Environment Sector

The Environment Sector provides advice, guidance, and recommendations to the Leadership Council (LC) and Chiefs of Ontario on water, natural resources, energy, species at risk, traditional knowledge, environmental assessments, mining, climate change, and others.

There are currently several areas where the Environment Unit has undertaken initiatives to safeguard First Nations rights and interests. This has entailed engagement with the federal and provincial governments on matters related to drinking water safety; working with the COO Health Unit to streamline efforts to develop the tools and instruments to address environmental health; and, more recently, working to deliver training on a First Nation Environmental Assessment Toolkit that would assist communities as they assert jurisdiction over their territories’ lands and resources.

Since 1975, when the Chiefs of Ontario (COO) was first established, numerous environmental resolutions have been passed by the Chiefs in Assembly. The resolutions address the four elements of water, air, land and energy. In regards to the environment, we often see these key issues and general themes reoccurring:

  • The failure of governments and private industry to consult, accommodate and otherwise obtain the free, prior and informed consent of First Nations;
  • That in making Treaties First Nation peoples did not give up their rights to manage the lands, the waters and all beings in their territories;
  • First Nations being the first to feel the effects of policy decisions that often leads to the contamination of either lands, air or water; and
  • A lack of resources to adequately deal with the environmental issues faced by First Nations.
  • These challenges persist primarily because of the longstanding failure of governments to recognize and respect our Treaties.

The Chiefs of Ontario Environment Department is designed, in part, to meet these challenges. The Unit was formally created in 2005 at the 31st Annual All Ontario Chiefs Conference in Eagle Lake First Nation.

Kathleen Padulo, Environment Director of the Chiefs of Ontario (COO) and member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames, was greeted by nearly 200 guests attending this year’s Scallen Lecture in Human Rights, “Principled Voices: Indigenous Peoples Need a Say on the Environment.” The “Principled Voices” series was established through a generous gift from Stephen and Chacke Scallen to explore the erasure of cultures and understand the role of corruption in human rights violations. The series provides an opportunity to highlight some of the most important leaders and thinkers on these issues.


Water Protection

Ontario is extending the current moratorium on new or increased permits to take groundwater to produce bottled water for up to 6 months, to April 1, 2021. This extension gives Ontario time to thoroughly consider the feedback we received and further engage on how Ontario can implement our proposed enhancements to Ontario’s water taking program. More information on these proposed enhancements can be viewed at https://ero.ontario.ca/notice/019-1340.


A place of refuge is a site where a ship in need of assistance can take action to stabilize her condition to protect human life and the environment. Place of refuge requests may be complex and urgent, requiring close coordination and communications between the vessel and Marine Safety authorities. Transport Canada is the lead agency for decisions related to ships requesting a place of refuge in Canadian waters. Places of refuge are not designated in advance because the most suitable shelter can be determined only after the details of the incident are known. To be best prepared for such incidents, the Government of Canada has created a National Places of Refuge Contingency Plan and is updating five regional plans.

DOWNLOAD THE OPP Fact Sheet: Places of Refuge

World Water Day, on 22 March every year, is about focusing attention on the importance of water.


First Nations communities in Canada are disproportionately affected by poor water quality. As one example, many communities have been living under boil water advisories for decades, but government interventions to date have had limited impact.


The Haudenosaunee give thanks to all of the Natural World. Water was given original instructions and a duty on how to maintain balance within the natural world.


Elder & Youth Gatherings

In November 2017, First Nations Elders and youth from across Ontario gathered in Thunder Bay to discuss climate change and its impacts on First Nation communities, cultures, and Mother Earth. The gathering focused on understanding climate change from Elder and youth perspectives in communities and regions across Ontario and resulted in meaningful discussion and teachings being shared between the Elders and youth.

To view the Elders and Youth Gathering video, please click here: Reconnecting with Mother Earth


Over 70 First Nations youth and elders gathered in Sault Ste. Marie in March 2015 to attend the Chiefs of Ontario’s Following in the footsteps of our Ancestors Elders and Youth Water Gathering. Participants discussed the role of First Nations traditional ecological knowledge in protecting the Great Lakes.

The workshop offered First Nation youth the opportunity to connect with Elders and share knowledge and build capacity as leaders. Participants were provided with an overview of the Great Lakes initiatives, including recently announced priorities of Ontario and Canada to restore the Great Lakes ecosystem.

This workshop built on a previous gathering of First Nations youth and Elders held in Six Nations of the Grand River in March 2014. During the previous workshop, First Nations discussed their priorities around Great Lakes protection with representatives from the Province of Ontario.

Following in the footsteps of our Ancestors “Elders and Youth Water Gathering was made possible by support from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC).


