Tsá Tué - Northern lights

First Indigenous-led biosphere reserve in the world featured in new Canadian TV series

Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve in the Northwest Territories takes centre stage in the first episode of the second season of TVO’s Striking Balance

In the northeastern corner of the Northwest Territories lies the biggest remaining example on earth of a fully functioning cold, freshwater ecosystem. 

It’s name is Sáhtu, or Great Bear Lake, and it covers 31,000 square kilometres — equivalent to the size of Vancouver Island.

“There’s likely more fresh, cold water here than anywhere else on earth,” says the intro to a new docu-series about Canada’s biosphere reserves, narrated by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy. 

Episode 1 of Season 2 of  TVO’s Striking Balance premieres on Sunday and features the Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve, which covers the 9.3 million hectare Great Bear Lake watershed. 

The nine-episode series will be available to stream online for free, and will also air on the Knowledge Network. Other biosphere reserves featured in the series include Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve in Manitoba, Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region on Vancouver Island and Beaver Hills Biosphere Reserve in Alberta. 

Deline, a Dene community in the Northwest Territories, has been working for decades to protect Great Bear Lake. 

In the 1940s, the eastern shore of  the lake became one of the first sources of uranium ore in North America. For nearly 20 years, ore was barged across the lake and down the Great Bear River. More than 740,000 tonnes of uranium tailings were dumped into the lake before the uranium rush ended, according to the Striking Balance episode.

New title

Get The Narwhal in your inbox!

People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism

Community leaders wanted to protect Sáhtu protected through the 1993 land claim agreement for the Sahtu Dene, but the idea was turned down by the federal and territorial governments, said Michael Neyelle, the former president of Deline’s renewable resources council.

“They said you can’t claim water, lakes,” he said.

But there was another path: Neyelle went on to help establish a biosphere reserve.

“We thought maybe this is a way we could protect it, so we pursued it,” he said.

Michael Neyelle

Michael Neyelle, former president of Deline’s renewable resources council, worked to establish the Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve. Photo: TVO

Biosphere reserves are essentially incubators for sustainable development and scientific research into the natural world. Launched by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the 1970s, they are a way to increase collaboration among governments to advance conservation efforts and sustainable practices — a roadmap toward environmental protection, as there is no legal basis underpinning these designations. 

Biosphere reserves are located in 124 countries, and 18 reserves are located in Canada.  

When the Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve was established in 2016, covering a total surface area of about 9.3 million hectares — including Great Bear Lake and part of its watershed —  it became the first in the world to be completely managed by Indigenous people and the first to be located north of 60, said Liette Vasseur, chair in community sustainability at UNESCO and president of the organization’s Canadian commission.

Vasseur said there’s a history of governments, particularly in South America, excluding Indigenous people from setting up biosphere reserves. 

“They were pretty much put aside, which is kind of sad,” she said.

The Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve considers the symbiotic relationship between protecting the environment and supporting traditional ways of life in many Indigenous cultures, Vasseur said.

 The Dene “have a very integrated cultural and ecological system and this is a way to make sure that it’s preserved in the long term.”

Sahtúot’ine Elder Camilla Tutcho

Sahtúot’ine Elder, Camilla Tutcho, cleans fish for a
community gathering. Photo: TVO

What biosphere reserve designation means for conservation 

Deline, a self-governing First Nation of about 600 people, is starting to reap the rewards of establishing a biosphere reserve. 

“We already have land claims, we have habitats, like fish and moose, special harvesting areas, just for Deline people,” Neyelle said. “With this designation, we’re gonna have some help.” 

Deline is in the process of securing funding to set up a permanent Indigenous guardians’ program with the help of UNESCO, Neyelle said, adding that residents are currently training to become guardians and equipment such as boats and skidoos are going to be ordered.

The Sahtu Dene Council secured funding from the federal government in 2019 as part of its Indigenous guardians pilot program — now in its third year — that helps Indigenous communities to monitor and protect the environment as they see fit.

The Dene have also been working to conserve the barren ground caribou herd, which has been shrinking — by as much as 50 per cent from 2015 to 2018, according to the Striking Balance episode. Deline has pivoted away from hunting the caribou, instead harvesting other animals such as muskox for subsistence purposes.

In an attempt to marry traditional knowledge with western science, Deline has been collaborating with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans when monitoring lake trout. Community members and government scientists have been studying the effects of climate change in the lake, while ensuring that fish meat isn’t wasted.

Involving youth is another focus of the biosphere reserve, Neyelle said. Every summer, youth go out on the land with elders to learn cultural practices such as preparing hides, setting nets for trout and gathering traditional medicines.

“They had 300 people at one camp — the youth, elders, the works,” he said. “That was so awesome, teaching kids everything.”

George Kenny

Sahtúot’ine fisherman, George Kenny, heads out
every day to check his nets for fish, one of which
was a record-setting 84-pound lake trout. Photo: TVO

Protecting the ‘water heart’ of Great Bear Lake

Part of the Sahtu Dene’s oral history of Great Bear Lake involves the Tudze, or “water heart.” It’s a story that has been passed down for generations — and it’s very much alive today, informing decisions to protect the lake and the surrounding area. It’s a story that was included in Deline’s application to UNESCO to establish the biosphere reserve, Leonard Kenny, the former chief, told The Narwhal.

The story, according to Kenny, goes something like this: a spiritual leader named Kayé Daoyé set a series of hooks in the lake and, after doing so, he found one missing. 

“This really bothered him, so he used medicine powers to look for those hooks through the lake, under the water, and he came across a beating heart, right in the middle of Great Bear Lake and it was guarded by hundreds of fish and he came to realize this was an actual water heart that kept everything alive around them.”

The message of the story is clear, Kenny said: water is the basis for all life.

Great Bear Lake

The Canadian Shield creates many breathtaking
islands on the Northeastern edge of Great Bear
Lake. Photo: TVO

“You have to protect it, you have to guard it, you have to look after it to keep it clean for all time for humanity. Not just humanity, but for Mother Earth. We have to speak for the lake, the environment, the land, because it’s the only thing we have to survive with. It’s our job to look after it.”

Conservation work in Deline always circles back to Great Bear Lake, Neyelle said, noting the scars left on the landscape by the Port Radium Mine, which once contributed uranium to the Manhattan Project (and was remediated in 2009).

Having more boots on the ground to keep tabs on the environment is necessary to ensure Great Bear Lake stays healthy, he said.

“After they wrecked everything, we kind of learned a lesson. Next time people want to work in our area, we have to make sure they have a remediation plan. We’re getting there. We learned from our mistakes.”

New title

You’ve read all the way to the bottom of this article. That makes you some serious Narwhal material.

And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).

As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired eight journalists over the past year.

Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 2,900 members

The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.

We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.

We’ve drafted a plan to make 2021 our biggest year yet, but we need your support to make it all happen.

If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.

Julien Gignac is The Narwhal’s Yukon correspondent, based in Whitehorse. Of Mohawk and French descent, he has a penchant for…

As Fairy Creek blockaders brace for arrests, B.C.’s failure to enact old-growth protections draws fire

The snarl of chainsaws was replaced by the dull whomp of rotor blades as an RCMP helicopter circled overhead. Activists craned their necks, pointing cell...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Help power our ad-free, non‑profit journalism
Get The Narwhal in your inbox!

People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism