In far northwest Manitoba, the Seal River flows 260 kilometers through thick boreal forest to Hudson Bay. It is the only major river in northern Manitoba without any dams. No roads lead to the river and there is only one human settlement in the river’s catchment area.
This community, the Sayisi Dene, leads an initiative with neighboring Dene, Cree and Inuit communities to protect the 50,000 square kilometers of the watershed. It is an area of pristine wilderness the size of Nova Scotia, which would be protected from industrial development if the community’s proposal were accepted.
“It’s 99.97% pristine. The watershed is actually completely intact. There’s no disturbance, no industrial development in the watershed,” said Stephanie Thorassie, executive director of the Seal River Watershed Alliance.
“And for those reasons, because of our remoteness, we’re a little piece of heaven in the world that goes a little unnoticed and we kinda like it.”
The federal government has noted that Indigenous-led proposals like the Seal River watershed are essential for Canada to meet its conservation goals. Canada has pledged to protect 30% of its land and 30% of its oceans by 2030. By the end of 2021, about 14% of each was protected, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.
With the UN biodiversity conference, COP15, beginning in Montreal this week, Canada has spearheaded a diplomatic effort to reach a new global agreement on nature protection.
And experts say the focus will be on Canada’s own targets. In just eight years, Canada must double the area of protected land in all national parks, provincial parks, conservation areas and other protected spaces that have been created in the last century.
While this is a tall order, it is also a chance to do conservation right, choosing the most ecologically important places and letting indigenous knowledge and people take the lead, according to James Snider, Vice President for Science, Knowledge and Innovation at World Wildlife Fund Canada.
“It is through the lens of Indigenous-led conservation, or conservation more broadly, that supports Indigenous rights and goals, that we achieve these important goals,” said Snider, who has studied the most carbon-rich and ecologically valuable areas of the country over the past year.
Reconciliation through conservation
The story of the Sayisi Dene illustrates this possibility perfectly.
In 1956, based on flimsy and ultimately disproved evidence, the governments of Manitoba and Canada decided that the caribou herd was in decline and blamed the Sayisi Dene for overhunting. The entire community of around 250 people was relocated to just outside Churchill on Hudson’s Bay, away from the lands that had supported them for centuries.
There they experienced poverty, racism and lack of adequate housing. Nearly half of the community died after the forced relocation, while the caribou population was eventually found to be stable.
In 1973, a group of community members set out on foot and settled around Lake Tadoule in the Seal River watershed to return to their traditional way of life.
Today, 325 people live in the community. The Sayisi Dene have survived by returning to their homelands and traditional ways of life, but some say they are ready to go further.
The Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) they have proposed will show – contrary to the false environmental concerns that displaced them – a new, scientifically and culturally informed way to protect biodiversity, according to Thorassie. It will also enable the community to create jobs through ecotourism, she added.
WATCH | According to the archives, the Sayisi Dene of Tadoule Lake:
“I think using our first peoples to do this work is the right way to create protected spaces,” Thorassie said.
“Using the knowledge of our elders, our community members and our land users – this knowledge that they have is older than universities. They have been here since before Canada was created.
“To be able to have the opportunity to stand up and tell the world what is important to us, for our reasons, and to protect it for ourselves, by ourselves, is something that has never been done. before. That’s what’s different this time around.”
According to a report by the Canadian Society for Nature and Parks (CPAWS), Canada can almost meet its 2030 conservation goal with the dozens of IPCAs already proposed across the country. But provincial governments must agree before an area can be protected, and the CPAWS report called out several provinces for dragging their feet in the process.
The report notes that Manitoba does not currently have a conservation target. About 11% of the province is protected. But the proposals on the table, which include Seal River and a few other IPCAs, would take the province to 29.1%, according to the report.
“We have tremendous leadership on the ground from Indigenous peoples identifying areas for protection across the country,” said CPAWS Senior Strategic Advisor Alison Woodley.
“But we have this blockage in terms of provinces and territories not stepping up in most cases to embrace and embrace these ambitious goals and support Indigenous-led conservation.”
Canada’s newest national park
Canada’s newest national park, Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve, is considered a success story. It was established in 2019 along the East Arm of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories.
It is part of a larger Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area, which protects species like moose, bear, and wolf, preserves habitat for various migratory birds, and protects areas of boreal forest and tundra.
The national park and surrounding areas are co-managed by the government and the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation. In addition to protecting the ecologically sensitive area, the Aboriginal community’s vision is to provide employment for community members who will work as rangers and in other professional roles in the park, develop visitor infrastructure, and work on conservation and research projects in the area, according to the community’s website.
Steven Nitah, the country’s chief negotiator for the creation of the national park, said not all governments and jurisdictions were at the same level of understanding regarding Indigenous reconciliation, leaving challenges for other communities wishing to establish APCA.
“Indigenous nations advancing their own protected and conserved areas really need to drive their agenda,” he said. “They must own what they want to create.”
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Research shows how valuable Canada’s forests are
In recent years, scientific research using newly available satellite data (among other methods) has painted a clearer picture of the value of Canada’s forests. The Seal River watershed area is one of the most carbon-rich landscapes in Canada, part of a band of carbon-rich forests and wetlands stretching from northern Ontario to Manitoba.
This carbon is bound to plants, trees and, more importantly, the layers and layers of dead organic matter that have accumulated over centuries and stored in the soil.
Keeping that carbon where it is is crucial on a warming planet, say scientists. If this carbon is disrupted and eventually escapes into the atmosphere, it will trap more heat and worsen the climate crisis.
“We have among the largest area of intact ecosystems remaining in the world,” Snider said.
“We store a huge, mind-boggling amount of carbon. And so there is a global responsibility, many would say, in terms of protecting these important places.”
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