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.
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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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”