On The Ground

PETER CURRIER interviews Ian Attridge, Peterborough Environmental Lawyer and Activist

Attridge’s respectful inquisitiveness and keen sense of place have given him an overarching grasp of how, in particular, the Peterborough area has evolved since the pre-contact days of Indigenous primacy. As a lawyer, naturalist, and social activist, he has had enormous impact on land management in both the Peterborough area, the province and nationally. Currently, he is Chair of the Ontario Land Trust Alliance and an Associate in Trent University’s School of the Environment. So he’s been busy. Productive. And very generous with his time and expertise.

At the end of November, I met with him in the wood-heated warmth of his cozy Peterborough home.

First Nations communities are understandably sceptical of settlers and our motives. How have you succeeded in building links with Indigenous Communities?

Peter Currier

Ian: My attachment to the natural world started early. A nature game I played with my dad. Outdoor interests and admiration for the outdoors. A mindset that respected the natural world.

That early interest in nature spawned a synthesis between natural and cultural forces, particularly when I came to the Kawarthas. And more integration of the two seemed a good direction. So I furthered that integration by seeking out First Nation elders, attending events and experiencing Indigenous practices and conventions, participating when I could.

That developed into an interest of how humans interact with landscape and the oral histories that the elders were inclusive enough to share with me. I also became involved with and learned from ally groups in the area.

As both student and teacher, what has been the thrust of your connections with First Peoples? These things evolve over time, but currently what aims do you have and with what results?

The original history of this land lies with Indigenous people. Learning about that is an important basis for understanding how humans have interacted with this landscape. The settler part is where I started because more has been written about that, but gradually I began looking for more extended history, and not just the written history. The elders were the wise men and women, the knowledge-keepers of the First Nations. I got to know some of them and went to some of their events. A rally or a speaker series, a water walk, a powwow. You get to know a few people, and they introduce you to others. It was a casual thing. By osmosis. Being present. Showing up. Learning.

You build relationships that way.

I got to know Doug Williams-ban – an elder whose name translates from the Anishnabemowin Gidigaa Migizi, to “Spotted Eagle” – so I got to know Doug who was very much involved in teaching at Trent, having events at his house….

Later I invited him to speak at the Unitarian Fellowship, and he became a mentor and teacher.

What has been most important in your relations with First People? You started out on a personal level. How has that evolved? And where do you see yourself in relation to First Nations communities a few years down the road?

I hope the good relationships continue. I’d like to see more channels in our community and organizations locally and more widely for productive conversations to happen – knowledge sharing… the opportunity to learn from each other and to work together. To have closer relationships.

Often I think we’re living in separate worlds.

But it’s important to understand what the interests of the different communities are. What their living conditions are, and what they want to achieve. How can our senior and local governments respect and help achieve these goals, including collaborative governance.

Settlers are often surprised by some of the conditions and circumstances in First Nations communities. So for the future, I would like to see more closing of the gap of separate worlds. For example First Nations folks knew about the residential schools – the bureaucratic machinery, and the abuse – long before it entered the public consciousness of settlers. Canadians were surprised by that, and horrified, as well we all should be. But what was common knowledge for Indigenous communities for years was pretty much news to most settlers.

So that good personal relationship continues to develop and I’d like to see a convergence or collaboration of governance. We may be in two different systems, but learning from that can bring us together. We can work towards systems that are more respectful of the people living on and with the land, both Indigenous and settler.

Further, I think it is important to see more land back; Indigenous people having more access and control over land to bring their teachings, their laws and governance approaches to that. Land back has legal challenges that need to be addressed and streamlined, yet still there are many opportunities and ways for individuals and municipalities to support land (and responsibilities) back. This potential excites me and relates to my work with Indigenous communities and land trusts across Canada. It also connects with part of the 2018 Williams Treaty Settlement in this territory. I practice and teach environmental law and there’s much worthwhile material there, but often the settler mindset and the approach seems not quite on the mark and that has limited its success.

Peterborough is an area rich in natural resources, and I don’t mean quarries and logging potential. What would you say to local and provincial politicians and benefactors as regards protecting our natural heritage. Where do we need to go in protecting our forests, waters, and farmlands?

