Łutsel K’e, N.W.T. — Our nine-passenger Cessna drops 2,000 feet out of the sky as pilot Andy Brock descends into the East Arm of Great Slave Lake.
Seen up close, the blurry and distant landscape resolves itself into full relief.
What had been a low, rolling landscape of bogs and Canadian Shield rock as we left Yellowknife to the west now pops up like braille: imposing cliffs drop off into the world’s deepest freshwater outside of Siberia. Wind blows up the East Arm, catching the waves and pulling them over into whitecaps and swaying the tiny plane’s wings as it buzzes overhead.
Jutting out from the shoreline in the distance is the small community of Łutsel K’e, population 303.
With me on board is a group of conservationists from Nature United making their way to Łutsel K’e to celebrate Canada’s newest national park: Thaidene Nëné (pronounced THIGH-den-nay NEN-ay), The Land of the Ancestors.
The park — part wildlife conservation area, part territorial park and part national park reserve — makes up 26,525 square kilometres of lakes, old-growth spruce forests, rivers and wildlife.
It straddles the tree line, a fuzzy border between the boreal forest and the barren lands to the north. In that way it can act as a buffer against climate change, providing a refuge for the species that live on the edge, such as caribou, relieving those animals of the stress development brings.
“If you think of an intact, unimpeded watershed — and how many of those are left on the planet, really? — I mean, that’s an incredible opportunity that Thaidene Nëné has,” says Kris Brekke, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society for the Northwest Territories.
The smooth ceremony heralding the park’s inauguration belies the rough, incremental negotiations that have brought it there.
Like the landscape itself, the process looks cleaner from afar.
Thaidene Nëné was first proposed in the 1960s, and now after five decades and a fundamental inversion of the power structure between the federal government and the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation, the park is becoming a reality.
Its creation speaks to a rebalancing of Parks Canada’s relationship with Indigenous communities and a rethinking of the colonial mentality of creating parks by removing people from the land.
“It’s almost a complete flip,” says Rob Prosper, a retired VP of parks establishment and conservation for Parks Canada.
James Marlowe meets the group in his ancient blue pickup truck moments after the plane kisses the gravel landing strip. The East Arm is legendary among anglers for its enormous lake trout, but, remote and lacking in infrastructure, it has been mostly left out of Yellowknife’s tourism boom. Marlowe started River’s East Arm Tours in the last year, with some government support for equipment and licensing, in anticipation of a spike in tourism.
“I know that it’s a good business and since I have the equipment on hand, I’ve decided to see if I can take people out on fishing tours,” he says.
Marlowe’s truck bounces into an empty lot next to his house on the edge of Łutsel K’e. The makeshift camp is a collection of canvas wall tents — the preferred bush lodging, lined with spruce boughs and fitted with a small wood stove — a lean-to over a picnic table, an outhouse and a small wash station.
“Welcome to The Ritz,” he says.
‘This is our highway’
There are no hotel rooms available in Łutsel K’e the week of the Thaidene Nëné announcement. On a quiet day, there might be as many as 10 rooms available, but this is among the busiest days the community has had in years.
Łutsel K’e’s handful of meandering and nameless dirt roads are surrounded on three sides by water, making up a vaguely rectangular community that was only established in any permanent form a generation or two ago. But the community is strong, with an enduring connection to its lands and waters; more people here own boats than cars, Chief Darryl Marlowe explains. There are no roads connecting Łutsel K’e to the rest of the territory.
“This is our highway,” he says as we cruise out on the lake in the boat he inherited from his grandfather.
The water, now calm after its mid-afternoon bluster, reflects the evening light as Marlowe’s boat skims along. Across the water from Łutsel K’e is the Frontier Fishing Lodge. The community is buying the high-end business; it will form one cornerstone of its strategy for growing the tourism industry, from its current three independent startup operators to a more centralized system complete with bookings, promotional materials, accommodations and networking. As it is now, none of the tourism businesses in town has a website or booking system.
With or without the fishing lodge, the community expects the financial returns from Thaidene Nëné to be substantial. A $30 million trust fund — established by a $15 million federally matched donation from Nature United — will generate dividends for the community. The fund is expected to roll off at least $1 million per year, which can pay for guardians, training, planning, research partnerships and youth engagement: “Anything that’s about taking care of this land,” explains Jenny Brown, the director of conservation for Nature United.
“It’s critically important,” she says of the trust fund. “The park is three different governments working together to manage it, and without a source of revenue for Łutsel K’e to perform that role, it would be difficult for them to do that.”
