Indigenous governments are caring for the land across the country. Many have embraced land use planning as a tool for determining what lands they want to protect and where they will allow development.
Indigenous land use plans have already resulted in the creation of national parks, tribal parks and wildlife areas, often in partnership with Crown governments. When Indigenous governments play the primary role in identifying the lands for conservation, shaping the goals and managing the land, these places can also be called Indigenous protected areas.
Several of these areas are managed by Indigenous Guardians, who monitor wildlife, test water quality and interpret cultural sites for visitors.
“We are sustaining our traditional territory not only for us, but for the whole world,” explained Gloria Enzoe, the director of the Indigenous Guardians program that will help manage the proposed Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve. “Our ecosystem is so pure, we have so many trees that we are cleaning up a lot of pollution… We are protecting Mother Earth in order for the rest of the world to live on her.”
Indigenous protected areas can take many forms; below are a few examples of the innovative approaches Indigenous governments are forging.
Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve, Northwest Territories
About 185 kilometres east of Yellowknife along the shores of Great Slave Lake, the Lutsel K’e First Nations and Canada are co-creating the proposed Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve. The park will encompass 1.4 million hectares of boreal forest, and nearby a co-created territorial park will protect an additional 1.2 million hectares of intact wilderness.
The Lutsel K’e Dene First Nations secured protections for lands four times larger than what Crown governments first proposed. They also ensured the protected areas will be managed with the help of the Ni Hat’ni Dene programs, Indigenous Guardians who will monitor the lands by drawing on Indigenous and western science.
Torngat Mountains National Park, Labrador
At the northernmost tip of Labrador, the jagged peaks of the Torngat Mountains unfurl into the sea. The area is Inuit homeland, and it was launched as a park reserve with the signing of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement in 2005.
Now a Cooperative Management Board helps facilitate the partnership between the Inuit and Parks Canada. Inuit knowledge and culture are integrated in all elements of park management. Torngat is run by an Inuit superintendent, Gary Baikie, and is the only park in Canada’s system with full Inuit staff.
At the Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station—owned and operated by Labrador Inuit—visitors, researchers, Parks staff, Inuit elders and youth from Nunatsiavut and Nunavik learn from one another.
Tursujuq Park, Quebec
Stretching across 26,000 square kilometres, Tursujuq is one of Canada’s largest provincial parks. It begins east of Hudson Bay and spans the transition between boreal forest and tundra, offering a home to freshwater harbour seals, belugas, caribou and countless other species.
The park was created through a joint process between the Inuit and the Government of Quebec. Parks in Nunavik—the northern third of Quebec—are operated by the Kativik Regional Government (KRG). The KRG created a land use plan proposing several protected areas that had also been identified by the Quebec government.
Tursujuq was one of these areas, and after extensive consultation with communities, it was established in 2013 as a national park of Quebec under the management of KRG. The Inuit and Cree continue to practice subsistence activities throughout the park. Two host villages, Umiujaq and Kuujjuaraapik, offer a launching pad for visitors exploring the area.
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site
Off the coast of British Columbia, the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site was created through an evolving partnership between the Haida Nation and Crown governments.
In 1985, the Haida Nation designated the South Moresby lands a Haida Heritage Site. Four years later, the governments of British Columbia and Canada signed an agreement designating the area a national park reserve in recognition of its natural and cultural values. Then in 1993, the Gwaii Haanas Agreement laid out a ground-breaking plan for how the area would be co-managed by the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada.
The agreement respects both parties’ views on ownership and jurisdiction—even acknowledging those views may be at odds on certain issues—and at the same time, provides the opportunity for the two parties to cooperate as partners in the planning, management and operation of the area.
Today, Gwaii Haanas continues to be co-managed through a joint board with equal representation from the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada. A group of Indigenous Guardians—the Haida Watchmen—act as stewards of the area on behalf of the Haida Nation. They patrol the coast and maintain the most frequently visited cultural sites.
North French Watershed, Ontario
The North French is one of the last watersheds in this northern Ontario region untouched by development. Beginning north of Cochrane and unfurling into James Bay, the river it so pristine, people can dip a cup into the water and drink it directly.
Moose Cree First Nation protected the North French watershed under its own laws and secured the support of scientists, forestry companies, conservation groups and thousands of Canadians. The Province of Ontario has yet to recognize this and still wants to encourage mining and other industrial development here.
The North French river is embedded within the Hudson Bay Lowlands, a wetland of far-reaching significance for climate, freshwater and biodiversity. The watershed also provides vital habitat for threatened caribou, and experts estimate the Hudson Bay-James Bay Lowlands hold about 38 billion tonnes of carbon.
By conserving the North French, Moose Cree is helping restore caribou, preserve biodiversity and fight climate change. If Ontario recognizes the Moose Cree’ contribution to the province’s own goals, both governments could work together in the spirit of reconciliation to finalize this Indigenous protected area together.