Arthur News School of Fish
The bobolink is just one of 27 species at risk that call Trent's Symons Campus home. Photo by Basil Conlin.

Trent Land is Sacred and the Community is Rallying 

Written by
Brazil Gaffney-Knox
Nick Taylor
January 7, 2021

*This article has been revised and corrected by the authors for accuracy. 

Trent Land is Sacred and the Community is Rallying 
The bobolink is just one of 27 species at risk that call Trent's Symons Campus home. Photo by Basil Conlin.

Before the fall semester ended, a group of community members concerned about the Trent Lands and Nature Areas Plan held an online seminar on Sunday, December 13. 

This event, Honouring the Land of the Sacred Elements, featured presentations from PhD candidate Debbie Jenkins, local naturalist Basil Conlin, and Dr. Shirley Williams. To close off the meeting, Elder Dorothy Taylor, Founder of the Sacred Water Circle, led a discussion and offered her perspective.

Esteemed Elder and Professor Emerita Dr. Shirley Williams began the meeting by delivering an opening prayer in Anishaabemowin and then in English. To introduce the event and speakers, Elder Dorothy Taylor explained that several community members are concerned about the draft Trent Lands and Nature Areas Plan which was open for public comment at the time of this meeting. Elder Taylor explained, “we just want to raise awareness, and encourage some dialogue - respectful and honouring dialogue - for the benefit of the land.” 

After Dr. Williams and Elder Taylor completed their introduction, Debbie Jenkins took the floor to discuss the “extraordinary nature” at Trent University. Jenkins is a conservation biology and wildlife ecology doctoral candidate at Trent and has been deeply involved in the study of ecology on Trent land for the past four years. She is the co-founder of a study surveying biota at Trent which identified 1500 species of plants and animals including 27 species at risk.

Given her experience studying this land, Jenkins is adamant that Trent University is unique. “Our campus is different than most...we have large natural areas that are connected across spaces that have little human activity, and little infrastructure.” This campus, she said, “is teeming with life.” 

She went on to describe the land, “There is a mosaic of different eco-systems from Silver Maple Swamps, to naturalized meadows, cattail marshes and old growth forests, and all of this alongside the rich habitat of the Otonabee River.”

“Our campus holds a provincially significant wetland. We know that there are other provincially significant wetlands. They’ve just been unevaluated, so we look to do that in the future.” 

Jenkins was unsupportive of recent developments at Trent, referring specifically to the removal of cedar trees along Pioneer Road, and the loss of a drumlin due to the Cleantech Commons development.

Jenkins’ argued that the draft Lands Plan is development driven and does not prioritize conservation. The plan "trades protection measures to maximize flexibility for development at the expense of long-term conservation of the natural environment and biodiversity," says Jenkins. 

She, like many environmentalists in the community, noted that the Lands Plan doesn’t include protection, but rather focuses on compensation and mitigation strategies. She cited the Lands Plan summary document: “Trent’s conservation and land use approaches will enhance the local environment and demonstrate leadership in environmental and Indigenous education through restoration efforts and a landscape-led, systems-based approach to development.” As Jenkins put it, “the [Lands Plan] environmental policy includes development.” 

The plan, she says, ushers in roads and traffic that “we know...act as a barrier for wildlife movement and are a huge source of mortality.” These development- focused priorities, she says, are hidden in the ambiguous language of the documents provided to the public, as well as in the plan’s eye-catching maps. Her presentation featured her own maps designed to show the proposed land use designations more clearly. According to Jenkins’ calculations, the total land designated as Nature Area has been declining since 2002. 

There are options for improving the Lands Plan, said Jenkins, “In fact, if we were going to be progressive, we might put a 120m buffer around all wetlands to ensure their integrity into the future.” 

Jenkins concluded that Trent is truly something special, “Trent is something to celebrate and to conserve.” 

Debbie Jenkins’ map of Trent’s campus with over 10,000 observations of flora and fauna (green dot), including 335 observations of Species at Risk (light green).

Next Basil Conlin, a Trent graduate and avid naturalist, took the audience on a “virtual hike” around campus. He provided a detailed tour of wildlife describing species interactions in ecosystems and emphasizing the importance of connectivity and the role that various species play in supporting the web of life. 

Conlin highlighted the importance of preserving mature forests that are home to tree species that support ecosystems of invertebrates and small mammals. Examples include Basswood trees that support screech owls who in turn prey on rodents, who gobble up the hazelnuts in the understory. As well bitternut hickory, burr oak and white oak produce acorns and nuts for small mammals. He highlighted the endangered butternut tree (white walnut) that occur in an area Trent has removed from Nature Area designation. Conlin discussed the diversity supported by these forests, referring to barred owls supported by Red Pine plantations and the 600 species of moth he has identified at Trent over the past 10 years. 

