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Canada commits $340 million to Indigenous protected areas, guardians programs

United Nations: Indigenous Peoples are stewards of a vast majority of the world’s biodiversity. 
polar bear
Climate change is affecting the Yukon and  the North at nearly three times the rate of the rest of the country.

The Canadian government is investing $340 million to support Indigenous guardians and Indigenous Protected Areas as part of its commitment to conserving 30 per cent of the country’s  lands and waters by 2030. The funding will be provided over the next  five years and includes money earmarked to support the forming of a  national Indigenous guardians network.

“It is heartening to see the recognition  of the role of Indigenous conservation and stewardship in achieving  Canada’s ambitions in terms of its biodiversity goals and certainly in  terms of keeping carbon where it is, which is in the ground,” Valérie  Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, told The  Narwhal in an interview.

The announcement comes days before the Liberals are expected to call a federal election and on the heels of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, an alarming indictment of humanity’s continuing role in wreaking havoc  on the global ecosystem and an urgent warning that we collectively do  everything possible to mitigate and slow down the irreversible and  catastrophic effects of climate change.

One of the most effective ways of doing this is through nature-based climate solutions, including Indigenous Protected Areas, which effectively create huge carbon sinks when they are established.

As an example, Courtois noted the proposed Kaska Indigenous Protected Area in northern B.C. sequesters around 4.6 million tonnes of carbon  dioxide. Another proposal by the Délı̨nę community in the Northwest  Territories would protect the Great Bear Lake watershed and over 4.5  billion tonnes of carbon, or around 20 years of Canada’s current annual  greenhouse gas emissions.

“And that’s just one proposal,”  Courtois said. “The reality is that the dual crises of biodiversity loss  and climate change that we’re facing as a globe is one that’s going to  require bold changes. That’s part of what excites me about [Indigenous  Protected and Conserved Areas] and guardians is that they can form an  anchor or basis for a conservation-based economy.”

“Climate change is affecting the Yukon and  the North at nearly three times the rate of the rest of the country,”  Aagé Kluane Adamek, regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations,  said in a statement. “Despite this, Yukon First Nations have managed to  show leadership, innovative thinking and an inherent respect for Mother  Nature. Fundamental to this work are the perspectives of youth, women  and knowledge keepers. This investment will support these key voices and  ensure we are protecting our natural world in a good way.”

Funding is sorely needed by Indigenous communities

While Indigenous leaders welcome the  investment, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need and desire  from Indigenous communities across the country. When Canada invested $25 million in a pilot project five years ago, there were 125 applications for just 10 opportunities, according to Courtois.

“Our vision is really that every  Indigenous nation in Canada that wants a guardian program should be able  to have one and be supported in that because of the incredible return  on investments of those programs and the impacts that they can have for  everybody.”

Those impacts include economic benefits. An analysis of two programs in the Northwest Territories  showed guardian programs create around $2.50 of social, cultural and  environmental benefits for every dollar invested and Coastal First  Nations showed a 10:1 return on investment in guardian programs.

“The work being done by Coastal First Nations … in British Columbia is a great example of how guardians being  present has enabled the ability of the nations to really explore what a  conservation-based economy looks like,” Courtois said, noting the nations recently signed a Fisheries Resources Reconciliation Agreement, which paves the way for Indigenous communities to create jobs and economic opportunities in the fishing sector.

Indigenous guardians, often described as  the eyes and ears on the land, have continually proven their value not  only to their communities and to conservation efforts, but also to  industrial operations.

“We’ve had requests from industry  representatives who were saying ‘We really like guardians, they help us  on our projects — how can we contribute?’ ” Courtois said.

She added Innu guardians at the world’s  largest nickel mine in Voisey’s Bay, Labrador, discovered a spill  polluting a fish-bearing stream that would have otherwise gone  unchecked. The discovery simultaneously protected the environment and  saved the mining company millions of dollars in fines.

“That one incident has almost paid for the cost of the life of the program,” Courtois said.

Government investment is sorely needed as  many Indigenous communities face disproportionate impacts from resource  development, she added.

“We’re busy trying to analyze thousands of  [mining] exploration permits, let alone hydro, forestry and all the  other fisheries and wildlife and everything else that comes to the  office,” she said of her own community. 

“That’s what’s great about the guardians —  there are so many great examples of guardians working with scientists,  with researchers, with managers and amazing revelations come out of  those efforts.”

Guardian programs an ‘important act of reconciliation’ 

A recent United Nations policy briefing noted Indigenous Peoples are stewards of a vast majority of the world’s biodiversity. 

“Although they account for only around 5  per cent of the world’s population, [Indigenous Peoples] effectively  manage an estimated 20 to 25 per cent of the Earth’s land surface,” the  report said. “This land coincides with areas that hold 80 per cent of  the planet’s biodiversity and about 40 per cent of all terrestrial  protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes.”

At a national guardians gathering in June, Minister Wilkinson stressed the importance of looking to Indigenous Peoples for leadership.

“It is abundantly clear that we have much  to learn from Indigenous Peoples when it comes to conservation,” he  said. “I think this is particularly evident when we see the  environmental challenges that we are facing in the world today: rapid  climate change, significant and accelerating biodiversity loss and the  cumulative impacts of pollution in our natural environment.”

Courtois said the importance of Indigenous-led conservation goes beyond protecting biodiversity and combating climate change.

“Conservation in the past has been used as a colonial tool,  so there is resistance to conservation in many of our communities, but  this [Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas] model is one that is  built upon our own laws and our own responsibilities and our own values.  It’s a way for Indigenous nations to meet their cultural  responsibilities.” 

Equally important is the role Indigenous guardian programs play in healing, both for individuals and for communities.

“This country is just awakening to a reality that Indigenous Peoples have known for a very long time, with  the discovery of unmarked graves that just keep coming in,” Courtois  said. “I’ve seen a lot of people ask the question, ‘What do we do about  this? How do we make sure that this isn’t a moment where it’s just about  trauma?’ The answer to that is to lean on our teachings and on our  cultures. Programs like the guardians are about strengthening that.”

Adamek agreed.

“Residential schools attempted to  eliminate Indigenous Peoples and families, and the degradation of land,  air, water and nature works in similar ways because our livelihoods,  health, wellness and cultural continuity relies upon having a healthy  and sustainable environment,” she said. “Listening, learning from and  following the leadership of Indigenous land guardians is an important  act of reconciliation.”

Courtois explained she’s witnessed the  transformation of troubled youth from being lost and aimless to becoming  leaders in their communities through participating in guardian  programs.

“That’s how we’ll emerge from from the legacy of residential schools and, frankly, from the legacy of genocide.”