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Treasure, conflict, and survival in Canada’s peatlands

Click to play video: 'The power of peat: Canada’s secret weapon against climate change'

The power of peat: Canada’s secret weapon against climate change

Hiking in the Hudson Bay Lowlands is like a game of hopscotch — in a swamp. A tapestry of colourful mosses indicates where it’s safe to step: the green and white spots are drier, while the rich red and copper patches can swallow you whole.

Aside from the stunted black spruce trees that dot the watery landscape, it doesn’t look like there’s much here. It’s quiet, except for the constant buzzing of mosquitoes and black flies. But Michelle Kalamandeen didn’t come all this way for what’s on the surface.

Standing only about five feet tall, she uses her entire body to shove a long metal instrument into the spongy ground. Using a sledgehammer, another team member thumps the pole downward inch-by-inch. Until, eventually, it stops.

“The blade is going to cut the soil and then we’ll pull it up,” Kalamandeen says, turning the handle on top of the pole 180 degrees.

What emerges is a perfectly cylindrical soil sample.

Except this isn’t your average soil, it’s peat.

The research team examines the peat core. This sample was taken more than two metres below the surface.

Marc Doucette / Global News

“We know it’s very old because we’re going so far down into the ground,” Kalamandeen says.

This sample, also called a peat core, is likely around 2,000 years old judging by its depth, which means it could have been forming at the same time as the Roman Empire. And all that time, it’s been storing carbon.

“The darker the peat is, the more carbon it tends to have,” she says.

Peatlands are ancient ecosystems that cool the planet by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and trapping it deep underground. But despite its natural ability to stall further climate warming, Canada’s peatlands are often overlooked.

“They are always seen as desolate wastelands: full of bugs, wet, you can’t access them, nothing of value in them,” says Lorna Harris, a peatland scientist working for Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. “And I think we need to change that.”

The Hudson Bay Lowland peatlands are a “global treasure,” says peatland scientists Lorna Harris.

Marc Doucette / Global News

A search for any praise of peatlands in government policy papers yields few results. This is surprising when you consider that Canada has one-quarter of the world’s peatlands. Together, they store more carbon than the Amazon rainforest and amount to the largest land carbon stock in the world. The latest research estimates Canada is responsible for 150 billion tonnes of carbon sequestered underground — the equivalent to 11 years of current global greenhouse gas emissions.

These carbon sinks can be found across the country, from the Taiga Plains in the Northwest Territories to the north shores of the St. Lawrence River. But there’s one peatland complex that stands out among the rest: the Hudson Bay Lowlands.

Stretching from Manitoba, across northern Ontario, and into Quebec, it is the largest peatland expanse in North America and the second largest in the world. Largely undisturbed by human development, this unique ecosystem has been accumulating for thousands of years and is thought to store more than 35 billion tonnes of carbon.

“It is essentially our equivalent to the Amazon rainforest,” Harris says.

Like the Amazon Rainforest, its existence is being threatened by human activity.

Kalamandeen’s work has taken her to peatlands in Peru, Brazil, England, and across her home country of Guyana. But none quite compare to the Hudson Bay Lowlands.

“I was blown away by the extent of it,” she says. “And as a scientist, you think, ‘Oh wow, this can store a lot of carbon.’”

She’s part of McMaster University’s Remote Sensing Lab. In partnership with World Wildlife Fund Canada and the Mushkegowuk Council, the scientists are combining satellite data with field samples to map the density of carbon across the Hudson Bay Lowlands.

A local guide hammers the peat borer into the ground while Kalamandeen holds it still.

The region is so large and so remote that the research done up to today just scratches the surface. There are only two ways to get to these peatlands: getting a helicopter to drop you off in the middle of the wilderness, or boating up river, then hiking several kilometres inland. The research collective chose the latter. On this leg of the trip, the researchers are using the small Cree community of Peawanuck as their home base.

“It’s very exhausting work,” Kalamandeen says on the morning of the second day of fieldwork. The team has four more days in Peawanuck before flying to its next location, Attawapiskat First Nation, located a few hours south by plane. Locals from each of the First Nations the researchers visit have been trained as sampling technicians in the hopes they can carry on the work in the years to come.

