The difference between Indigenous-led conservation and Indigenous sovereignty

A federal funding announcement for climate solutions has dumped fuel on a fiery conflict among Indigenous groups in Ontario
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Aerial view of Ontario's Highway 17 cutting through forested terrain with hills in distance

Here’s a confession: “Indigenous-led conservation” is a term that’s always landed awkwardly with me, even though it’s in my job title. It feels like more of a marketing slogan than a mission statement, an appealing but slippery notion. Speaking from experience, Indigenous people are often cast as caretakers of the natural world. This designation stems from Indigenous laws and customs, but also, uncomfortably, from settler stereotypes and simplistic ideas about who we are and what we represent. There’s a vagueness about it that elicits questions: conserving whose land? Under what authority? 

Indigenous sovereignty, on the other hand, is much more concrete. 

Take, for example, a dispute in Ontario I reported on this week. Back in January, Environment and Climate Change Canada awarded 27 “Indigenous-led natural climate solutions” grants, including one to the Métis Nation of Ontario, which planned to use its $1.3 million to purchase 40 hectares of wetlands. Usually these announcements are met with little fanfare, but this one … blew up. 

Here’s why: the Métis Nation was born in the Red River Valley of what is now Manitoba, and most Métis settlements are found in the Prairies. Unlike First Nations, the Métis did not have reserves, and were repeatedly displaced and forcibly resettled. This historic injustice makes it a bit complicated (and contentious) to explain where exactly the Métis homelands are located. But one place those homelands definitely aren’t located, if you ask First Nations leaders, is southern Ontario. So why, they ask, is the federal government giving the Métis Nation of Ontario money to buy land there? 

It’s a question that gets at the distinction between the general understanding of Indigenous-led conservation and the concept of Indigenous sovereignty — which includes conservation and stewardship responsibilities, but is rooted in the reciprocal recognition between a people and their homelands. As Temagami First Nation Chief Shelly Moore-Frappier told me, “to have a nation you need land.”

Temagami First Nation members protest Metis land claims
Why did Indigenous-led conservation funding set off furious backlash from First Nations?

The backdrop to this drama is Bill C-53, which is set to pass in the House of Commons, and which would recognize a number of provincial Métis governments and lay the groundwork for treaty negotiations, including in Ontario. The federal government and the Métis Nation of Ontario have said the bill is about the right to self-governance, not land rights. But not everyone is buying it — especially now. “The government is telling us over and over it’s not about land — and yet they’re giving $1.3 million to the same group to buy land,” said Jason Batise, a Matachewan First Nation member and executive director of Wabun Tribal Council.

As Moore-Frappier pointed out, treaties are all about land. “How do you make a treaty without land?” she asked. 

That’s a head-scratcher, and one that this story about the Métis Nation of Ontario does not even begin to answer. Good luck to the feds with that! But it is a useful primer to understanding Indigenous Rights, which are impacted — for better or for worse — by the funding decisions and recognition of the federal government. For everyone who cares about reconciliation, it’s important to learn who Indigenous people really are — not as general ideas, but as members of specific nations, with distinct histories and lands of our own. 

Take care and read Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed

Michelle Cyca
Editor, Indigenous-led conservation
Headshot of Michelle Cyca

Side by side: Left: War for the Woods film poster, with Steph Wood and David Suzuki looking up at an old-growtth tree. Right: the cover for the book 'tiná7 cht ti temíxw (We Come from This Land)' featuring a series of photos from the Squamish Nation.

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A Steph appreciation brag post

We’re feeling all the feels this week, as we marvel at our B.C. reporter Steph Kwetásel’wet Wood’s work.

Remember when Steph and David Suzuki went to Clayoquot Sound? Well, that War for the Woods film for The Nature of Things has been nominated in the best documentary program category at the 2024 Canadian Screen Awards! The episode explores what has and hasn’t changed for old-growth forests in B.C. decades after the War in the Woods demonstrations on Nuu-chah-nulth homelands.

And wait, there’s more Steph news: tiná7 cht ti temíxw (We Come from This Land), a book diving into the rich history of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation), is officially out and Steph, who is Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, contributed as the lead writer. Learn more about the book and the Nation’s history in this Tyee story, featuring a Q&A with Steph, and go here to grab your copy.

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This week in The Narwhal

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What we’re reading

In Texas, a broad coalition has come together to fight LNG projects — including a pipeline Calgary-headquartered Enbridge is trying to build. Maria Gallucci has the story for Canary Media.

Canada’s financial sector is lagging when it comes to climate action. In The Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Jones lays out ideas for how to catch up before it’s too late.

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The whole Narwhal pod cheering on Steph this week. Will you help cheer on our work by telling your friends to sign up for our newsletter?

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