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In Mi’kma’ki, fighting to save the hemlock ‘grandmothers’ from a deadly pest

When Chris Googoo first visited Wapane’kati, the old-growth eastern hemlock forest at Asitu’lɨsk, it was like stepping back in time. In his imagination, he saw...

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