There’s a palpable sense of urgency. The collective is trying to keep pace with a well-funded and extremely motivated foe: mining companies. Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s dogged support of mineral extraction has led to a boom in exploration activity in an area deemed “the Ring of Fire.” As of last year, more than 26,000 mining claims cover 5,000 square kilometres of the Hudson Bay Lowlands, an area roughly the size of Prince Edward Island.

The goal of the mapping project is two-fold: by identifying the most carbon-rich areas, groups can better advocate for their protection and other scientists and government agencies can use the data to assess the carbon cost of any future resource development.

“Conservation action increasingly needs to be looking not only at the biodiversity values — and there are tremendous biodiversity values in the region — but also the role of carbon,” says James Snider, a conservation biologist who leads WWF Canada’s science and innovation team.

As mining companies work to put a value on the minerals underground, scientists and conservationists are using carbon to show the value of the Hudson Bay Lowland peatlands.

But the stakes are highest for the tens of thousands of Indigenous people who live in this region. Struggling to adapt to a rapidly warming climate, the vital infrastructure they need comes tied to an industry that threatens their traditional way of life.

Peatlands are ancient ecosystems, forming over the course of hundreds or thousands of years.

Here’s how they work.

Sphagnum mosses and other vegetation on the surface take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. Typically when plants die and decompose, that carbon gets released back into the atmosphere.

But the waterlogged conditions of peatlands slow down plant decomposition to such an extent that the dead plant matter gets pushed down by new vegetation growth, trapping the carbon absorbed underground with it. The accumulation of this partially decayed plant matter is what forms peatlands.

Globally, peatlands store more carbon, and for longer than any other terrestrial ecosystem. Despite only covering three per cent of the earth’s surface, they store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined.

“That’s the power of peatlands,” Harris says.

But this unique ecosystem is more than a carbon sink.

Scientist Michelle Kalamandeen holds peat in her hands.

Marc Doucette / Global News

During the winter months, Sam Hunter will gather a small group together to hunt caribou in the frozen peatlands. The muskeg, as it’s called by locals, is a critical habitat for the eastern migratory caribou. They come to this region to fill up on the white crunchy lichen that blankets the muskeg.

“The caribou are never in one place,” he says. “But we find them.”

Hunter’s grandson, who’s about to turn eight, often joins him on his hunting trips, which can involve days of travel inland. He’s been tagging along on hunting and fishing excursions since he was two years old.

“He’s seen everything — caribou, moose. He loves to fish,” Hunter says.

More and more, families are bringing the youth out on the land and teaching them about harvesting, he says. In the spring, many community members travel downriver to Hudson Bay to hunt geese. The area serves as the breeding ground for millions of birds that migrate between South America and the Arctic every year. Come fall, it’s the moose hunt inland that everyone looks forward to. The rivers are their highways, and the muskeg is their hunting grounds.

“We need to teach the kids how to live off the land,” Hunter says.

Sam Hunter monitors changes in the environment around Peawanuck – from the water quality of the rivers to the flight path of migratory birds.

Marc Doucette / Global News

Due to the high cost of food up north, seasonal harvesting is not only culturally significant but necessary.

“If we couldn’t do that, living up here wouldn’t be affordable,” Hunter says. At the Northern store in Peawanuck, a package of cold cuts sets you back at least $15 and fresh fruits and vegetables are sparse.

Luckily, the rivers are brimming with fish, and herds of caribou still frequent the area. The muskeg is also where community members harvest traditional medicines and “tundra tea,” says Matthew Gull, a resident of Peawanuck.

Peatlands also act as a natural water filter, improving the quality of water that feeds into the vast network of streams and rivers that lead to Hudson and James Bay. Many people in Peawanuck still drink directly from the Winisk river that flows alongside the community, Gull says.

“We tell the youth, ‘Drink the water from the river while you still can,’” he says.

The Winisk river is a vital source of drinking water and food for the community of Peawanuck.

Across the Hudson Bay Lowlands, people have been noticing changes: inland ponds are disappearing. So are the geese. Peatlands are collapsing due to permafrost thaw. The river levels are too low. The winters are wetter and shorter. The trees are getting taller. New species like cougars and even grizzly bears are appearing.

Hunter has been keeping a record of these changes as the Peawanuck’s Natural Resource Monitor.

“What used to take a thousand years to change, it’s happening in decades now,” he says.

Northern regions of Canada are warming faster than the rest of the country. These changes in the environment are making it more challenging — and potentially dangerous — to travel across the land.

The Cree community of Peawanuck in the wintertime.

The winter ice road that’s used to haul housing material, fuel, and other heavy essentials to northern communities has become “unsustainable,” as one chief put it. Peawanuck has yet to complete its ice road this year. Clendon Patrick, a resident, says the community will maybe get two weeks of use before it becomes unsafe. Weather permitting.

“Our muskeg, it’s not frozen,” Patrick says. “We’re trying to adapt with Mother Nature. We’re trying to teach our youth our knowledge of survival skills and how to be safe on the land.”

Mining activity in the Ring of Fire is just one more issue the 280 people that live here must contend with, he says.

“Everything is tumbling towards us like an avalanche.”

Because peatlands are typically thought of as useless swampland, they’re often drained and degraded for farmland and other development. When this happens, the carbon that’s been sequestered for thousands of years gets released into the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gases.

These carbon sinks become carbon emitters: every year, at least two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide are released from damaged peatlands around the world, which amounts to roughly five per cent of all human-caused emissions.

Despite a growing global consensus that these ecosystems should be left alone, peat harvesting remains a major industry in Canada. Each summer, large swathes of peatlands are dried out and vacuumed up by huge harvesters. The product is then sold and exported as peat moss, a popular ingredient in potting soil.

But the larger threat to Canada’s peatlands, conservationists say, is mining in the Ring of Fire.

The area was named after the vaguely crescent shape of the deposits and the fact that the people who made the discovery were Johnny Cash fans, or so the story goes.

Mineral deposits of chromite and nickel were discovered in 2007, leading to politicians proclaiming northern Ontario as Canada’s “next oil sands.” In the years since, dozens of mining companies have made the trek 540 kilometres north of Thunder Bay in search of great wealth. But so far, the area has not lived up to the hype.

Two successive provincial governments have tried and failed to open the region to mining. But that hasn’t discouraged Ford, who famously says he’ll hop on a bulldozer himself to get it done.

A mining camp in the Ring of Fire in the summer of 2022.

Courtesy: Wildlands League

Today, interest in the Ring of Fire is the highest its been in a decade, partly due to Ford’s rhetoric, but also because of a looming global shortage of nickel.

“The rush happened in the early part of the decade and now we’re concerned it’s happening again,” says Anna Baggio, the conservation director of Wildlands League, a not-for-profit group that has been monitoring mining exploration in the region for the past 14 years.

Every few years, the group flies over the Ring of Fire to see what the level of activity is.

“The camps have gotten a bit bigger,” Baggio says. “But the bigger change to me is just how sprawling the activities are emanating from the camps outwards.”

Large drills are used to obtain information about mineral deposits deep underground. The impact of maneuvering this heavy machinery in the soft, spongy landscape can be seen from the sky. The clear-cutting of forests for camps and exploratory drilling happens prior to any environmental review process.

The Ring of Fire in the Winter of 2010. The impact of exploratory drilling can be seen from the sky.

Courtesy: Wildlands League

“These impacts look like they’re going to be permanent,” Baggio says. “And [the mining companies] are not required to restore the land afterward.”

There are likely unaccounted-for greenhouse gas emissions resulting from this activity too, Harris says.

Ironically, the Ring of Fire is central to the Ford government’s plans to make Ontario a manufacturing hub for green tech, like electric vehicle batteries. In an interview with Global News, Ontario Mines Minister George Pirie claimed the mineral deposits in the Ring of Fire are worth $1,000,000,000,000.

“Anecdotally, mining people are saying this is a trillion-dollar project based on the acreage, (and) the value of critical minerals that are already established in the ground,” Pirie says.

Pirie could not provide any evidence to support that statement, so we contacted Wyloo Metals, the Australian mining company with the largest deposit holdings in the region. CEO Luca Giacovazzi laughed when he heard the trillion-dollar figure.

