By Bob Weber
Tanya Ball began her career as a social worker for the Kaska Dene First Nation. Now she runs a Land Guardians program, working to monitor and protect a vast swath of northern British Columbia’s wilderness.
But she’s still a social worker, of sorts.
“Earth keepers can help the earth heal,” she said. “And earth can help guardians heal.”
Ball is at the forefront of the new way Canada protects its still-healthy rivers, lakes, forests, mountains and plains. Crown governments would once mark off an area deemed particularly scenic or suitable for outdoor recreation and call it a park.
“There is no future in conservation where the federal government is involved (and) Indigenous peoples are not involved from the start,” said federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault. “This traditional model is a thing of the past.”
Conservation is now something indigenous peoples lead instead of something done to them. Most protected areas in Canada are now proposed by Indigenous groups, who aim to look after these lands themselves.
There are now about 80 protected areas in Canada overseen by the people who originally owned the land. Some are designated solely by the local First Nation and some are part of the national park system.
But others – many more – are on the way.
The most recent federal budget provides funding for at least 27 more Indigenous protected and conserved areas. Ottawa has just signed a memorandum of understanding with the Nunatsiavut government in Labrador to develop one with the two parties involved from the start.
This is the only way for Canada to fulfill its international promise to protect 30% of its landmass, said Sandra Schwartz of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
“Achieving these protection goals for Canada is realistic,” she said. “A lot of these opportunities are on Indigenous lands.”
Indigenous conservation stems from the historical cultural attachment to the land and the political desire to have a land base, said Val Courtois of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, which has been involved in the movement for years.
“The assertion of rights in Canada has always been about this relationship to place. It’s just a new way of describing this responsibility.
Indigenous protected and conserved areas have been established under federal, provincial and band structures and vary widely in their operation and activities. Some do not meet international standards for conservation areas and will not count toward Canada’s 30% target.
But they all involve some level of Indigenous co-management, they all involve land use planning, and they all involve custodians – local First Nations people charged and trained in land stewardship.
Ball said his eight-person team collects water samples, maps, monitors hunting, delineates archaeological sites, tracks visitor impacts, monitors animal movements, assists conservation officers and runs projects. of research.
“They are very busy,” she said.
One thing they don’t do is put up fences. Indigenous protected areas aren’t meant to keep anyone out, Courtois said.
“I would fall out of my chair if I heard of an indigenous group saying ‘let’s exclude everyone,'” she said. “There may be small portions that are particularly sacred, but the idea of excluding people is the opposite of how we understand these places.”
Decisions on local development are made locally, she said.
Tara Shea of the Mining Association of Canada said her group generally supports Indigenous protections – as long as the process is transparent and potential mining tenures are considered in advance.
“We strongly believe that mining development and biodiversity conservation can go hand in hand.”
There are challenges. While the federal government has earmarked more than $300 million since 2018 for Indigenous conservation, Guilbeault acknowledges that a permanent source of funding for such programs is still being sought.
“We don’t do permanent programs. The philanthropic world has played a huge role in conservation and will continue to do so. We welcome their involvement.
Ottawa, the Northwest Territories, local First Nations, and the U.S.-based Pew Charitable Trusts are currently negotiating a way for Pew Money to fund the Edehzhie National Park and Indigenous Protected Area Warden Program .
Another obstacle is the varying degree of support from provincial governments, which control most of Canada’s Crown lands.
“The level of enthusiasm varies,” said Guilbeault, who declined specifics. “Some provincial governments don’t believe in government-to-government relationships.
“It’s difficult for the provinces,” she said. “They are used to being in the driver’s seat.”
Ball believes that Indigenous conservation is important for the whole country as a crucial part of reconciliation. She sees what will happen if members of her First Nation come to the lands they are helping to manage again.
“Sometimes people just want to go out for the day. I just see a difference in people at the end of the day. Their demeanor changes, their mood has improved,” Ball said.
“I think it will really help with social issues too.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 25, 2022.
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960