That money and the activities it enables could make the difference between the community being able to take meaningful part in managing Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve and sitting on the sidelines. Without that capacity, several people told The Narwhal, the community would not have agreed to accept the park — but it did, with 88 per cent support in a February vote.
Cruising alongside Marlowe’s boat is a crowded vessel carrying Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, surrounded by aides and Parks Canada officials (though without the personal security she recently took on amid ongoing harassment. “You’re safe here,” Marlowe assures her).
The camp the community has prepared for McKenna includes a second group of canvas wall tents and a fire. Two trout, fresh from the lake, are roasting on the fire. The peaceful setting is a welcome reprieve from the ramp-up to the federal election, her aides say, a lull before the storm of campaigning.
McKenna’s hosts for the night are the Ni Hat’ni Dene Rangers, the Watchers of the Land. As the “moccasins on the ground,” guardians are the embodiment of the First Nation’s relationship with its land. Crews made up of paired adults and youth monitor, patrol and conduct sampling operations across the territory. They interact with tourists and other users of the area, gently reminding them whose territory they’re visiting.
“The importance [of the guardians] for me and the community is just knowing that we have our own people out there, monitoring the waters that we know,” explains Prairie Desjarlais, who heads up the program. “No one’s disrespecting it.”
The guardians are expanding into year-round operations now, and expect to add new teams and new responsibilities such as monitoring caribou.
Ashton Catholique is 15 years old, and has seldom been out on the land. But he knows he wants to be a guardian. It’s not just a chance at a job, though the opportunities are set to grow in the coming years. He says it’s a chance to learn the traditional skills and “to pass them down to the next generation.”
A 2016 study of the Ni Hat’ni Dene Rangers program found a $4.5 million investment in the program had returned $11.1 million in social, environmental, economic and cultural benefits. It decreased crime. It strengthened language retention. It increased the availability of traditional foods. The study suggested that a sustained, long-term investment by the government would increase those benefits.
“This renewed responsibility for territory is going to bring a mentality in a community that’s going to encourage people to stay in school, to participate in traditional territory management and the pride associated with playing that role,” explains the now-retired Prosper, who, aside from his work for Parks Canada, is a member of the Acadia First Nation
Accordingly, that basic premise — having the local people on the land, monitoring their own waters — has been baked into the park.
Standing by the water of the East Arm, McKenna explains that she expects the concept to be a central part of most new park negotiations in the future.
“This is part of reconciliation,” she says. “When you talk about reconciliation, often it’s an abstract concept, but in the context of protected areas, land, water, air, animals, ice — that’s really everything for Indigenous peoples.”
Suddenly, yells from up the beach interrupt McKenna’s train of thought. A pair of CBC reporters have spotted a mother musk ox and her calf, on a ridge overlooking the campsite. McKenna, never having seen a musk ox, tears off to get a look. It’s explained to her that the animals have become ubiquitous near the community lately, even verging on an annoyance (indeed, that night, the animals would have to be chased away from the minister’s campsite after wandering in amongst the tents).
But to the outsiders watching the exotic northern animals amble across the horizon, it’s a small taste of what the park will be protecting.
‘Protecting’ may be too strong a word here — and that, explains McKenna, is a long overdue approach.
“Could you imagine establishing a park where the Łutsel K’e Dene weren’t allowed to hunt or fish?” McKenna marvels in her speech at the following day’s ceremony, witnessed by a room packed with First Nation members and guests. The musk oxen spotted by McKenna’s camp will be fair game for Indigenous hunters within the park.
That’s in line with what some conservation organizations have been saying for years. “Economic diversification has to be part of conservation,” says Tracey Williams, Northwest Territories lead for Nature United. “You have to have revenue,” she says, if the community is going to have a diversity of opportunity for its people.
Parks Canada, it seems, would agree.
The agency will create “opportunities to advance the socio-economic well-being of Indigenous partners,” reads a Parks Canada document released in July. The document commits the agency to working with Indigenous communities to maximize local economic benefits — not just cultural benefits — from parks.
Long before the current era of reconciliation-driven conservation, however, and far from McKenna’s disbelief at a park without Indigenous harvesting, a previous generation of government officials could scarcely have imagined the current park.
“There’s some horrific stories by Indigenous people,” says Steven Nitah, a former chief who acted as chief negotiator for the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation during the planning process.
Wood Buffalo National Park looms large in the minds of northern Indigenous peoples, especially the Métis. It was established in 1922, and “all Aboriginal rights were considered extinguished,” a Parks Canada webpage reads. Some Indigenous harvesting was allowed, but only in arbitrary ways dictated by government officials. Métis were excluded entirely for more than 80 years.