“I don’t mean to laugh, but there is a lot of myth around the Ring of Fire. A number like that is way exaggerated,” Giacovazzi told Global News. “The Ring of Fire is a special area. … But numbers like that are a little bit silly.”

Wyloo Metal’s Esker Camp in the Ring of Fire. Giacovazzi says it currently houses about 50 employees.

Ring of Fire Metals / Facebook

Giacovazzi wouldn’t speculate about the value of the minerals in today’s market. He says the company is in the early stages of figuring that out. Wyloo just launched Ring of Fire Metals, a new subsidiary focused on the region. The team is currently working on refreshing the decade-old feasibility studies for the company’s planned nickel mine, the Eagles Nest.

“We’re really going the extra mile to make sure that we do put the environment right up front,” Giacovazzi says. “We’re taking every possible measure to make the footprint of the mine as small as possible.”

Plans for the Eagles Nest currently only encompass one-square kilometre, and Giacovazzi says only a small part of that area is peatlands.

“As a miner, you don’t want to be constructing in a wetland, so you avoid it as much as possible,” he says.

Wyloo is just one mining company, albeit with a sizable stake in the region. But where one goes, others will follow.

If only half the area covered by mining claims is developed, it would result in the release of roughly 800 million tonnes of carbon dioxide — doubling Canada’s annual reported greenhouse gas emissions.

“Anything we do here is going to impact the global climate,” Harris says.

The road to the Ring of Fire

The Ring of Fire remains largely inaccessible. Three roads need to get there; two are under environmental review and one is still in the planning stages. The estimated cost of building the road network, which will cut through dense boreal forest and peatlands, has jumped to $2 billion. That tab is to be split between the provincial and federal governments, and the latter has not yet committed the funds.

Vern Cheechoo sees the roads as a doorway to the region. Once it opens, anyone can walk through. Miners, hunters, fishers, energy companies. “Who’s going to control those?” he asks. Once that door is open, can it be shut?

Cheechoo is the director of lands and resources for the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents seven Cree First Nations along James Bay. He says member nations are most concerned about how mining and other development will impact the rivers and the muskeg.

“We know that mining is a boom and bust industry,” he says, referring to the De Beers’ diamond mine west of Attawapiskat First Nation that closed in 2019.

“A rich diamond mine in the backyard of Attawapiskat. It doesn’t look like it’s helped the community at all,” Cheechoo says.

Instead, it may have damaged a critical river system. Conservation groups, including Wildlands League, found elevated levels of mercury in the water and fish in the Attawapiskat river which they allege was caused by mining activity. De Beers pleaded guilty to failing to provide mercury monitoring data, but maintains it did not pollute the river.

Vern Cheechoo says the region has been ignored by policymakers for too long. “It sequesters all this carbon,” he says “Why is it not a priority to be protected?”.

Brent Rose / Global News

This time, Cheechoo’s not leaving anything to chance. For the last six years, he’s been leading an initiative to gather baseline samples from all the major river systems that are downstream from the Ring of Fire.

“We’re not only downstream, we are down muskeg,” he says. “It’s the breathing lands of Mother Earth.”

Of the dozen First Nations in the region, only two formally support the development. Marten Falls First Nation and Webequie First Nation are working with the province on the proposed road network that would connect their communities, and any future mines, to existing highway networks.

“Our members, especially our young people, want to actually have the things that are available to most Canadians,” Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum says. “Health care, education, a chance at training and job opportunities.”

Marten Falls has wanted an all-season road for two decades to bring down the cost of living. But Achneepineskum says it’s always lacked the support and funding to get past the feasibility stage. After the discovery of the Ring of Fire, that’s no longer been an issue.

Minister Pirie rejected the idea that this is just a mining road, saying the roads are “all about developing the communities.”

“[The Chiefs] want an opportunity for their kids to have a better life than they had. And quite frankly, so do I,” Pirie says.

Ontario Mines Minister George Pirie says the footprint of the Ring of Fire is “very, very small.” Mining claims currently cover 5,000 square kilometres, an area the size of PEI.

Jory Lyons / Global News

But when asked what plans the province has to build high schools or improve health services in the communities getting the road access, he couldn’t say.

