Native Guardians: Canada’s First Nations Move to Protect Their Lands
On yet another unusually warm subarctic day last August, members of the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation in the Northwest Territories of Canada held a fire-feeding ceremony, drummed, raised their eagle-emblazoned flag, and prepared a celebratory feast for themselves and a group of scientists 30 miles south of where they live in Fort Simpson.
By the close of festivities, Laurier University’s 23-year-old Scotty Creek Research Station, which is monitoring the varied impacts of climate change and permafrost thaw, had become the first Indigenous-led research station in Canada.
The event marked another milestone in a remarkable effort by Indigenous people across Northern Canada to address the impacts of climate change, which is contributing to the burning of carbon-rich peatlands, precipitous declines in caribou populations, increased levels of mercury in fish, and the spread of novel pathogens and invasive species.
“Climate change is not going to wait for us to find a way of adapting and mitigating,” said Gladys Norwegian before I visited Scotty Creek last summer. Norwegian was once grand chief of the Dehcho Dene, which includes the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation of Fort Simpson, as well as several other Indigenous communities in the Northwest Territories’ Mackenzie Valley.
“The scale of these land withdrawals is certainly far exceeding even the imaginations of conservationists,” says one scientist.
“It’s happening now,” Norwegian said. “We need to work as leaders and partners with scientists to see what is coming. We also need to get our own act together.”
Not only are First Nations and the Inuit working closely with Western scientists to inventory and study their lands, but they have also made striking progress setting aside vast tracts of land and ocean, a decades-long push that has recently gained momentum and now amounts to tens of millions of acres. Conservationists say the scale of these efforts is unprecedented.
“The scale of these land withdrawals is certainly far exceeding even the imaginations of conservationists in the U.S., or really from most of the world,” said Jeff Wells, vice president of boreal conservation for the National Audubon Society.
Gerry Antoine, regional chief for Northwest Territories in the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, said he believed the goal in setting aside so much territory is to preserve a traditional way of life by working with scientists — as well as hunters and trappers — to better understand what threatens northern ecosystems and to preserve major portions of their lands from resource development.
“That’s really the best way of dealing with climate change,” he says.
The most recent acreage slated to be withdrawn for conservation in the Northwest Territories is a vast area of wetlands from the Sahtu region. Known locally as Ts’ude niline, the Ramparts River and Wetlands is rich in oil and gas. But it is also culturally important and internationally recognized for its high volume of carbon-dense wetlands and its importance for migratory bird populations. If all goes according to plan, the protected area will be more than twice the size of Yellowstone National Park and will be closely studied by Sahtu hunters working with scientists from Ducks Unlimited, the University of Saskatchewan, and a multidisciplinary group of academic researchers, government, and private industry partners.
Eight years earlier, the Sahtu Dene signed an agreement with the Canadian government to create Nááts’įhch’oh, a 1.2 million acre national park that protects the headwaters of Nahanni National Park, a United Nations World Heritage site and a traditional hunting ground for the Dehcho Dene. Last June, the Dehcho finalized a deal with the Canadian government to include 3.5 million acres of their land in the Horn Plateau, the Hay River Lowlands, and the Great Slave Plain on the list of national wildlife areas. Edéhzhíe is now the first Indigenous National Wildlife Area in Canada.
Apart from Edéhzhíe, nearly 12 million acres of land has recently been set aside in the Northwest Territories under various acts. Another 6.5 million acres are under consideration for conservation withdrawals.
In the Yukon, 13.8 million acres were recently set aside for the Peel River watershed, with another 9.8 million slated for the Dawson region, and nearly 5 million acres along the Yukon North Slope.
The commitment of First Nations to conservation is all the more striking considering Canada’s historical treatment of Indigenous people.
In the eastern Arctic, the Canadian government and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association signed a landmark agreement in 2019 to establish the Tallurutiup Imanga-Lancaster Sound National Marine Conservation Area, Canada’s newest and — at 27 million acres — by far its largest marine protected area.
In the Hudson Bay Lowlands of northern Manitoba, three Indigenous communities in the Seal River watershed are working, along with several conservation groups, to protect 12 million acres of boreal peatlands. The mineral-rich forest and tundra watershed hold 1.7 billion tons of carbon, equivalent to eight years’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.
“Down here in the U.S, or even in southern Canada,” said Wells, “it is considered a triumph to conserve a parcel in the thousands of acres, while these Indigenous-led initiatives in Canada are conserving landscapes in the millions of acres. That higher-level vision and ambition is what is needed to confront the biodiversity and climate change crises.”
It hasn’t been easy for northern Indigenous people to get what they want, said Chris Rider, the national director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), which has worked with Yukon First Nations on the Peel River watershed protection plan since 1994. He points out that CPAWS, First Nations, and other conservations groups had to go to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2017 to maintain the integrity of the boundaries of the original Peel Watershed land-use management plan, just as the Clyde River Inuit did that same year in successfully challenging a National Energy Board authorization that would have allowed seismic testing in what is now the Lancaster Sound National Marine Conservation Area.
