Growing up in various homes and locations around Whitehorse and the Yukon territory, Garry Merkel will be the first to tell you that he could never have anticipated the trajectory of his life. Today the member of the Tahltan Nation and Registered Professional Forester is a lead voice behind the Government of British Columbia’s newly adopted old-growth forest strategy, and a recent recipient of a UBC honorary doctorate degree.
We sat down with Garry to learn more about the mindset and decisions that led him down his current path, and what projects he’s setting his sights on next.
What interested you in forestry and becoming a professional forester?
When I was growing up I had fought fires and then met a photo interpreter and trapper who I became close with. He suggested that if I went to school for two years I could get a job as a resource management officer and potentially have my education paid for because the need for educated professionals in the north was so great. After getting a job and receiving a forest technologist degree, I worked for a while as a surveyor, forest inventory technician, software engineer, you name it. I led a few large projects, including the “City of Cranbrook Watershed Forest Development Plan”. After a while, for what I wanted to do with my career, I realized that I would need to get a degree. So, I went to the University of Alberta and completed a BSF degree.
You played a key role in developing policies to increase the number of Indigenous students who graduate from post-secondary institutions. How did this come about and what action still needs to be taken to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into post-secondary education?
When I took over the job as a regional forester with Indian and Northern Affairs in BC in the late 1980s there were only two Indigenous professionals and 12 Indigenous technicians in Canada in the natural resources sector. That was right when the R v. Sparrow case brought Aboriginal rights into law through the Supreme Court of Canada. I realized how few of our people were properly educated at that time due to the institutional racism that was barring them from success; and, it became clear to me that this needed to change.
This led me to chair the Aboriginal Forestry Training and Employment Review Committee, which laid out a framework to improve training, education and employment opportunities for Aboriginal peoples in the forestry sector across Canada. It also took me down the road of providing feedback and strategic recommendations for the “Provincial Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education Strategy in BC”, and playing a leadership role with the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology (NVIT) in Merritt. The success of NVIT demonstrated that amazing things can happen when educational institutions take into account the needs of Aboriginal students. Around 80-90% of Aboriginal students in various departments were graduating at NVIT, compared to 5% at other post-secondary institutions, and with no compromise on educational standards. Today, an Aboriginal student at a Canadian post-secondary institution has the same chance at success as other students.
I’ve also been working with the UBC Faculty of Forestry on their Indigenous strategy for about 15 years. We have worked really hard to shape policy and train foresters to understand Indigenous perspectives and forestry practices. Across natural resources educational programs, there is a need to integrate content that is grounded as much as possible in Indigenous communities and that builds relationships within those communities. We also need programs to include Indigenous speakers and applied research. At the same time, in Canada, the systemic racism towards the Indigenous population that persists must be rooted out; and, more work is needed to move towards meaningful reconciliation.
How has being Indigenous influenced your perspectives and work?
One thing in particular about growing up in an Indigenous community is that I saw a first-hand immense need. We needed to build our government, education systems, economy, infrastructure and so on all at the same time. This is the way it’s been for a while now.
When I was young, I read something that really rang true to me. It was a quote in the inspirational book Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach: “Argue your limitations and they are yours.” My family is the kind that didn’t really believe in limitations. And so, my philosophy in life has always been to look for possibilities and to pick the path that scared me the most. It will push you and stretch your limits. The more you keep doing that over and over again, the more it becomes a way of life. So, now, to live in that space is normal for me. But, it’s a space that has opened many doors for me, including accepting a new position with the province of BC in a leadership role to implement the recommendations from the old-growth strategic review that Al Gorley and I recently prepared for the province.
What will this new role entail?
I will be helping to facilitate the implementation of the recommendations and the paradigm shift recommended in our old-growth strategic review (April 2021) “A New Future for Old Forests: A Strategic Review of How British Columbia Manages for Old Forests Within its Ancient Ecosystems.” There’s this notion that old-growth forests are renewable, and that’s not true. In most cases, they are not – within any reasonable timeframe – particularly with the effects of climate change now and on the horizon. When you start to remove old growth on a mass scale, you start to lose species, connectivity and the diversity of the forest. My job is to collect views from everybody in the sector and to provide coaching to government staff on engagement and policy options. As well, I will provide mentorship to government staff and the sector as a whole on how to move through this paradigm shift, and will facilitate collaboration among all of these players.
What else is on your agenda?
We’re working on an Indigenous Land Stewardship Centre of Excellence. The Centre will document Indigenous land ethics and translate that into practice management systems and practices. It would be a combination of professional development courses and applied research, and maybe more. We will also work with other institutions to develop a similar curriculum. Ultimately, a key goal will be to establish replicable, next-generation sustainable forestry models.
Led by our very own Development and Alumni Engagement Office, and shaped by valuable feedback from our alumni community, the Spring 2022 issue of Branchlines showcases the dynamic and multifaceted fields of forestry.