“I think that they’re getting well-served with the clinics that are in those communities right now,” Pirie says.

Both Achneepineskum and Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse don’t think so. Wabasse says Webequie’s health clinic has only one or two nurses living there full-time. A doctor flies in every month or so.

“The doctor has limited time while in the community and is not able to see most of the community members that seek medical help,” Wabasse says.

It’s the same in Marten Falls. Achneepineskum says the health care services are “very inadequate.”

“We struggle to see a doctor. We’re struggling to transport our sick people. We don’t even have an ambulance in the community,” he says.

Read more:

Northern Ontario First Nation health system only treating emergencies amid nurse shortage

Remote First Nations desperately need better services. Boil-water advisories, housing shortages, suicide crises, and addiction issues stem from Canada’s colonial legacy and decades of neglect from people in power. Speaking to both Chiefs, you get the sense they saw this path as the only option to improve the quality of life in their communities.

“We have a big say in what happens in those areas now,” Achneepineskum says. “So that industry and government doesn’t strip First Nations of their resources and leave us in continued poverty.”

The Chiefs also understand it involves risk. But with few options and climate change making life up north more difficult and expensive, it’s a gamble they’re willing to make.

Environment Minister Stephen Guilbeault has never been to Ontario’s far north to see the peatlands firsthand, but as a self-confessed former environmental activist — he calls them “critically important.”

He knows about their carbon sequestering power and importance to Indigenous people. He also knows about the critical minerals that are buried underground and what could happen if the peatlands are disturbed.

“Would we allow for mining in very ecologically sensitive areas where hundreds of millions, eventually billions, of tonnes of carbon would be released? That wouldn’t make sense from an environmental perspective,” Guilbeault says in an interview with Global News.

But he wants critical minerals too. Therein lies the federal government’s Ring of Fire-sized conundrum.

Guilbeault is placing his faith in his government’s regional assessment, which is designed to anticipate the cumulative impacts of any future development in the region. When it was announced in 2020, there were high hopes that it would address the concerns people have about the potential contamination of watersheds, the release of carbon emissions, and impacts on seasonal harvesting.

Minister Guilbeault says his government could halt the Ring of Fire development. “If we came to the conclusion that all projects would have too much impact, I guess we could theoretically.“.

David de la Harpe / Global News

But when the draft terms of reference for the assessment were made public at the end of 2021, it was met with disappointment and anger. First Nations were sidelined. It didn’t mention carbon. And it was hardly regional in scope.

“They drew a box around the Ring of Fire and said, ‘This is going to be our focus,’” says Baggio of Wildlands League. “It was kind of like the worst-case scenario.”

A coalition of First Nations wrote a scathing letter to Guilbeault demanding the terms be thrown out and reworked to include them as equal partners. He listened and has agreed to most of the key requirements put forward by Chiefs in recent meetings, says Kate Klempton, a lawyer who represents several First Nations in the region.

The first demand: that the assessment cover the entire Hudson Bay Lowland peatlands.

“It is critically important that we get it right, because the consequences of getting it wrong are likely to be catastrophic,” Klempton says.

Guilbeault touts this as “a new way of doing things.”

“Indigenous peoples and nations want to make sure that they are part of this as real partners.”

The new terms of reference haven’t been announced yet, so it is an open question if the process will be co-led, and if the peatlands, and the carbon they store, will be given any special consideration.

After being overlooked for years, the Hudson Bay Lowlands are poised to become the most hotly contested region of Canada. Now, everyone sees value in them. But what that value is — carbon or minerals — depends on where you sit.

Clendon Patrick is a resident of Peawanuck. On his last hunt, he harvested a caribou and moose. He says that will feed him and his extended family for about a month.

Marc Doucette / Global News

Back in Peawanuck, it’s still -20 C but starting to warm up. Clendon Patrick is looking forward to taking his 13-year-old daughter out for the spring hunt.

“Being out on the land, you rejuvenate yourself, recharge yourself,” he says.

Out on the rivers, he’s no longer thinking of hardships or what’s to come in the future.

“You stop and say a little prayer. Thank you for bringing me on this land. I’m here now.”


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