Dora Blondin hangs trout from Great Bear Lake

Healing and hope: how Indigenous guardians are transforming conservation

Australia has reached its international conservation commitments through Indigenous Protected Areas, creating 3,000 jobs in the process. Will Canada follow suit?

In Canada, feral camels are not a big issue — and the country’s Indigenous Guardians rarely have to spend their days clearing poisonous snakes off the paths. But despite those more obvious differences, there are similarities between Australian Indigenous Rangers and Canadian Indigenous Guardians, and they run deep.

At the heart are ties to the land — the power of the land to teach, to heal, to connect to history and to provide a living.

“This is all about the land. It’s about people going back to the country and reestablishing the cultural conditions that lead to a good environment,” said Denis Rose, Gunditjmara senior land manager from Western Victoria, Australia, one of a delegation of Australian rangers who visited Canada last week to meet with their Canadian counterparts and politicians.

Canada’s Indigenous Guardians help monitor illegal fisheries and forestry activities, protect cultural sites and, in the North, monitor how climate change is affecting the Arctic.

The visit from the Australian Rangers was organized by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, with the aim of demonstrating the benefits of a comprehensive, country-wide program.

Dean Yibarbuk with canoe

Dean Yibarbuk, senior ecologist with Warddeken Land Management in Australia, examines a birch bark canoe in Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s office in Ottawa, while Denis Rose, Gunditjmara senior land manager, looks on. Photo: Boreal Conservation

Canadian Indigenous Guardians pilot program underway

Canada’s Indigenous Guardians program is off to a tentative start, with the federal government last year announcing $25 million over five years for 40 pilot programs — a far cry from the requested $500 million in stable funding, which would pay for about 1,500 Guardians.

Members of the Australian delegation emphasized that sufficient, stable funding is essential for success and Canadian organizers are hoping that, as the program proves its value, more funding will follow, allowing for the development of a network of guardians and Indigenous Protected Areas across Canada.

The pilot program, which includes tribal park monitoring and tourism guiding, will provide insight, understanding and proof of concept, said Heiltsuk Hereditary Chief Frank Brown, advisor to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

“It is an Indigenous-led conservation initiative. We have so many people on the land, in rural areas, that it makes a lot of sense to be the eyes and ears on the land, not only for Indigenous communities, but also for society,” Brown said.

“As an example, one of the key issues facing humanity today is climate change and Indigenous Guardians can provide monitoring of their traditional territories because we have the ancestral knowledge. We can provide the baseline of what the land and water was like traditionally and gather data to develop mitigation strategies,” he said.

“Indigenous Guardians can provide monitoring of their traditional territories because we have the ancestral knowledge.” — Heiltsuk Hereditary Chief Frank Brown

Indigenous guardians reclaim the land

Half of Australia’s protected lands in Indigenous Protected Areas

It is an idea already proving its worth in Australia where Indigenous Rangers and Indigenous Protected Areas are on the frontline of nature protection, conducting controlled burns in a country plagued by wildfires and controlling feral animals and invasive weeds.

The Australian program provides 830 full-time equivalent jobs, employing almost 3,000 people. The creation of Indigenous Protected Areas have allowed Australia to reach its global biodiversity commitment to protect 17 per cent of its land and fresh water by 2020.

Almost half of Australia’s protected lands are contained in 75 Indigenous Protected Areas, covering more than 60 million hectares. The country spends $20 million a year on these protected areas and $90 million annually on the rangers program.

“I think the success of the program is in giving control to the Indigenous land managers to figure out what they need done and in having the rangers to look after the land,” said Rose, the land manager from Australia, speaking to The Narwhal at an event held in the First Peoples Gallery at the Royal B.C. Museum

Steven Nitah from Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation in the Northwest Territories prepares to send the Australian delegation on a dogsled ride. Photo: Boreal Conservation

In contrast, Canada has so far protected less than 11 per cent of its land and fresh water. It’s a figure that was boosted by the creation last year of the first federally recognized Indigenous Protected Area, the 14,281 square kilometre Edehzhie in the Dehcho region of the Northwest Territories.

Canada’s new Indigenous Protected Area heralds new era of conservation

The creation of more Indigenous Protected Areas would help Canada meet its commitment, said Valerie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

“I think this is the only way to get to 17 per cent in this day and age,” she said.

Last year, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna said in an interview with The Narwhal that new Indigenous Protected Areas are under consideration, including a marine conservation area.

Each dollar invested in Australian program creates $3.40 in spinoff returns

One of the surprising successes of the Australian program is the economic value, with figures showing that for every dollar spent there is about $3.40 in spinoff returns.

An analysis by Social Ventures Australia found that employment opportunities offered by the ranger program meant better health and wellbeing, improvements in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse and fewer interactions with the justice system.

“That empowerment is having amazing results,” Courtois said.

“This is a genuine investment, not a cost. . . .  There are reduced rates of violence against women, increased rates of education, reduced rates of diabetes and less nights spent in jail — all of the things that have been seen as challenges by government and places where money tends to disappear. By investing in our own empowerment it could be a better use [of tax dollars],” she said.

The ranger program offers people a sense of pride, Rose said.

“These are real jobs that give a sense of self-esteem. They are doing something important and it helps to change their actions,” he added.

“These are real jobs that give a sense of self-esteem.” — Denis Rose, Gunditjmara senior land manager

In Canada, the guardian program is already gaining respect, said Ray Harris, First Nations Summit chair, who has a family fishing business with licences stretching from the Salish Sea to Alaska.

Commercial fishermen used to rudely dismiss the guardians, but recently the attitude has changed, Harris said.

“They know that if they don’t work with us, they are in trouble,” he said.

B.C.’s fraught questions surrounding development on traditional territory could also be helped by well-informed guardians, Courtois suggested.

“If you think of free, prior and informed consent, the hardest part of that is the informed part and the guardians are how we can ensure we are best informed,” she said.

Allen Edzerza, a member of the Tahltan First Nation and advisor to the B.C. First Nations Energy and Mining Council, wants to see the guardians expand their stewardship to take a close look at resource industries and problems such as abandoned mines across the north.

“I don’t think the government is doing a very good job of managing our land and resources. I think we all think we could do it better,” Edzerza said.

“How do we manage to protect the water? How do we speak for our brothers and sister, the moose, caribou and eagles? We have to speak up,” he added.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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