Climate Change

Ontario’s boreal forest extends from the northern limits of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forest to the Hudson Bay Lowlands with an area of 50 million hectares.  This region contains two thirds of Ontario’s forest.  Interest in protecting the Boreal Forests may stem from the enormous amount of carbon stored in the ecosystem, and will play an important role in carbon emission forest offset programs within provincial climate change mitigation, legislation and Cap and Trade economics. Ontario and Quebec are particularly interested in carbon trading development visible in the Ontario-Quebec Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the bi-national Western Climate Initiative.

In April 2011, the University of Toronto’s Centre for Environment, in collaboration with The First Nations Carbon Collaborative (FNCC) presented a free webinar series is to bring together First Nations, carbon specialists, government and environmental groups to share information regarding their projects and policies for carbon and emissions trading, science and financing.    Their resources and presentations can be found below:

Carrier Sekani Tribal Council: Webinar Presentations
Western Climate Initiative
Queen’s University Carbon Pricing & Environmental Federalism Conference

at Risk

The purpose of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) legislation passed in 2002 is to prevent wildlife species, such plants, animals or organisms found in the wild and native to Canada, from becoming extirpated or extinct; as well as to provide the renewal of species that are extirpated, extinct or vulnerable to human activity; and to manage the species of special concern.

A recovery strategy identifies listed species, their critical habitats, and activities that threaten or harm the species and the issues that need to be addressed.  The Act requires that recovery strategies must be proposed for endangered and threatened species in collaboration with the Provincial minister where the species are found and First Nations included in the recovery strategy. There are numerous strategies developed to implement SARA such as the Habitat Stewardship Program.


In 2007, the Environment Department created a First Nation Species at Risk Toolkit.


Much of the forestry-related legislation and initiatives value forests in terms of its ability to act as a carbon off-set.  Forests will be a huge asset to Canada as the cap and trade method of regulating green house gasses is quickly becoming the dominant approach North American governments are taking to establish a green economy and fight climate change.

Ontario’s boreal forest extends from the northern limits of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forest to the Hudson Bay Lowlands with an area of 50 million hectares.  This region contains two thirds of Ontario’s forest.  Interest in protecting the Boreal Forests may stem from the enormous amount of carbon stored in the ecosystem, and will play an important role in carbon emission forest offset programs within provincial climate change mitigation, legislation and Cap and Trade economics. Ontario and Quebec are particularly interested in carbon trading development visible in the Ontario-Quebec Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the bi-national Western Climate Initiative.

The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA ) is an agreement between members of the Forest Products Association of Canada and environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs).  In 2008, exploratory discussions towards ending decades of strife between the forest industry and ENGOs were undertaken.  The talks led to the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, a three year truce based on commitments to work together to advance models for forest conservation and forest sector competitiveness.  The agreement involves the suspension of logging on nearly 29 million hectares of boreal forest across Canada to allow for caribou protection planning.

The CBFA was agreed upon without First Nation participation, considering that it sets out logging and conservation activities on First Nation traditional lands.

Ontario, through the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, and Forestry (MNDMF) initiated a tenure and pricing review in the hopes of modernizing and revitalizing the forestry sector.  FSTWG and the National Aboriginal Forestry Association (NAFA) worked together to ensure First Nation input into the process.  Bill 151, an Act to enact the Ontario Forest Tenure Modernization Act, was passed June 2011, without adequate consultation with First Nations and without mention of inherent and Treaty rights.  Forest tenures are the process by which the province allocates timber on “public” lands in Ontario.  The system currently in place gives large industrial corporations long-term, renewable licenses, and had operated on the same basis in Ontario for over 50 years.  Royalties or “stumpage” fees are generated from license holders when they harvest timber, of which First Nations do not share in.

Far North

The Far North makes up 42% of the Ontario’s land mass. The Far North Act supports the protection of at least half of the Far North or approximately 225,000 square kilometres in a network of protected areas.   The Far North is also significant in that it absorbs approximately 12 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air each year.

The Far North Act, Bill 191, was passed September 2010, and establishes objectives for land use planning in the Far North.  The legislation purports to allow for a “significant role” for First Nations in the planning and the protection of areas of cultural value in the Far North and the protection of ecological systems, but was passed with inadequate consultation with First Nations.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) noted their official opposition to Bill 191 in August 2010, stating that

“It violates the Treaties and disrespects our jurisdiction. It is not a true partnership. It imposes a massive interconnected protected area over our homelands without any compensation. It splits our northern First Nations from our southern First Nations and imposes different legal regimes…All development and protection decisions within Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory require the free, prior and informed consent of NAN First Nations.”

Drinking Water Safety

Unsafe drinking water and waste water systems pose a severe risk to our citizens, undermining the overall wellness of our communities. 84% of water treatment plants are at high or medium risk in First Nation communities in Ontario. The Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation estimates that it will cost approximately $228 – $296 million to upgrade the 158 existing water treatment plants. Many factors contribute to the prevalence of unsafe drinking water in our communities, such as a lack of resourcing to upkeep or build necessary infrastructure, inadequate disinfection systems, and contamination from industrial activities.