A few things come to mind, one of them is being humble. Sometimes we think we can just go and do whatever we want to the landscape, but we need to respect it more and differently. The ecosystem is so huge and it’s not appropriate to just separate out this endangered species or that particular quarry or whatever. We need to take a broader approach through an ecological lens, or a resiliency lens. We need to expand our view from an immediate, individualistic approach, and for that matter, beyond the limitations of a financial lens. This can be reflected in provincial, municipal, corporate and institutional policies. There is more work to be done on that front, including better identification, conservation and connection of important natural and cultural places.

Some of this is changing. Slowly maybe, but it is it is changing. We’re understanding more and acquiring deeper knowledge of one’s place. Having roots in a place, knowing it intimately, increases the likelihood that you are going to care for it. Nurture it responsibly. That doesn’t mean that you’re not going to use it. Some of the Indigenous teachings are that if we don’t use something, maybe it’ll disappear or languish – won’t be as available to people. The teachings advise us to make use of our environment but to use it in a respectful way and to live within our means. Sustainably. We can all learn from that.

We hear talk about needing to build more houses; really, it should be about truly affordable housing within complete communities, not any houses anywhere. We’ve got half a million people coming to Ontario every year and yet we’ve not got enough people to fill jobs.

Those are human interests, of course, and in one sense they’re short-term practical. But I’m thinking, what can the land sustain, long-term? Corporately … even legislatively – it’s always called the growth plan, not the sustainability plan. As a friend of mine says, act as if you plan to stay in a place rather than just keep moving on. That’s investment at its most responsible: you’re not going to pollute or use up all the resources in that place because it’s your own back yard and you will reap the results.

Understanding of what’s important and how to act in one’s personal environment, that is beyond the legal requirements, is basic to human prosperity and responsibility. It is something that becomes part of the ethic, the land ethic or the philosophy, the worldview. And that’s one of the areas in which I feel I can learn a lot from Indigenous people who have had that ethic in place over a long period of time. But often our settler approaches don’t work. We don’t listen to people who have knowledge and wisdom. We don’t give ourselves the time to really benefit from the conversations we need to have. And I believe doing that is important at every level of governance.

You tread softly, and leave a small footprint, but were you ever tempted to get on the corporate bandwagon and rake in the big bucks?

One summer I did work for a big law firm in downtown Toronto when I was a student, but I felt that wasn’t for me. I earned lots – enough to fund a trip to Asia – but that hasn’t been my motivation for me in law or doing my work.

I work for conservation, and for the public good as much as possible, often through private actors.
But personally? We are content with what we have, which is a lot more than most people. We’re not wealthy. This is not a rich household, we keep our costs down, and we are not fancy people, either. We like this community and all it has to offer. We stay here. And we engage here. This is our home.

You have been involved in the Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough for a long time. Can you talk about that?

I was raised in the United Church, a very liberal church, and that opened me to other cultures, other perspectives. I have lived overseas and travelled a fair bit. I recognized the diversity of paths and learned that wisdom is found in many places.

As a basic part of the Unitarian faith community I found that openness to be very rich. Many Unitarians are expressing their faith through action – engagement in community and social and environmental justice. That’s been an important part of my life and I appreciate that in others.

27 years ago when I first came to Peterborough I got connected to the Fellowship through music – was invited to sing there, and when I arrived I found that most of the people I knew in town were already there.

From my involvement at the Fellowship, I facilitated Indigenous and other speakers from various communities coming there to tell of their experience on the land. Over the years, this has been a valuable connection for me.

Your personal relations were well established before you acted professionally for many of your connections.

Yes. One of the areas that I specialize in is private land trusts and conservation. Over the last two or three years there’s been an interest in Indigenous communities applying some of those approaches for their community interests. Because of my expertise with conservation organizations, I was asked in little bits and pieces to help out around the edges and increasingly I have taken on a more active role, including with land back.

That has taken a certain amount of adaptation – different approaches for those communities because they often have different status under the Indian Act or there are programs that don’t work quite as well for them, so we’ve had to figure out different ways and avenues of approach.

I’m now working part time with a national organization that’s providing support to Indigenous communities and NGOs on how they can work better together. It’s called the Alliance of Canadian Land Trusts. More regionally, I’ve become Chair of the Ontario Land Trust Alliance (OLTA).

To take another hat off the rack, what is the bulk of your law practice now?

Mostly working on private land conservation so that landowners are able to protect important lands for their communities. I do work with nonprofits and charities so sometimes that involves corporate law, real estate and tax law, but applied for land conservation purposes.

Private land conservation?

