Indigenous guardians reclaim the land

Indigenous-led conservation takes shape in Canada’s Northwest Territories

Derek Michel lights up a cigarette near his tent on a small island on Christie Bay in the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. “I know every nook and cranny around here,” he says, taking a drag. “You do this as long as I have and the lake becomes your home.”

A fishing guide from the nearby community of Lutsel K’e, Michel is one resident hoping that the proposed Thaidene Nene National Park comes to fruition. It would be the first federally proposed park in the Northwest Territories to be co-managed by Parks Canada and a First Nation.

“To have tourists come here and have local people be the guides and monitors [for the park] only makes sense,” he says. “This is our home, so of course we should be the stewards of it.”

In the last federal budget, $25 million in funding was set aside for the Indigenous Guardians Program. Programs like these help Indigenous communities become stewards of their ancestral lands, as land/water monitors, park rangers and environmental advisors in addition to building capacity for community-led initiatives.

Dehcho First Nations Chief Herb Norwegian refers to these programs as putting “moccasins on the ground,” where community-driven conservation initiatives are built by the communities themselves, using traditional knowledge and science to protect their homelands.

In small, remote Northwest Territories communities like Kakisa, Lutselk’e, Jean Marie River and Fort Good Hope, people are getting back to the land as a way to create jobs, bridge the gap between elders and youth and cope with intergenerational trauma wrought by residential schools and other manifestations of colonialism.

Frank Hope, a Dene counsellor and motivational speaker, says that being on the land is a spiritual experience.

“This is a continual renewal and relearning to be like our ancestors who were resilient in surviving — and thriving — on the land,” he says.

Since the fall of 2015, I’ve been working with various NGOs and First Nations in the Northwest Territories to photograph Indigenous-led conservation programs, elder and youth camps and tourism initiatives in small, remote communities.

Through these images and stories, my hope is to show how people are reconnecting with their ancestral homelands and how crucial it is for the land and water to be protected so those who live here can sustain their culture, food sources and livelihoods.


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