Federal, territorial and First Nations governments will sign a massive new protected area into existence in the Northwest Territories on Wednesday, one remarkable for both its size and who is empowered to protect it.
Thaidene Nëné, which means “Land of the Ancestors”, will cover more than 26,300 square kilometres of boreal forest, tundra and freshwater ecosystems on the eastern arm of Great Slave Lake, placing it among the largest protected areas in Canada.
Perhaps even more significantly, the Łutsël K’e Dene First Nation will share responsibility for managing the area with Parks Canada and the Government of Northwest Territories. Ni hat’ni Dene Rangers — “Watchers of the Land” — will staff the park; Indigenous rights, including hunting, trapping and fishing, will be maintained.
“For the Łutsel K’e Dene, this is their homeland. They’ve had a relationship with that homeland since time immemorial,” said Steven Nitah, lead negotiator for the First Nation.
The agreements signed Wednesday also include the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, the Deninu K’ue First Nation and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.
“That relationship . . . is what keeps the land healthy,” Nitah said.
He later added, “Thaidene Nëné should be an example of reconciliation initiatives by Parks Canada across the country.”
Thaidene Nëné is part of a wave of Indigenous-led conservation projects announced as the federal government pushes to meet an international target of protecting 17 per cent of its total territory by the end of 2020 — one it is trying to meet as it also makes amends for the historical harms inflicted on Indigenous people in the name of Canadian wilderness protection and park creation.
Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, said the creation of Thaidene Nëné helps fulfil two Liberal promises: doubling the amount of nature under conservation and advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
“It is a large piece of land, but also a really critical piece of land, and the way we’re protecting it is different,” she said, explaining how the park will be co-managed with local Indigenous nations.
“The land, water, air and animals . . . Those are everything to Indigenous peoples, the people that we are working with live on the land, they thrive on the land, they coexist with the animals and species that are there,” she said.
“These are very tangible ways of moving forward together.”
The Liberal government boasts it has earmarked $ 1.35 billion to nature conservation in Canada, after what McKenna describes as a decade under a federal Conservative administration that did not see protecting nature as a priority.
Earlier this week, while travelling in British Columbia, McKenna announced that $ 175 million of this funding will support 67 conservation projects across Canada that are led by provinces, territories, Indigenous peoples, and private and non-profit sponsors who will match federal money. Nearly half of those projects, 27, are Indigenous-led.
This included $ 3.9 million in federal funding to help the Tahltan Central Government create a land-use plan for local conservation and economic development in northern B.C., as well as a new partnership with the Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations to add more land to protected areas on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
An initiative led by the Sayisi Dene First Nation to protect 50,000 square kilometres of the Seal River Watershed in northern Manitoba also received a major chunk of funding to help push the project forward.
These initiatives will help lift Canada to its 17 per cent commitment, McKenna said, even if she did not say whether they would ensure that target is met by the end of next year.
After the creation of the Thaidene Nëné park, as well as another huge swathe of conserved land in the Yukon later this week, more than 12 per cent of Canada’s land will be under protection, up from around 10 per cent when the Liberals took power, McKenna said.
“Some of them are going to take longer than others, but there’s been a huge amount of interest,” she said, emphasizing the government’s belief that preserving nature is essential to fight climate change, protect species from disappearing and boost tourism to beauteous areas.
Graham Saul, executive director of the advocacy group Nature Canada, said the government deserves credit for putting millions of dollars toward its promise of doubling the amount of land that is under protection in Canada.
But he stressed the country is still behind others around the world when it comes to conserving nature, and said Canada needs to go further in the coming years in light of alarm bells from the United Nations that warn as many as a million species are hurtling towards extinction because of environmental degradation.
“Species are collapsing across Canada and around the world,” Saul said. “We are very much in the midst of a crisis of nature.”
Kate Allen is a Toronto-based reporter covering science and technology. Follow her on Twitter: @katecallen
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Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga