The overlapping Hudson and James Bay Lowlands in northern Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba are pockmarked by millennia-old peatlands—a dense and globally significant repository of carbon. This northern area also contains the “Ring of Fire”—extensive mineral deposits coveted by international mining corporations—located upstream of the traditional territory of the seven First Nations that form the Mushkegowuk Council. The traditional territory of the Mushkegowuk Cree encompasses the largest network of peatland in the world, book-ended by subarctic permafrost in the far north and boreal forest to the south.
Canada’s Northern Peatlands
Peatlands are ancient ecological systems that take thousands of years to form their characteristic layer of absorbent organic soil. These wetland ecosystems are essentially waterlogged ground—much of it permafrost—where the decay of dead plants slows and over long periods of time gradually build-up to form peat soils, rich in carbon. Usually a few metres deep, peatlands support highly specialized plant species adapted to wet ground conditions, such as Sphagnum mosses, sedges, various shrubs, trees and lichens.
The largest peatland complexes in Canada occur in northern Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec, as well as northern Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Yukon. Peatlands occur mostly in the Boreal Zone, a region of high ecological function. The Hudson Bay Lowland—which is the size of Germany—is the second largest peatland complex in the world. It covers parts of northern Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec and much of it lies within the traditional territories of several First Nations.
Peatland ecosystems are also highly sensitive to impacts; if left undisturbed they provide a host of important ecological benefits including maintaining high biodiversity, water storage, and a carbon sink for climate regulation. Like tropical and temperate rainforests, the peatlands sequester a huge amount of carbon, storing an estimated 35 billion tonnes in Ontario’s far north alone. In fact, the below-ground carbon stores in northern peatlands is about five times that of tropical forests; they also remain there—if left undisturbed—for up to 7,000 years. The rainforest carbon turn-over is much shorter at around 100-500 years, and its carbon store is mostly above-ground.
Peatlands also provide important water storage and critical habitat for many wildlife—caribou, wolverines and migratory birds to name just a few. The extensive coastal marshes of the James Bay area provide critical breeding and staging grounds for arctic and sub-arctic shorebirds. Its yet undammed rivers carry large quantities of nutrients and organic material, making the coastal zone highly productive for biodiversity.
Peatlands and the Carbon Cycle
Carbon builds up slowly in peatlands, taking hundreds to thousands of years. Carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide and methane is naturally released slowly from northern peatlands through plant respiration, organic matter decomposition, fires and permafrost thaw. Globally, peatlands hold almost twice as much carbon as forests, despite only occupying 3% of the Earth’s surface, a quarter of which is in Canada. The Hudson Bay Lowlands have remained relatively undisturbed, unlike other places where peatland has been drained for agriculture or flooded for hydroelectric dams. Disturbance of these northern peatlands would release a massive amount of stored carbon into the atmosphere over a short time, much of it in the form of methane. One molecule of methane is as much as 80 times more potent at heat-trapping as a molecule of carbon dioxide.
“For hundreds of kilometers in all directions the forest [and peatland] has never been logged or fragmented, remaining much as it has been since shortly after the glaciers retreated 9,000 years ago,” writes Allan Lissner of Alternatives Journal. The boreal zone and associated peatland represents the largest carbon storehouse on Earth – a critical buffer against runaway climate change – and also forms part of the planet’s greatest reservoir of freshwater. “The elders of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Innunuwug (KI) First Nation know that local water flows through their blood, and that their bodies are built of the trout that swim in [the land’s] clean rivers and lakes. Taking care of their watershed is a sacred responsibility handed down to the KI youth from the Creator through the teachings of their elders.”
How To Preserve Peatlands
Wildlife Conservation Society Canada makes the following recommendations to help keep these peatlands intact and keep the carbon in the ground:
- Increase our understanding of how human activities affect carbon emissions from northern peatlands, including the impacts on future emissions of increased industrial activities that alter or remove peatlands and incorporate the cost of additional carbon emissions due to development prior to approving projects.
- Design and support financial mechanisms to reduce carbon emissions associated with peatlands.
- Support and fund Indigenous-led conservation, including land use planning and the establishment of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) in the north to conserve and steward peatlands.
- Invest in Indigenous Guardians to help monitor and protect northern peatlands and to manage IPCAs that protect carbon storehouses.
- Ensure that the national carbon accounting system accurately reflects carbon storehouses in northern peatlands and boreal ecosystems.
- Develop a Pan-Canadian Peatlands Strategy that coordinates and creates policies and incentive schemes that recognize the need for the protection and restoration of peatlands across provinces and territories within the context of Pathway to Canada Target 1.
- Incorporate the carbon and biodiversity values of the Hudson Bay Lowlands as a world-class peatland into future planning, including the planned regional assessment for the Ring of Fire.
The WCS Canada report concludes: “By protecting peatlands, we can address both climate change and biodiversity loss by maintaining areas rich in carbon and species. Protection of these unique systems is key to meeting Canada’s targets to reduce carbon emissions and conserve biodiversity.”
What Ecojustice Is Doing…
In my latest eco-brief from Ecojustice, they reported on the latest news on the Ring of Fire (ROF), the mineral-rich region in Northern Ontario that is targeted for massive mining that could impose significant adverse impacts on the peatlands there, as well as jeopardize surrounding First Nations’ treaty rights, including access to traditional land and resources, and community well-being.
Ecojusice currently represents the Mushkegowuk Council, which comprises eight First Nations as they advocate for a Regional Assessment (RA) process, affirming their Treat Rights and enabling them to become key decision-makers in how the RA is conducted and how the complex effects of mining and related development are addressed. Ecojustice reports:
“Over the last two years, we have been working with our clients to include First Nations as co-leaders with the government for the RA. In December 2021 a draft terms of reference was released, which ignored the demands of the Mushkegowuk Council and other First Nations. As a result of Ecojustice and First Nations advocacy and widespread outcries in response to the release, the Impact Assessment agency came back to the table to work on a new approach with First Nations included as rights holders. In 2023, we will continue to work with our clients, to advocate for a Regional assessment in which they have meaningful decision-making authority.”
Lissner, Allan. 2013. “The Breathing Lands.” Alternatives Journal, February 28, 2013.
Wilt, James. 2020. “The battle for the ‘breathing lands’: Ontario’s Ring of Fire and the fate of its carbon-rich peatlands.” The Narwhal, July 11, 2020.
Richardson, Karen and Justina Ray. 2021. “Northern Peatlands in Canada.” Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.