There was a time when there was no boreal forest in the land which came to be known as Canada. Approximately 18,000 years ago, the Laurentian and Cordilleran ice sheets covered the area now dominated by the boreal forest in a glacial layer several kilometres
thick. As the ice age came to an end, these ice sheets
receded, and a landscape of bare mineral substrates was left
behind in the wake of the glacial melt. Between 13,000 and
10,000 years ago (in western Canada, approximately 12,000
years ago), the boreal forest began to develop as the first
plant species. Those adapted to poor nutrient
conditions and suited to life on an unsheltered landscape
started to settle in the region. Over time, as the boreal forest continued to evolve, other plant and animal species moved into the area, evolving with the forest ecosystem in a complex web of relationships. It is generally believed that the boreal forest took on its present-day design about 5,000 years ago.
Humans have lived in the boreal forest region for thousands of years, throughout much of the region’s history. Despite this shared history between the boreal forest and human beings, the impact of human presence on the boreal forest has, until the recent past, been negligible. There were several reasons for this. First of all, the sheer size of the boreal forest allowed for a certain level of human activity, and remained, for the most part, unchanged by such activity. Secondly, travel, especially overland travel, in the boreal forest is quite difficult. The inaccessibility of the region left large tracts of boreal forest land virtually untouched by humans for many thousands of years. Thirdly, the extreme winter temperatures characteristic of the region discouraged large-scale settlement. Small bands of highly resourceful people could draw a living from the boreal forest; otherwise, the region was too inhospitable to sustain large human populations.
The Aboriginal Peoples who established themselves in the boreal forest developed an intimate knowledge of the region and the means of survival that could be harvested from it. To these peoples, the boreal forest was a vast bounty of food, clothing, shelter, tools, and all the essentials of life. Europeans who eventually came to the region also saw a bounty in the northwest. The fur-bearing animals of the northern woodlands, especially the beaver, provided pelts that could make clothing and accessories considered highly fashionable in Europe, and which laid the foundations for a highly profitable industry. It was during this time of the European fur trade era that the boreal forest in Canada first felt the impact of human activity. The fur trade has since been in decline as an industry, but other industries, namely the forestry and oil industries, have put more recent and ever-increasing pressures on the northern woodlands.
The present day boreal forest faces a future that is increasingly dependent on the will of human stewards. Changes have come to the northern woodlands that have the potential to outpace the region’s natural ability to adapt to shifting conditions. The next evolution of the boreal forest may be shaped by human hands.