Protection for places that have ecological significance, but also often lands that have cultural significance.

Think of a typical southern Ontario farm. You’ve got a woodlot at the back, and a stream, perhaps a wetland. You’ve got an older house and some barns so there are both buildings and natural features on that property that may be worth protecting – perhaps even a culturally significant outbuilding or archeological site, etc. And there’s the farmland itself with agricultural, economic and scenic values. …

We are faced with climate catastrophe. What do you think needs to happen to deal with that from a legislative or governmental perspective?

Enhancing (rather than taking apart) our environmental laws is one good direction.
We have some promising systems in place at the federal and provincial levels. But throwing the carbon credit system out the window and eroding planning for complete, compact communities by the Ford government are really problematic pieces.

If living with a light footprint was a priority for more people, we would see improvements in many needed areas. I’m amazed at how many people I see still idling their cars.

There needs to be important incentives to induce people to do things that leave less of a carbon footprint. Building retrofits, better land use planning, more bikes… very significant things that require collective work.

We are such an individualistic society that there is often resistance to collective measures. We need Indigenous, multi-generation perspectives. Certainly education, incentives, applying a climate crisis lens and a close look at what we value are steps in the right direction. Consensus builds over time.

I didn’t realize that you were in on the Kawartha Land Trust at the ground level.

Yes. I helped found the organization and ran it for a number of years. Did all its legal work and did a lot of the legwork to get it going. The first office of the Land Trust was right here in my house.
I’ve been involved with that all the way along.

The roots?

KLT was formed as a corporation in November, 2001 — 22 years now. There was a woman, Mieke Schipper, who was interested in protecting her farm and we started talking about the idea of a land trust for this area. There were others in Ontario, but we thought “Why not here?”

I think there are about 5500 acres in the Trust now.

Clearly, the foundation of the KLT was one of the standout moments of your career. Others?

The protection of the Pickering Agricultural Preserve was one: about 5000 acres that, at my suggestion, were put under conservation easement as part of representing a local community group at the time. That resulted in protection for more than 20 years of that important farmland; the government removed it from the Greenbelt and is now partly returning its layers of protection.

Another one was when the Kawartha Land Trust received a donation of and worked to protect Pigeon Lake’s Chiminis, Big Island/Boyd Island.

I worked pretty much solid for seven months to make that deal happen. In concert with others, of course, but it was a complex process involving seven tracks that had to be amalgamated.

And to make it happen, we had to raise $1 million within seven months. Funds that would support ongoing stewardship of those lands. The community recognized the importance of that protection and they rallied. Curve Lake, businesses, municipalities, corporations, associations, small donations …. they all pitched in.

It was an intense protection process, but obviously very worthwhile.

There have been many initiatives. I played a role in the creation of the Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park…. got Peterborough City Council to pass a resolution in support of establishing the Park.

And once it was established, I was on an administrative committee as an advisor during the launch phase.

I would have liked to have seen clearer specification of Indigenous rights to hunt fish and trap in the Park, but anything of this sort is a learning experience.

Locally, I have also helped community groups with corporate or charitable status, including the Community Foundation and The Mount. It has been my privilege to connect with so many of the amazing public-spirited people all over the Peterborough/Nogojiwanong area.

So how did you get so musical?

It’s always been an important part of my life. My parents sang in choirs. My grandmother played piano. I took piano lessons and guitar lessons and played French horn, playing in various bands. I like to sing as well. Sing-alongs around campfires and that sort of thing. It brings people together. I like playing instruments from time to time, but my voice is with me no matter where I go.

You’re currently an instructor in environmental law at Trent.
The environment and law are an interesting combination.
And I have included a link to your Trent university bio below.
How did that happen for you?

Shortly after I came to Peterborough, I connected with Bob Paehlke at Environmental Studies. I then joined him to teach Environmental Assessment, and for a couple decades now have co- taught introductory and advanced environmental law. Gradually I was recruited to be on thesis committees for a few Sustainability Studies graduates. So my role at Trent is part-time. I have taken a couple of Indigenous Studies courses and I love visiting the campus, attending its events, and continuing to learn from the mix of perspectives on campus.

On The Ground © 2024 by Peter Currier in The Greenzine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

Trent University Biography

In closing, here is the Peterborough Examiner’s coverage of Ian’s lifetime achievement award after spending a quarter of a century advocating for the Peterborough area’s natural environment:

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