'The Plants are Family to Us'

A little more than a century ago, the Catholic parish of Kanesatake, a Mohawk community near the town of Oka, Quebec, was suffering the kind of devastation typical of what happened to Indigenous people in the 19th century. Livestock grazing, commercial clear-cutting, and the burning of forests for farming—activities by Canadians of European descent—had turned the area’s old-growth forest to desert. Mohawk roads and homes were buried by repeated sand avalanches.

What happened next wasn’t typical: From 1888 to 1920, the parish planted 100,000 trees under the guidance of their Sulpician Order priest, Father Joseph-Daniel Lefebvre, transforming the desert back into a magnificent forest. What happened in Oka changed the attitude of the Catholic Church concerning forest conservation—and eventually inspired reforestation efforts throughout the continent.

The activities of Euro-Canadians had caused desertification astonishingly quickly after they were permitted to live in the area in the mid-1800s. (The decision to allow them in had been made by the Sulpicians, a Paris-based order of Catholic priests officially known as the Society of Saint-Sulpice. The French government, and later the British, had granted the Sulpicians control of the area, first as trustee for Indigenous peoples and later as outright owner.) With the arrival of Euro-Canadian settlers, mature trees were cut down for timber or killed by forest fires; livestock ate the young tree seedlings, finishing off a dying forest.

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