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On National Indigenous Peoples Day, remember to thank the caretakers of the place you call home

Much of Indigenous histories and resilience is embedded in the lands and waters that sustain us — and Indigenous stewardship is the path forward to protecting it

Oil refineries, chemical plants and marine terminals. The landmarks of urban and industrial development dominate the shoreline of Burrard Inlet, a narrow body of water between the City of Vancouver and the North Shore mountains. 

But 200 years ago, writes B.C. biodiversity reporter Ainslie Cruickshank, the inlet was lush and bountiful. Fed by rivers teeming with salmon, brimming with clam gardens and schools of herring so plentiful they would have “painted the waters a stunning milky turquoise each year,” the inlet — called səl̓ilw̓ət in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language — was a rich source of food for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. 

Last October, Ainslie spent a day on the water gathering clams with a Tsleil-Waututh field crew, whose monitoring and research are part of a critical effort by the nation to restore the inlet, so one day their people can harvest from its waters again.

Today, June 21, Canada recognizes National Indigenous Peoples Day. It’s a day for “celebrating the history, heritage, resilience and diversity.” Many Indigenous people and settler Canadians mark the occasion by witnessing Indigenous performances or sharing in food and storytelling. 

But stories like Ainslie’s are a reminder that so much of our Indigenous histories and resilience is embedded in the lands and waters themselves; they’re sites of culture, language, knowledge and connection. 

As Charlene Aleck, a Tsleil-Waututh band councillor, told Ainslie, to see the waters of Burrard Inlet poisoned is “like seeing your grandmother sick.”

National Indigenous Peoples Day: A boat with a person on it, two people on land adjusting the ropes.
To Tsleil-Waututh people, Burrard Inlet is family. The nation sees what this once bountiful waterway could be again, and the people are reclaiming their place as stewards of these waters. Photo: Kayla MacInnis / The Narwhal

Canada is just beginning to understand and affirm those connections — partly because it’s increasingly obvious that our collective survival depends on them. As we brace for another devastating wildfire season, it’s never been clearer that protecting our ecosystems is urgent and necessary — and that Indigenous people, who have been stewarding their homelands for millennia, are the ones to lead that work. 

These efforts are the focus of our new series Spirits of Place, which dives deeply into the efforts of Indigenous communities to protect the land, water and ice that sustains us — a complement to our ongoing coverage of Indigenous stories. 

Since 2018, more than a billion dollars have been earmarked for Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs), Guardians programs and other initiatives — but despite those promises, very few places have received formal recognition from colonial governments. Some communities, like the Simpcw, are taking matters into their own hands and declaring protections over their homelands. Others are seeing those promises of protection go up in smoke, like the Métis community of Île-a-la-Crosse, Sask., which lost half of its proposed conservation area to a massive wildfire in May

However you mark the occasion of National Indigenous Peoples Day, these stories invite you to learn about the importance of Indigenous stewardship — and remind you that it’s never been more important to uphold the rights of Indigenous nations to protect their lands and waters. 

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