Some impacts of climate change are relatively clear in the traditional territory of Kluane First Nation, like an entire river drying up. Other impacts on the environment require someone looking more closely for them, such as non-Indigenous people overhunting moose or fishing in critical salmon spawning grounds.
That’s where Grace Southwick comes in.
Starting next month, she will be one of three guardians with the First Nation, tasked with keeping tabs on what happens out on the land.
“It’s frustrating when we see non-First Nations coming into our traditional territory and taking the game that we’re protecting and there’s nothing we can do about it,” she told The Narwhal. “I think by just being out on the land more and being more visible and educating people that this isn’t the right thing to do will help.”
On July 22, the federal government announced $600,000 for 10 Indigenous guardian projects across the country. This marks the third year of its Indigenous Guardians pilot program, which provides funding for Indigenous communities to monitor and protect the environment as they see fit.
The funding spans initiatives from Prince Edward Island to British Columbia, the latter of which saw support for three projects.
Kluane First Nation — located in southwestern Yukon and the only northern project picked this year — will establish a program with three guardians, building on an environmental monitor program the nation previously established and funded internally.
The guardians’ jobs are to collect information on the health of the land. While they have no authority to enforce laws, they record what they see and educate anyone entering their traditional territory about sensitive habitats and wildlife, along with the regulations designed to protect them.
“We can cover more territory,” said Chief Bob Dickson of the new funding. “What they will be doing is travelling all around the land with four-wheelers, boats, whatever means of transportation to get them in the backcountry to have an idea of what’s going on.”
Topping the guardians’ to-do list is monitoring climate change effects, Dickson said. Chief among those effects is the Slims River drying up due to the Kaskawulsh Glacier that fed it receding to the point that its meltwater now runs in the opposite direction — south, along a riverbed flowing into the Pacific Ocean.
“It has a huge impact,” Dickson said, noting that Kluane Lake, which the Slims used to feed into, has dropped roughly 2.5 metres since 2016, when the phenomenon occurred. “We’re still studying where the fish habitat is, how it’s affecting how our people get out on the land.”
Dickson said sand storms are now a problem in the area, and this may be affecting the wildlife in unknown ways. He added they’ve been swamped with rain for almost two months, causing the lake level to rise again. “Those are the things we need to keep an eye on.”
Overhunting has been a consistent issue, too, Dickson said, with moose populations being very low in the area.
“We’re trying to encourage people to focus on maybe other species like bison,” he said, adding that moose need a grace period to replenish their numbers and overall health.
The guardians — or wildlife monitors, as Dickson referred to them — will be tasked with documenting all of these things, bringing their observations back to the Chief and council to inform future decision-making.
Youth will accompany guardians on the land to increase their familiarity with the environment and the need to protect it.
“It just gets them back out on the land, gives them an idea of what we’re fighting for,” Dickson said. “It’s gonna build community awareness of what we’re trying to do when we talk about protecting certain areas, protecting species from overhunting.”
After this year, there will be just one last round of funding under the Indigenous Guardians pilot program, facilitated by Environment and Climate Change Canada. The government is now working on evaluating its success, said Julie Boucher, the manager of the program, noting that about 80 projects are expected to be funded when it’s all said and done. So far, more than 60 projects have secured funding.
The next step is for those behind the program, including Indigenous governments, to convince the federal government to commit to a long-term program equipped with more resources, she said.
The four-year pilot was funded to the tune of $25 million in the 2017 federal budget and has since doubled guardians programs across the country, though Boucher said this amount of funding “isn’t a lot.”
A figure of $500 million over 10 years, a number proposed by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, comes very close to what is needed to adequately fund guardian projects across the country, she said. This amount would pay for roughly 1,500 guardians.
“That would mean every community that’s interested would probably get enough funding to support their guardian projects.”
Australia, whose rangers program inspired the federal government’s pilot, recently pledged $650 million until 2028 for its rangers.
“They found that investing in guardians programs actually reduced social costs related to incarceration, related to substance abuse, because when people have opportunities for employment that fits within their interests and perspectives, it has impacts beyond the financial value,” Boucher said.
With the federal government looking at ways to stimulate economic activity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, some are arguing for guardians programs as job-creation tools.
“We know that recovery in this country is going to be oriented toward maintaining and hopefully creating jobs,” Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, told The Narwhal. “Well, in many of our Indigenous communities, guardians are major employers.”
Boucher says the pilot program builds capacity for Indigenous People to take care of a land in a way that benefits everybody.
“They’re doing a lot of the work that probably federal, provincial and territorial governments should be doing on the land,” she said.
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