Additionally the National Assessments of First Nations Water and Wastewater systems in First Nation communities (released June 2011) reported First Nation communities in Ontario region are exposed to immediate health risks associated with the conditions of water and wastewater with 72% of the water treatment plants at high risk, 61% percent at medium risk and 25% are at low risk. These numbers are unacceptable and the health risks will not disappear with the establishment of legislative standards alone. Clearly, there is a need for immediate action on infrastructure and capacity needs in First Nations communities.

Currently, government response to this crisis has been to unilaterally introduce legislation to impose regulations for water systems without any resourcing (titled Bill S-8: Safe Drinking Water for First Nations, formerly Bill S-11). The proposed legislation would establish regulations for delivering clean drinking water in First Nations communities, but provides no funding to meet such standards. Concerns regarding the proposed legislation include:

  • Standards will be imposed on First Nations communities that they cannot meet due to the lack of money available to develop adequate water infrastructure;
  • Government will be able to impose regulations, without input from First Nations that would trump water laws or by-laws in First Nations communities and infringe on First Nations’ inherent right to manage the waters and natural resources of our territories;
  • Responsibility to provide clean drinking water will be shifted away from government making First Nations legally responsible if they fail to provide water at the level required by the regulation the government itself imposed;
  • First Nations, because of the above, may be forced into agreements with third party managers if they are unable to meet the regulations.

In light of these concerns, a number of initiatives have been undertaken. The Chiefs of Ontario commissioned a “Constitutional and Treaty Analysis of S-11” that outlined the issues and offered recommendations. A presentation was made to the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs addressing concerns over the lack of consultation regarding the Bill, First Nations jurisdiction over the waters, and Treaty rights to the waters.

The Chiefs of Ontario commissioned several reports investigating various aspects of the framework included in the proposed legislation:

  • An “Impact Analysis” on INAC’s preferred option of incorporation by reference , and a discussion of compliance, design approvals, monitoring, reporting and certification.
  • A legal “Aboriginal Water Rights Primer” produced in collaboration with other First Nation organizations outlining relevant histories, rights that may exist today, the protection of rights, the ‘infringement test’ and crown decisions.
  • A report, “An Analysis of the Potential Impacts of the Federal Proposal for New Federal Drinking Water Legislation to be Applied to First Nations Reserve Lands in Ontario”, that discusses issues pertaining to First Nations and Treaty rights, consultation, and recommendations for next steps.

Land Declaration

“We, the Anishinaabek, the Mushkegowuk, and the Onkwehonwe, are the land. Our ancestors were the land, we are the land and our youth and future generations will be the land… What we do to the land – we do to ourselves, and to our future generations…..We draw from sacred law, traditional law, customary laws – we need to protect the lands, the waters and all living things for future generations.”

Four nuclear energy Sessions were hosted in 2009 by COO and the Nuclear Waste Management Organization to provide information on nuclear energy, waste management processes, and feedback on nuclear energy to prepare a position statement.

A report was prepared for leadership based on the sessions and recommendations, and presented to the Nuclear Waste Management Organization as well.  The “We are the Land” Declaration was developed based on recommendations from these sessions, and approved by the Chiefs in Assembly at the November 2010 Special Chiefs Assembly (Resolution 10/19).  The Declaration encompasses all industrial activities, including forestry and mining.

“We are the Land” Declaration can be used as a tool and living document when undertaking initiatives that impact the land.

Traditional Knowledge

ATK (Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge) is one of many terms used to describe the collective knowledge systems unique to the First Peoples of Turtle Island.

ATK can also be referred to as “traditional knowledge”, “Indigenous knowledge”, or “naturalized knowledge.” ATK usually refers to those Indigenous systems of knowledge, as well as cultural practices and methodologies related to the production of knowledge based on traditional belief systems, relationships to the environment, and community practices. It is the accumulated and living knowledge possessing a depth and breadth of information built upon the historic experiences of Peoples living on the land and adapts to social, economic, environmental, spiritual and political change. Its value in understanding species, ecosystems, sustainable management, conservation and use is unparalleled. It comprises of a deep understanding of complex interrelationships between individual environment components, the dynamics of local ecosystems and the peoples that live in them. ATK is often used to denote systems which may differ from western approaches to science and knowledge. Much of this knowledge may be orally transmitted, and it may be considered sacred, thus it is important that ATK as well as community attitudes and desires regarding the use of ATK be treated with the utmost respect.

Traditional knowledge can provide guidance to government decision makers for environmental decision making processes, and can help ensure environmental management regimes are sustainable.  Indigenous peoples are willing to assist in environmental management regimes but need to be recognized respectfully for the knowledge they have to contribute in environmental management regimes. This means not only having input but working in collaboration with governments on a government-to-government basis. With the increase of intensifying pressures on Indigenous lands, we need to work together in order to sustain “all our relations” for those yet unborn.

Contact the Environmental Sector

Kathleen Padulo
Director of Environment
(416) 597-1266
Toll-Free: 1-877-517-6527