Jordan Kaska Land Guardian

Canada commits $340 million to Indigenous protected areas, guardians programs

The federal government announced it will provide funding over the next five years to support Indigenous-led stewardship of lands and waters under its $2.3 billion commitment to nature conservation

The Canadian government is investing $340 million to support Indigenous guardians and Indigenous Protected Areas as part of its commitment to conserving 30 per cent of the country’s lands and waters by 2030. The funding will be provided over the next five years and includes money earmarked to support the forming of a national Indigenous guardians network.

“It is heartening to see the recognition of the role of Indigenous conservation and stewardship in achieving Canada’s ambitions in terms of its biodiversity goals and certainly in terms of keeping carbon where it is, which is in the ground,” Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, told The Narwhal in an interview.

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The announcement comes days before the Liberals are expected to call a federal election and on the heels of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, an alarming indictment of humanity’s continuing role in wreaking havoc on the global ecosystem and an urgent warning that we collectively do everything possible to mitigate and slow down the irreversible and catastrophic effects of climate change.

One of the most effective ways of doing this is through nature-based climate solutions, including Indigenous Protected Areas, which effectively create huge carbon sinks when they are established.

As an example, Courtois noted the proposed Kaska Indigenous Protected Area in northern B.C. sequesters around 4.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Another proposal by the Délı̨nę community in the Northwest Territories would protect the Great Bear Lake watershed and over 4.5 billion tonnes of carbon, or around 20 years of Canada’s current annual greenhouse gas emissions.

“And that’s just one proposal,” Courtois said. “The reality is that the dual crises of biodiversity loss and climate change that we’re facing as a globe is one that’s going to require bold changes. That’s part of what excites me about [Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas] and guardians is that they can form an anchor or basis for a conservation-based economy.”

Jonathan Wilkinson, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, told The Narwhal in an emailed statement he was in Moose Factory, Ontario, with the Mushkegowuk Council signing an agreement to establish a marine conservation area when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report came out.

“The communities in the James Bay area are really on the front lines of climate change. They describe shorter winters, more flooding, changes in animal migration and behaviour. These changes are recognized through their traditional knowledge and experience,” he said. “The Council is demonstrating great leadership in protecting the area, which will benefit species such as polar bear and beluga. The region is also home to what is believed to be one of the largest stores of carbon in the world.”

“Climate change is affecting the Yukon and the North at nearly three times the rate of the rest of the country,” Aagé Kluane Adamek, regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, said in a statement. “Despite this, Yukon First Nations have managed to show leadership, innovative thinking and an inherent respect for Mother Nature. Fundamental to this work are the perspectives of youth, women and knowledge keepers. This investment will support these key voices and ensure we are protecting our natural world in a good way.”

Funding is sorely needed by Indigenous communities

While Indigenous leaders welcome the investment, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need and desire from Indigenous communities across the country. When Canada invested $25 million in a pilot project five years ago, there were 125 applications for just 10 opportunities, according to Courtois.

“Our vision is really that every Indigenous nation in Canada that wants a guardian program should be able to have one and be supported in that because of the incredible return on investments of those programs and the impacts that they can have for everybody.”

Those impacts include economic benefits. An analysis of two programs in the Northwest Territories showed guardian programs create around $2.50 of social, cultural and environmental benefits for every dollar invested and Coastal First Nations showed a 10:1 return on investment in guardian programs.

Kaska land guardians Taylor Roades
Guardians from the Kaska land guardians program pose for The Narwhal near the Liard River in the summer of 2019. Currently, eight Kaska guardians are spread out among the three B.C. Kaska communities. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

“The work being done by Coastal First Nations … in British Columbia is a great example of how guardians being present has enabled the ability of the nations to really explore what a conservation-based economy looks like,” Courtois said, noting the nations recently signed a Fisheries Resources Reconciliation Agreement, which paves the way for Indigenous communities to create jobs and economic opportunities in the fishing sector.

Indigenous guardians, often described as the eyes and ears on the land, have continually proven their value not only to their communities and to conservation efforts, but also to industrial operations.

“We’ve had requests from industry representatives who were saying ‘We really like guardians, they help us on our projects — how can we contribute?’ ” Courtois said.

She added Innu guardians at the world’s largest nickel mine in Voisey’s Bay, Labrador, discovered a spill polluting a fish-bearing stream that would have otherwise gone unchecked. The discovery simultaneously protected the environment and saved the mining company millions of dollars in fines.

“That one incident has almost paid for the cost of the life of the program,” Courtois said.

Government investment is sorely needed as many Indigenous communities face disproportionate impacts from resource development, she added.

“We’re busy trying to analyze thousands of [mining] exploration permits, let alone hydro, forestry and all the other fisheries and wildlife and everything else that comes to the office,” she said of her own community. 

“That’s what’s great about the guardians — there are so many great examples of guardians working with scientists, with researchers, with managers and amazing revelations come out of those efforts.”

Starr Gauthier guardian caribou pen
Saulteau First Nations caribou guardian Starr Gauthier works on behalf of the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations to provide around-the-clock armed security for endangered B.C. caribou in an enclosed maternity pen. Guardians protect the mother caribou and calves from predators and also hand-forage lichen to feed the captive animals. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal

Guardian programs an ‘important act of reconciliation’ 

A recent United Nations policy briefing noted Indigenous Peoples are stewards of a vast majority of the world’s biodiversity. 

“Although they account for only around five per cent of the world’s population, [Indigenous Peoples] effectively manage an estimated 20 to 25 per cent of the Earth’s land surface,” the report said. “This land coincides with areas that hold 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity and about 40 per cent of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes.”

At a national guardians gathering in June, Minister Wilkinson stressed the importance of looking to Indigenous Peoples for leadership.

“It is abundantly clear that we have much to learn from Indigenous Peoples when it comes to conservation,” he said. “I think this is particularly evident when we see the environmental challenges that we are facing in the world today: rapid climate change, significant and accelerating biodiversity loss and the cumulative impacts of pollution in our natural environment.”

“Listening, learning from and following the leadership of Indigenous land guardians is an important act of reconciliation.”

Aagé Kluane Adamek, regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations

Courtois said the importance of Indigenous-led conservation goes beyond protecting biodiversity and combating climate change.

“Conservation in the past has been used as a colonial tool, so there is resistance to conservation in many of our communities, but this [Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas] model is one that is built upon our own laws and our own responsibilities and our own values. It’s a way for Indigenous nations to meet their cultural responsibilities.” 

Equally important is the role Indigenous guardian programs play in healing, both for individuals and for communities.

“This country is just awakening to a reality that Indigenous Peoples have known for a very long time, with the discovery of unmarked graves that just keep coming in,” Courtois said. “I’ve seen a lot of people ask the question, ‘What do we do about this? How do we make sure that this isn’t a moment where it’s just about trauma?’ The answer to that is to lean on our teachings and on our cultures. Programs like the guardians are about strengthening that.”

Adamek agreed.

“Residential schools attempted to eliminate Indigenous Peoples and families, and the degradation of land, air, water and nature works in similar ways because our livelihoods, health, wellness and cultural continuity relies upon having a healthy and sustainable environment,” she said. “Listening, learning from and following the leadership of Indigenous land guardians is an important act of reconciliation.”

Courtois explained she’s witnessed the transformation of troubled youth from being lost and aimless to becoming leaders in their communities through participating in guardian programs.

“That’s how we’ll emerge from from the legacy of residential schools and, frankly, from the legacy of genocide.”

Updated, August 12, 2021, at 7:36 p.m. PT: This article was updated to include comment from Minister Wilkinson.

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