Jacob Handel, SFI’s new Senior Director of Indigenous Relations, presented at the 2022 SFI/PLT Annual Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, on June 15.

Jacob Handel, who recently joined SFI as Senior Director, Indigenous Relations, brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in engaging with Indigenous people and groups to the Indigenous Relations Team. Handel has more than 20 years of experience in the environmental field, Indigenous and stakeholder engagement, strategy development, regulatory processes, and negotiation. Prior to joining SFI, he was an Aboriginal Affairs Advisor at a leading Canadian paper and forest products manufacturing company. His past experience also includes working for governments, the energy sector, and nonprofits.

Handel joins other members of SFI’s Indigenous Relations Team: Paul Robitaille, Indigenous Relations Senior Advisor; Dean Assinewe, Indigenous Opportunities Advisor; Zakary Myers, Indigenous Education Advisor; and Lennard Joe, Indigenous Relations Advisor and SFI board member.

“SFI is committed to building and promoting forest-focused collaborations that recognize and respect Indigenous Peoples’ rights and traditional knowledge,” said Kathy Abusow, President and CEO of SFI. “Building strong and meaningful relationships with Indigenous Peoples is a priority for SFI, and I’m so happy to have Jacob in this role as part of SFI’s Senior Leadership Team so that we can continue to grow, engage, and strengthen our network of Indigenous partners across the U.S. and Canada.”

Indigenous communities began certifying to the SFI Forest Management Standard in 2010. Today, 40 Indigenous groups across Canada and the U.S. have certified over 4 million hectares (10 million acres) of land to the SFI standard.

Background, education and work experience

Handel, who was born and raised in Alberta, continues to live rurally, north of Edmonton. He is Métis, one of a group of people who have both Indigenous and European ancestry and their own unique culture, traditions, and language (Michif). The Métis are one of the three groups of Indigenous Peoples recognized by Canada’s government, along with Inuit (Indigenous people of the Arctic) and First Nations people (Indigenous Peoples in Canada who are not Métis or Inuit, who represent more than 50 Nations and languages). Handel’s family tree includes a diverse mix of Métis, First Nations, and European ancestors.

Handel earned a Bachelor of Science in Environmental and Conservation Sciences from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, supporting his enduring desire of tying together Indigenous relations and the environment.

“My interest has always been working in and with Indigenous communities, and I saw getting a university degree as very valuable in accomplishing that goal,” Handel said. “The environmental and conservation science program had just been started at the University and my professors shared with me that I had the distinction of being the first Indigenous person to graduate from that program. At the time, it was a new and growing field. Now it’s a very strong field and it is encouraging to see many more Indigenous people pursuing degrees similar to mine.”

Jobs working with or for Indigenous Peoples were few and far between when Handel graduated, but he felt the degree set him up for success. His first career opportunity was with the Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta, an advocacy organization for First Nations in the province.

“In some ways I’ve come full circle, and I feel very fortunate about that,” Handel said. “I’ve gone from working directly for First Nations to working for governments, the energy sector, and the forest and conservation sector throughout my career. I’m thrilled to now be working with SFI and continuing to collaborate closely with Indigenous people.”

A perspective rooted in two worlds

Handel often seeks out wisdom and traditional knowledge from elders and knowledge keepers within Indigenous communities and continues to participate in traditional Indigenous ceremonies.

“My perspectives are firmly rooted in two worlds as I recognize both my Indigenous and European ancestry. I work to offer perspectives that marries both of those worlds in a meaningful way,” he said. “It can be difficult to reconcile at times, but it can also be very seamless. There are traditional ways of understanding and knowing, which I get from my Indigenous ancestry, but I like to inform and imbue that perspective with the Western approach to managing natural resources. It’s not always easy to marry those two worldviews, but it is an absolute necessity if we’re going to move forward on the initiatives that SFI is involved with. In forestry, it’s critical that we find a balance and achieve common understanding.”

“Not so long ago, Indigenous knowledge and perspectives were rarely considered by Western-oriented natural resource managers, if they were considered at all. I have been fortunate to see and be a part of that change,” Handel said.

“There is a strong trend toward incorporating Indigenous views and engaging where possible with traditional ways of knowing and knowledge in decision-making, not only in natural resources, but also in healthcare, education, and so on,” he said. “One reason for that direction is due to the regulatory and legislative changes that we’ve seen in recent years. Historically, Indigenous perspectives and rights were not recognized or acknowledged, but slowly, through recognition of inherent rights and pursuing and addressing inequalities—whether through policy, regulation, legislation, or case law—we are slowly forging a path of reconciliation.”

While each Indigenous group has its own defining characteristics, Handel believes that there are striking similarities within them. “In prayer, in decision-making, and in viewing the world, there is recognition of the importance of balance in the four cardinal directions: body, mind, heart, and spirit. That grounds understanding in a holistic view of the natural world. It is important to appreciate that there are nuances and distinctions amongst Indigenous groups, but they flow from a common foundation,” he said.

Looking ahead

SFI prioritizes engagement with, and support of, Indigenous communities across its four pillars of work: Conservation, Education, Community, and Standards. For example, SFI has placed over 900 Indigenous youth from over 100 communities into green jobs in the forest and conservation sector through its initiative, Project Learning Tree Canada. In addition, 40 Indigenous communities are currently certified to the SFI standard. SFI hopes to be part of meaningful change for Indigenous communities as we collectively continue to journey forward on our path of truth and reconciliation.

Handel said he is pleased to have the opportunity to work with SFI, noting that its core principles and values are to engage and align with Indigenous communities in forest-related activities and areas.

“I hope that people will appreciate and understand that in working for SFI, part of my role includes raising awareness and continuing on the path of reconciliation in recognizing and respecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and I will seek to engage in dialogue with all parties to help us come to a common understanding, to help us get to a place where we can work together and collaborate on the issues that are before us,” he said. “The forest and conservation sector is always growing and there’s a continuing need for forestry and forest-related products, values, and ecosystem services, and SFI plays an important role in that equation. I want to make sure that Indigenous groups and communities are part of that economy—they’re right in the heartland of the resource sector, and their active participation is vital for their own success as well as the health of the Canadian and U.S. economies.”

You’ll find more information about SFI’s commitment to Indigenous relations here.

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