The perseverance and commitment of First Nations to conserving so much territory is all the more remarkable considering Canada’s historical treatment of Indigenous people, many of whom were kicked out of their homelands when national parks like Banff and Jasper were established in Alberta, and were prohibited from picking berries in Wood Buffalo National Park, also in Alberta. When Riding Mountain National Park was created in Manitoba in the 1930s, wardens burned down the homes of Indigenous people to deter them from returning.
The Indigenous preservation movement in the North began in the mid-1970s when leaders such as Jim Antoine, who later became premier of the government of the Northwest Territories, stood up against two multi-billion-dollar pipeline proposals from transporting Arctic oil and gas through land that Indigenous people legitimately claimed belonged to them. A federal inquiry took the Canadian government, which was supportive of pipelines, by surprise when it recommended a 10-year moratorium on oil and gas development so that Indigenous land claims could be settled and land set aside for cultural and conservation purposes.
Ivvavik National Park in the Yukon was the first large tract of land to be set aside for protection, in 1984. Along with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska, which it borders, Ivvavik is the summer calving grounds for one of the healthiest caribou herds in the world. At 200,000 animals, the Porcupine herd thrives largely because of this protection and because of the management strategies recommended by the Indigenous-led Porcupine Caribou Management Board, says biologist Donald Russell, a former Canadian Wildlife Service scientist who has been conducting research on this herd and others for more than 40 years. The management board has worked closely with Russell and with many other scientists to determine how many animals can be harvested, how the herd is being affected by predators and pathogens, how communities can monitor caribou health, and how oil and gas development could affect herds. Indigenous communities have bought into their recommendations, most notably when they agreed to reduce the annual harvest of caribou from 3,000 to 300 animals in the 2000s.
“Too often in the past, scientists like me came north and then headed south without sharing the results of what they found.”
Such partnerships between Indigenous people and scientists have become increasingly common. Biologists Michael Power, Heidi Swanson, and their colleagues at the University of Waterloo have been working with Indigenous communities across the north to better assess how mercury is entering the food chain as permafrost thaw leads to erosion and flooding. Scientists know that as permafrost — which stores elemental mercury — thaws, carbon is dissolved in water and microbial activity can transform this relatively harmless element into methylmercury, which is toxic to fish, birds, and mammals.
Mercury levels have been rising in fish, especially in older, larger ones, which have more time and opportunity to accumulate the metal. Swanson came up with the idea of removing big fish from lakes so that younger fish could have more food and grow faster without building up so much of the toxin. The Dehcho liked the idea and got Dene fishermen to help Swanson remove some of the older fish.
William Quinton, the Laurier scientist who founded the Scotty Creek Research Station, said the establishment of Indigenous protected areas and a meaningful partnership between Indigenous communities and scientists has been long overdue.
“Too often in the past, scientists like me came north and then headed south without sharing the results of what they found,” Quinton said. “It led to some distrust, even pushback in some cases. Partnering with Indigenous communities has changed that. A management approach that puts them in leadership positions is also critical because it’s their land now and their livelihood that’s at stake.”
“They can also ground-truth what we are seeing or missing,” he added.
Ground-truthing is the work of Indigenous guardians like William Alger, a member of the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation who works with scientists and local hunters, trappers, and fishers to facilitate a sharing of insights. Many Dene have been reporting the location of enormous permafrost thaw slumps and the unusual movements of animals such as moose and bison.
There are 80 Indigenous-led Guardian initiatives across Canada to help ensure land, water, and ice are protected for generations to come. The federally funded program, which began as an experiment in 2017 with a grant of $25 million, got a boost last year when the Canadian government invested another $100 million to keep it going for another five years.
For veterinary parasitologists like the University of Calgary’s Susan Kutz, who has worked on animal health in the north for more than 30 years, having observant hunters and trappers on the land is akin to an early warning system for disease that allows for a quick response that’s also much cheaper than full-scale surveys of animal populations. With the help of Inuit hunters, she is currently tracking a novel form of the parasitic nematode worm, the lungworm, in the high Arctic’s muskoxen. Like other novel pathogens that are showing up in the Arctic, this unusual new genus of lungworm and other pathogens may be the beneficiary of a warming climate.
Like Gladys Norwegian, most everyone living in the Canadian north knows they are in a race against time because the Arctic and subarctic regions are warming faster than any other place in the world. The impact of this change became disturbingly clear last month, when 37 wildfires were burning in the permafrost regions of the Northwest Territories. October often sees as much as a foot of snow, and temperatures here have been known to dip as low as minus 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Historically, it has rained or snowed almost 40 percent of October days.
But not this year. One of those Northwest Territories fires burned for a hundred days before ripping through and destroying the Indigenous-led Scotty Creek Research Station.
“I am not sure what this means for Scotty Creek over the long term,” William Quinton told me. “The thought of rebuilding over the next year or two what took me 25 years to build is daunting. Still, I can’t help but notice the irony that a subarctic research station dedicated to understanding climate change burned down in mid-October due to a wildfire.”
Dieter Cazon, the director of lands and resources for Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation lamented the loss but remained optimistic about finding the resources to rebuild. “It’s in our best interest to get this thing going again,” he said. “This collaborative work is going to be the only way we’re going to figure a lot of these answers out.”