Nitah says the policies were violently enforced.
“I know of a story where a family was forced out at gunpoint — and after walking to a community that they’d never lived in before, they burned their home,” he says.
Kevin McNamee, director of protected areas establishment for Parks Canada, says that while he isn’t aware of those exact events, the history of Wood Buffalo is a troubling one for the agency.
“The history of that park certainly hung over some communities, particularly the Northwest Territories Métis Nation,” he says.
That kind of relationship was by design: the government wanted control of the land.
“Parks were established, almost by definition, by removing Indigenous people, disconnecting them from their traditional territory, taking away any responsibility for management of their traditional territory,” explains Prosper. “It has taken 130 years to rebuild that trust.”
Those stories, or ones like them, were known by the Łutsel K’e Dene when Parks Canada first approached them in the late 1960s to establish a park in the East Arm.
The government’s expectation would have been similar to its expectations in places like Wood Buffalo — that the park would be a place of wilderness carefully managed by Ottawa bureaucrats, not by the people on whose doorstep it would be established, the people who had stewarded and depended upon that land since time immemorial.
“In those days, a national park would not allow them to continue their traditional ways of life: no hunting, no trapping, no fishing,” explains McNamee.
Then-chief Pierre Catholique was taken across the country from park to park by the government officials in a charm offensive. He wasn’t swayed.
If the plan was intended to exert pressure to make a decision, it backfired spectacularly. “He says, ‘I’ve got to talk to my people first,’ ” says Nitah. A subsequent meeting of Dene chiefs, to discuss these dealings with Ottawa, would form the beginnings of what became the powerful Dene Nation.
The chiefs together decided to reject the proposal. “We said no — then thought about it for 35 years,” Nitah cracks. He says a second overture, in 1982, was met by a demand by hereditary Chief Joe Lockhart that they “Pack up [their] maps and go.”
It wasn’t until the helicopters arrived that the community started seriously considering the idea.
Warding off a mining boom
The same year that Parks Canada was first approaching the Łutsel K’e Dene, a geologist named Chuck Fipke got stuck on the side of a mountain on the other side of the Northwest Territories. A week into his ordeal, a helicopter landed to rescue him, at the behest of Stewart Blusson. The two became friends, then business partners and then they altered the course of Northwest Territories history.
The fortunes of the territory were beginning to sink during the 1980s. The price of gold, which had driven the economy of Yellowknife and powered mines around the territory since the 1940s, dropped by more than 60 per cent throughout the decade. Exploration was down, and the mines were beginning to close.
But then, for the industry, a miracle: in November of 1991, Fipke and Blusson found 81 small diamonds at a site 300 km northeast of Yellowknife. The discovery made both men fabulously wealthy, and set off an unprecedented staking boom across the territory. The Northwest Territories became known overnight as one of the world’s great diamond mining districts, and everyone wanted in on the action. By 2004, an area bigger than New Zealand had been staked in the territory.
“Helicopters were hovering in people’s yards, and putting stakes into their yards,” Nitah says. “That’s when the elders said, you know, it was getting a little out of hand; we need to protect the core of our homeland.”
The people of Łutsel K’e decided that using the federal government’s laws would be a way of warding off the danger of a mining boom in its backyard. And things had changed on the Parks Canada side: a new designation, the “national park reserve,” had been created, which recognized Indigenous harvesting rights and in some ways acted as a placeholder for land claims.
Following the ratification of the Constitution in 1982 — which included Section 35 and its hunting and gathering provisions — the community also felt confident the park could not take away their rights.
Other parks had been established in the interim; most significantly, northern parks like Kluane, which allowed harvesting, and Gwaii Hanaas National Park in Haida Gwaii, which is co-managed by the Haida and monitored by their Watchmen.
Armed with these new possibilities, Łutsel K’e Dene chief Felix Lockhart approached Parks Canada in 2000, and the proposal went ahead. Thaidene Nëné started down the long road toward establishment in 2004. The details began to trickle out: it would be co-managed between Parks Canada, the Łutsel K’e Dene and the territorial government. It would be open to First Nations and Métis fishing, hunting and travel throughout the region. There would be an administrative and welcome centre built in the community, creating and sustaining local jobs.
The negotiations went on, led by a few negotiators. But Dene cultures, until just a few generations ago, relied on oral history and a set of broadly applicable Dene laws to make decisions — and a network of chiefs that would usually be appointed for set purposes, for set periods of time.
“We never really had a centralized leadership in the Denesołine culture,” Nitah explains.
For the Łutsel K’e Dene to now be put in a position of articulating those traditions on paper, as dictated by representatives behind closed doors, to a government that, historically, had acted in bad faith too many times to count, was a leap of faith.
A major sticking point in negotiations, according to negotiator Steve Ellis, was deciding who had what powers between the Indigenous communities and the governments.
“How do you preserve a minister’s discretion while also recognizing the inherent authorities and jurisdictions of the First Nation?” he asks. “So that was, by far, the hardest piece: who’s the boss?”
There were competing claims by other northern First Nations to resolve. The Yellowknives Dene First Nation, with a land claim in progress that overlaps with the territorially managed part of the park, would later go so far as to boycott the signing ceremony.
“We want it, as per our original area we selected,” says Yellowknives Dene Chief Ernest Betsina. “We want it for us.”
Debating these sticky issues of competing jurisdictions and rights would take up the next 15 years — plenty of time for the mining industry to find as many ways as it could to keep a share of its own.
Mining for controversy
A backgrounder from the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation from 2013, ten years into the planning process, lauds the ongoing work to create a 33,000 square kilometre reserve. At the same time, work was underway to cut the limbs off the park.
A 2013 mineral and energy resources assessment — a normal, required part of the park establishment process — shows where the conflicts between mining and conservation were going to occur: the area surrounding the Gacho Kue diamond mine to the northwest, a set of prospecting permits to the northeast, gold-copper-iron deposits in the southwest and uranium deposits in two separate areas on the southern end of the park.
Those would all be hacked off like the branches of an unruly tree.
“We reduced the size of the area of interest by over 7,000 square kilometres to address [the mining industry’s] concerns,” says Nitah. “And we even cut off a big chunk on the southern side where there’s very little to no geological information.”
In its final form, including the territorial protected area and national park, Thaidene Nëné would be 26,525 square kilometres.
Despite the concession of more than 20 per cent of the park, the vocal Northwest Territories mining lobby was not happy to have a park in its backyard — an area it has always had free access to. Nitah dismisses their concerns.
“For them it’s all about having access to land in the spirit of colonialism,” Nitah says. He maintains that the community is not anti-mining — and that in fact mining companies would be welcome to work with the community to explore their territory — but that development needs to be on their terms. The original 33,000 square kilometre area, he says, is still an Indigenous Protected Area in the sense that it remains under the jurisdiction of the community.
As the plan progressed, op-eds, open letters and press releases bashed the park for closing off some of the Northwest Territories to development. The Northwest Territories and Nunavut Chamber of Mines complained that the minerals assessment had “glossed over” areas with high potential for mines, and not done as thorough a job as a mining company would have done in looking for minerals.
Alan Latourelle, the CEO of Parks Canada at the time, disagrees.
“I think that we’ve done our homework,” he says. “We, the federal government, when I was there, invested a significant, significant amount in terms of the Mineral and Energy Resource Assessment.”
One letter from the Chamber of Mines to the territorial government’s Standing Committee on Economic Development, dated May 1, 2019, asked that the government change the legislation to allow pipelines and transmission lines through the park, limit the size of protected areas and redefine a park as a “development” so that it would require the same level of environmental scrutiny as a new mine would.
A Chamber of Mines submission to Parks Canada in July of 2019 complained that the park was withdrawing too much land from development. That included the Lockhart River, what it characterized as “the Northwest Territories’ third most attractive and natural hydropower development opportunity.”
The Lockhart River is home to the Ts’ankui Theda, the Old Lady of the Falls, and an important spiritual gathering place for the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation. Since the 1970s, the site has been repeatedly considered as a potential hydropower site, and each time, the plan has been rebuffed by people familiar with Ts’ankui Theda’s significance to the Dene.
In a final bid to prevent the park from becoming a reality, the lobby complained that “cumulative effects of land closures” — i.e. areas not open to mining — had not been considered, and also demanded an environmental assessment of the park.
Proponents of the park, meanwhile, were doing their own analysis, and they liked what they saw. One study, Nitah says, found that the economic benefits of the park that would accrue directly to Łutsel K’e were about the same as would come from a diamond mine, in terms of the amount of employment each would generate.
“There’s nothing you can do that’s going to appease the mining community, for the simple fact that exploration activity is not allowed in a national park,” Nitah says.
As he emcees the signing ceremony in the Łutsel K’e community hall, Nitah declares victory.
“We’ll never have to defend our homeland within Thaidene Nëné from industrial development again,” he announces. “We can live free from that stress.”
Peter Lockhart is among the crowd at the ceremony. He works at the Diavik mine, but says he’s glad the park is coming.
