One thing I learned during my working life as a journalist and filmmaker is how little is known about the workings of Nature. I remember certain things that illustrate this: for example, when we were filming some scientists who were creating a small forest fire within Banff National Park, and asked them what they were hoping to learn from it, they replied, “We don’t know. We have no idea what might happen.”
In a similar vein, I began to suspect a whole bunch of alarming things as I investigated the 1971 proposal of the Quebec government to dam and control the great rivers running from east to west into James Bay, at the foot of Hudson Bay. Although there was a sort of standard two-volume work on such minimal science as had been done in and around Hudson Bay, I discovered that the people pushing the Hydro project knew little, and appeared to care less, about the environment they were proposing to change, and they were not prepared to credit that the people who had lived in that environment for the last 5,000 years and whose lives had been intimately connected with the rivers, forests, animals and climate of the region, must have had precious information that the invading engineers could put to good use. In an effort to stave off any public criticism of their ignorance the engineers had, in fact, published a 17-page study of the subject which was treated with such contempt by the Cree inhabitants of the region that they ceremoniously took the report outside and burned every copy they could lay hands on.
The Premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa, when he announced he project, talked abut the rivers “wasting away” into the sea, indicating an absolutely minimal level of environmental understanding, and talked about the land as empty. The Indian Association of Quebec, which had been talking to the provincial government for a year or two about their claims to land, now discovered that the government would not accept any information they offered, so in turn they organized some sympathetic scientists to make a quick three-week safari into the region just so that the information could be presented in the sort of scientific language the government would accept as authentic.
What these scientists produced was a considerable improvement on the government version, but the whole imbroglio convinced the handful of young Crees who spoke English or French, and were therefore thrust into leadership roles, faut de mieux, as it were, that their best course might be to go to court to argue their rights in their traditional lands. This is what they did, after some delay, and the exhaustive examination of the regional environment that they presented in court was enough to persuade Mr Justice Malouf of the righteousness of their plea to be left alone in the lands they had always considered were theirs. He ordered Quebec to stop trespassing on the indigenous territories. Of course, such a shocking judgment could not be allowed to last, and within a week it was overturned by the Quebec Court of Appeal, revealing the nakedly political basis of law. But this astounding victory --- so far as I know, it was the first case ever argued by any group within Canada that their lives depended on the integrity of their environment --- at least persuaded the federal government that the indigenous inhabitants had to be dealt with by the proponents of the project. Even though the subsequent legal settlement was a shotgun marriage, the indigenous inhabitants did get a settlement, on which they have been able subsequently to build a more just regime of governance.
There was one climactic moment in that court, as far as I was concerned. It came when a Mr. Watt, an Inuit leader from Fort Chimo, as it was then called, gave evidence in his own language for more than a day, strictly detailed and expert evidence on all sorts of environmental issues, such as the ice regime and the likely effects of water flow on it, the likely effect of such changes on the huge barrenland caribou herd, and so on. This evidence concluded midway through an afternoon session, but the lawyers from the Quebec government asked the judge for an adjournment, before they could begin their cross-examination. Why, asked the judge, why are you asking for an adjournment? “Because,” replied the lawyer, “the evidence given by the last witness has been so technical in nature that we need time to consider what questions we must put to him.” Here, naked before our eyes and ears, lay exposed the ignorance of even the most highly educated of our species, before the facts of Nature.
As an aside, I might mention that some years later, while the Caniapiscau reservoir was being filled, the change of water flow occurred at such an inopportune moment for the migrating caribou that 10,000 of them were swept away and perished. Hydro-Quebec, of course, said they had nothing to do with it, in spite of the fact such a disaster had hitherto been unheard of.
One thing I learned from sitting through that court case was that every physical environment carries its maximum load of species of animals, birds and insects and that, therefore, solutions involving transfer of animals in and out are unlikely to work over the long term. On the other hand, animals appear to have an instinctive knowledge of what their populations are: we heard that an environment that might contain 15,000 beaver lodges, such as Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba, could lose as many as 5,000 of these lodges without any effect on the overall beaver population. The animals simply compensate for these losses with higher birthrates, thus maintaining populations at a stable level which, normally, is exactly what the environment can support. I found much of this information to border on the miraculous. for example, we heard that one effect of changed water flow would be a change in the ice regime: that normally at a certain period of the winter when water levels recede, a space is cleared under the shore-bound ice in which muskrats can scurry back and forth. If this space does not occur because of a man-made change in water levels, those muskrat might well not survive the change. Descriptions of the workings of Nature --- I feel that Nature should be given a capital letter, because of its capital importance in our lives --- always have to deal in minutiae. For example, along the James Bay rivers, whose variation between low flow and high flow is immense, certain high flows wash over the river boundaries to create small islands of sediment on which geese populations, when they are ready, could lay their eggs and nurture them. Such a fundamental matter could be swept away by any change in river flow. Similarly, young seals tend to be born, and to grow, on the edges of the ice cover where the river flows into the sea.
Again, I had the immense privilege of accompanying an ancient Cree hunter Job Bearskin through the forest as he pointed out to us environmentally significant signs of the presence of animals. “You see here, on this tree, the beaver has been busy. This tree has also had the porcupine, you see these scratches, he has been here too.” Even more spectacularly did Job point out to us how he and his friends discovered where the bears hibernate for the winter: Such places can be discovered by looking carefully at the trees. “The bear breaks off boughs from the trees, just as a human does,” said Job. “But there is a difference. A man breaks off boughs downward, so that the broken side is on top, but the bear breaks them upward, so that the broken side of the bough is on the bottom.” Anywhere he saw that, Job knew the hibernation site could not be far away. This is the sort of significant detail that scientists might be excused from not knowing. Or, again, Job turns over a rock. “You see,” he said, “the bear has been here, turned over the rock, and when he comes back, the ants will be living under the rock.” He giggles, as a teenager might. “The bear is too smart for the ants. He will come and eat them later.”
Well, of course, all this is merely anecdotal: I know next to nothing about these matters, but I can tell an expert when I see one, and these old men, who had lived their entire lives in the bush, tracking down the sparse animals and living off them, always mindful to keep them in balance, just as Nature has arranged it, these old men knew whereof they spoke. They weren’t the drunken, dissolute bums that they had always been treated as by their invading European neighbours. Far from it: they were experts in so many disciplines; expert animal trackers; expert on their snowshoes; expert butchers; expert carvers; super-expert in their canoes; experts in their knowledge of the biology and behaviour of animals.
We have to take our hats off to them. They were the masters in their own environment.