Conlin echoed Debbie Jenkins’ assertion that Trent is unique. Peterborough was formerly a rare burr oak savanna ecosystem. There is less than 1% of this type of ecosystem left in Ontario and Trent still contains important species like little bluestem grass, round-headed bushclover, and showy tick-trefoil.

To conclude, Conlin spoke on the importance of protecting the biota he described: “if you have a bad day and you need to connect with nature and you don’t own your own forest, where do you go?” 

“Should we be building a Cleantech Commons or should we be preserving a perfect fully functioning ecosystem or wetland? Should we be building out, urban sprawl and calling it sustainable? or should we be doing things that are actually sustainable and building up or building down or rethinking how we do things?”

The Lands Plan, he said, is “definitely not sustainable and there’s nothing green about it.”

Dr. Shirley Williams delivered the third presentation of the day. She began by speaking about the four sacred elements as they are understood through the Anishnaabe creation story. 

“The four elements are very important because they are Earth - which provides to live and to walk on. When we dance in our culture we dance very sacredly, and softly, because we’re afraid to hurt the Mother Earth. Fire transforms us. Water shapes us. Air moves us.”

Dr. Williams spoke at length about the role water plays in purifying our minds and bodies, and how it is important to approach water with reverence and respect. She spoke about how in Anishnaabe culture, there is no corporal punishment; when someone does wrong or is troubled by something, they are told to sit by the water and meditate. Water brings “peace, calmness and hope.” 

Addressing the Lands Plan more specifically, Dr. Williams said “I know we need economics to bring income to live, and comforts of our life. We do not have to destroy for the sake of money. We must find our needs of income without harming and destroying land, water, fire and air.”

“The great spirit gave us these sacred things. We must respect them. We must look at the land as sacred. If we destroy it, where is there to go to? Right now the world is telling us something… We are not paying attention to it.” 

Dorothy Taylor, an Elder in Curve Lake First Nation, responded saying “To our people, the land is more than a commodity. It is much more than that. It is the elders, like Shirley Williams who remind us of that.”

Taylor went on to elaborate on the spiritual value of this land, explaining that many in her community see Trent as a place where the spirit world and our world connect.

“There is a smidgen of a crack of the spirit world that shines through in this land. And they speak and converse with our people and those who are sensitive to it and you among us can hear that communication through the beautiful songs of the meadowlark, the chorus frog, the crickets.”

She then addressed Trent University’s administration more directly, saying “I challenge Trent University to really go beyond saying that ‘we are sustainable and green…’ while at the same time you chop down all our cedar trees and beechwood and basswood.”

“Please reconsider the present and future of the lands of Trent University. You have a chance, you have a very good chance to listen to the spirits of the land through the songs of the birds and the animals and those insects, you have a chance to protect, beyond protection, to maintain the treasure that’s in your own backyard.”

The event closed with a short discussion period. Trent Lab Demonstrator, Susan Chow, pointed to issues in the public engagement process, and the need for better communication networks between the University and the community.  

“[The community has] been doing this for a while” she said, “[environmentalists] are always presenting our views, the Trent people are presenting their views… but we do it separately. That conversation should be done with Trent... because they’re not here to listen, and when they are doing their plan we are not there to hear [their reasoning].” 

Chow noted the role of obligation in this process, “It is Trent land… but on the other hand I think that Trent has a moral obligation to protect the land, I know there is no legal obligation.” Trent Lands are not beholden to the same legislation as publicly-owned lands. 

Chris Welter, Academic Administrative Assistant for the Trent Indigenous Studies, asked about Nbisiing, the firm hired to consult with the Indigenous community throughout the Lands Plan process. 

Elder Dorothy Taylor answered that she had been quite involved in the consultation process. “I had one on-one with the consultants, I had personal phone-calls from the consultants, I went to organized consultation meetings, and I also went to the general community consultations. Each and every time we were saying we want the lands left the way they are -- moratorium on all development. They take notes but then they come out with this.”

“Just because they don’t listen to us doesn’t mean they don't consult, but they make their own decisions about what they’ve decided to do, even though they have consulted.”

Multiple groups had formally requested that the January 4 deadline be extended in order to accommodate further community feedback. Ultimately the University declined to extend the deadline for feedback. The draft Plan is slated to be presented at the next Board of Governors meeting on February 5th.

Arthur News School of Fish
Arthur News School of Fish

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