“The mines will close,” he says. Diavik Mine is set to close around 2025, with the other two following suit soon thereafter. There are no new diamond mines on the horizon, and just a handful of smaller metal mines in progress. Regardless, Lockhart would rather work as an ecotourism guide — an industry with an unlimited future, or so the community hopes.
‘A little less remote’
“I hope my kids come here,” McKenna says, as she closes out her speech, before she and the other dignitaries sign the documents that would formally establish Thaidene Nëné. “I hope they meet the young people here, who will be the leaders one day — that they’ll have good jobs here in your own community, on your land, protecting your land.”
There’s a long way to go before that vision, one shared by the people of Łutsel K’e, is ready to be implemented.
The 45-minute flight back to Yellowknife can feel like a vast gulf separating the northern hub from the tiny community. That short trip, $500 return on scheduled flights, means that just a tiny fraction of the 75,000 tourists visiting Yellowknife each year ever make it as far as Łutsel K’e.
“This place is remote,” says Williams, who lived in Łutsel K’e for 12 years. “It just became a little less remote.”
A document from the territorial government, which lays out the challenges of growing the tourism industry, points to a lack of trained guides and operators, little marketing, a lack of accommodation and food service and the high cost of airfare.
Ray Griffith, originally an outsider who has worked for the band in different capacities for decades, was recently tasked with bringing would-be tourism operators like James Marlowe up to code and helping them grow their businesses. So far there are three tourism businesses in Łutsel K’e — a small start for a community hoping to grow an ecotourism-based economy. But Griffith remains optimistic.
“I’m expecting that we can develop a pretty vibrant economy that could make a huge difference to the community,” he says, “because it’s long-term, and it’s the kind of jobs that people enjoy: getting them out on the land, making money from their own land and their own cultural experiences.”
Tourism may have unintended consequences for the community as well. The sacred falls of Ts’ankui Theda, for instance, are part of the park, having been included to avoid their disruption by a hydropower development. They are not, however, a place that the Dene visit lightly but only in times of “great need,” Williams explains. Tourists may not share that view, so the park’s managers will have to decide who can visit, and when.
Rain pours down on Marlowe’s canvas tents at “The Ritz” the morning after the announcement, pausing just long enough for the visitors to pack up the tents and eat some breakfast in the lean-to.
Sitting in the drizzle by his campfire, Marlowe contemplates the possibilities for his business and his community. For young people like Ashton Catholique and Peter Lockhart there will be jobs on the land. For leaders like Steven Nitah and Darryl Marlowe, there will be decisions to be made about how to use the park and the proceeds of the $30 million trust fund for the benefit of their people. For Prairie Desjarlais’ guardians, and for the conservationists, there will be data to gather, waterways to study and fisheries and hunts to monitor.
And for James Marlowe and his fellow guides, there will be visitors.
The entire Nature United crew piles into the back of the blue pickup for the short ride to the airport, but they’re met with bad news: the charter flight is cancelled due to weather, and they will have to find another way back. The place may be a little less remote now than it was before, but there are more hurdles to visiting here than the vast majority of tourists are willing to cross.
Northern parks are well known to be under-utilized relative to their southern counterparts. Aside from Kluane in Yukon, all eight national parks in the north last year saw a total of 6,338 visitors — and more than half of those were visiting Wood Buffalo. Aulavik, on Banks Island, had 18 visitors; Tuktut Nogait, in the northeast part of the Northwest Territories, recorded zero.
What the northern parks have that the southern ones do not always have is living Indigenous culture: they are mostly on the traditional territories of First Nations and Inuit communities that are actively practicing the activities that keep their cultures alive. In these new parks that encourage traditional activities to continue rather than limiting or eliminating them as before, visitors can experience something truly unique and authentic.
“They advertise geography, but invariably the most powerful experience people have is a cultural one,” Prosper says.
If Griffith and his small cadre of guides are hoping to cash in on an immediate boom in tourists now that the park has become a reality, they’re probably setting themselves up for disappointment. But Marlowe says he’s busy enough already. He spent all of August hosting and guiding, and new opportunities are arising from unexpected places: a group of survivalists has already booked him for a winter camping excursion, testing their mettle against the harsh elements of the Northwest Territories.
“There’s going to be an influx of people from all over the world,” he says, certain of himself, and of the draw of Thaidene Nëné’s wilderness and culture. “I’m ready.”
Editor’s note: The Narwhal was invited to join Nature United’s charter flight to Łutsel K’e, as well as their camp at “The Ritz.” As per The Narwhal’s editorial independence policy, the organization did not have any input into the writing of this article.