Northwest Territories NTFP report

Prepared by:
Mike Mitchell
Educator and Harvester
Hay River, NT

February, 2007

In a certain sense, the Non-Timber Forest Product (NTFP) economy boasts a rich, profitable history in the Northwest Territories.  Indeed, If NTFPs are considered to be ‘all goods derived from forests of both plant and animal origin other than timber and firewood1’ then it may even be said that the Northwest Territories owes its very existence to NTFP harvesting.  I’m speaking, of course, about the fur trade, the heart of the so-called traditional economy of the NWT and historic trading commodity of the Northwest and Hudson Bay companies.

Though perhaps not as prevalent as during previous centuries, even today, hunting, trapping and traditional arts and crafts represent an important part of the Territorial economy.  Indeed, the Government of the Northwest Territories’ Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI) has a dedicated Traditional Economy sector office (http://www.iti.gov.nt.ca/iea/traditional_economy/index.htm) to support just these activities; the office quite recently announced a $200 000 fund to promote hunting, trapping and hide preparation and handling among youth.  The hunting/trapping economy remains a priority for the Government of the NWT (GNWT) primarily because it “provides a reliable foundation for the history, culture and social fabric of the NWT and its Aboriginal people2”.  The same can be said for the Arts and Craft industry: moose hair and caribou hair tufting, hide-work (moccasins, gloves, jackets), quillwork, and drum-making are touchstones of Aboriginal culture and identity.  Cottage-industry artisans producing high-quality traditional craftwork can be found in nearly every NWT community – or through the fledgling NWT Arts and Fine Craft Database (http://www.nwtartistsdatabase.com/tabid/57/Default.aspx).

Because of the informal nature of the traditional economy (and because so much of it is produced for domestic use) it is difficult to quantify its value in terms of the cash economy.  Nevertheless, the proactive role played by the GNWT in the harvest, handling and sale of furs has ensured the commoditisation of at least this one aspect of the traditional economy. 
 
While botanical NTFPs may not enjoy the same profile as furs, hides and meat, they too represent an important part of the traditional economy and culture of the NWT, and may yet represent an important part of the economy in years to come.  First Nations and Métis inhabitants have long harvested, and continue to harvest, berries, medicinal plants and herbs, roots and bark for, primarily, domestic use.  Birch bark basketry is one notable exception: birch bark artisans produce high quality artefacts in such communities as Trout Lake and Ft. Liard (viz. Acho Dene Crafts http://www.fortliard.com/bbb.htm ) that are sold within and without the NWT. 

Capitalizing on this traditional harvest for business purposes, was precisely this theme upon which the 2nd annual NWT Forest Industry Conference3 focused its discussion in Hay River, NT in October 2006.  This 5-day workshop brought together southern NTFP industry experts, representatives of local Government, aboriginal and non-aboriginal harvesters and informants and members of the general public.  Much of the conference was delivered, lecture-style, on topics such as commercial opportunities, industry regulations, business planning and funding opportunities. Hands-on workshops and field trip were great complements to the conference and helped to identify the following people as local resources for NTFPs in the NWT:

  • Margaret Leishman, Ft. Providence – Medicinal Plants
  • Frederick Beaulieu/Mike Mitchell, Hay River – Birch sap/syrup
  • Danny Beaulieu, Yellowknife – Trapping
  • Cathie Harper, Yellowknife – Willow Basketry
  • Phoebe Punch, Trout Lake – Spruce Root Basketry
  • Cody Punch, Trout Lake  – Birch Bark Basketry
  • Don Morin, Yellowknife – Aboriginal Eco-Tourism

The conference was a tremendous learning opportunity for many participants. For others though, there was a sense of unease over the commoditisation of traditional NTFPs.  The capitalist model of surplus production seemed, for some, to be at odds with aboriginal values of sustainability and respect for the land. Generally, however there was consensus that the potential for NTFP deserved further study and discussion.  

To this end, the conference concluded with a round-table on NTFP next-steps.  Community consultation, development of regulations, research/inventory, business planning and training were the key points that emerged from the discussion.  Subsequent to the conference, the Forest Management Division and Industry, Tourism and Investment have taken lead roles in furthering the issue of NTFPs in the north.  Upcoming initiatives include:

  • A 2007 NTFP conference is scheduled for the Sahtu region of the NWT to galvanize interest in more northerly communities.
  • A tentative summer project involving Gene Hachey, of ITI, Dave Buck, formerly of the Northern Forest Diversification Centre, and the Centre for Non-Timber Resources, Royal Roads University, Victoria BC to conduct NTFP inventories in some communities in the Mackenzie Valley
  • A policy paper, to be published by the Forest Management Division, to open dialogue on appropriate regulations and policy that might govern a sustainable NTFP industry in the NWT.
  • A birch syrup educational package, designed by Mike Mitchell and Forest Management Division, to be distributed to select Northwest Territories schools.  Edukits will contain lesson/activity plans to harvest and use birch sap and/or concentrate birch sap syrup, DVD footage of Métis Elder Frederick Beaulieu’s birch syrup operation, a starter kit of spigots and corks and background information on birch physiology and chemistry.  The package will be piloted in schools in the Southslave/ Dehcho region of the Territories and in the Beaufort Delta.

While the commercialisation of NTFPs may still be in its infancy in the NWT, there is undoubted potential for growth.  Traditional knowledge of herbal remedies, edible plants and a deep-rooted culture of harvesting all portend well for the future of NTFP production.  Clearly, however, concerns over the incompatibility between cultural and spiritual values and commercial harvest must be a central part of future discussion of the NTFP industry north of 60.



Footnotes:

  1. Lepine, B. Summary: 2nd Annual Forest Industry Conference and Workshop: NTFPs – Creating Community Based Business Opportunities.  October 2-6, 2006. p. 1.  http://forestmanagement.enr.gov.nt.ca/forest_resources/forest_harvesting...
  2. Bell, B. 2006 ITI News Release http://www.maca.gov.nt.ca/resources/newsroom/support_for_traditional_eco...
  3. Lepine, B. op. cit.