The conversation: An attack on indigenous rights is an attack on conservation

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Establishing indigenous conservation and conservation areas, such as the Thaidene-Nëné National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories, in compliance with original treaties can help Canada meet its international conservation obligations. Photo by Iris Catholique (CC BY 4.0)

An attack on indigenous rights is an attack on conservation

Wednesday 2 November 2022

The conversation

On October 24, the Northwest Territories Supreme Court quashed a search warrant that allowed wildlife officials to search a Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation cultural camp in the Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve based on allegations of illegal hunting. The raid, which took place last month, was described by the Dene Nation as a “clear violation and direct violation of Aboriginal rights”. It also violated her right to protection from unreasonable searches by law enforcement officials under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation has always protected Thaidene Nëné (the land of our ancestors) by their own law. They called on the government to establish the Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve in 2019 and protect it under the Northwest Territories National Parks Act and Protected Areas Legislation. This is an outstanding example of how federal, territory and First Nations governments have worked together to protect a culturally and ecologically important landscape. However, the raid on the Łutsël K’é Dene cultural camp last month undermines these ties and underscores the importance of indigenous rights and community leadership in biodiversity conservation. An attack on indigenous rights is an attack on conservation.

Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation Cultural Camp

Wildlife officials conducted a tent-by-tent comprehensive search of the culture camp, involving more than 80 people. Photo: Chase East Arm Adventures

Momentum towards conservation led by indigenous people

Thaidene Nëné was established as an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) in 2019 by the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation after decades of negotiations with Parks Canada and the Northwest Territories government. It is also a National Park Reserve and a Territorial Conservation Area. In March 2018, the indigenous group of experts who coined the term IPCA presented a report entitled We rise together, which traces how protected areas have historically led to the displacement of tribal peoples. The report advised the Canadian government on how to meet its international obligations to protect nature under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity by establishing these IPCAs, in part in the spirit of the original treaties. It argued that all IPCAs should be led by indigenous people but supported by others. It reflected the growing body of scientific evidence showing that indigenous peoples possess systems of knowledge and governance that, if allowed to function, result in higher levels of biodiversity than state-run parks and protected areas.

Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve

The Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve was established in 2019 and is an indigenous protection and nature reserve. Image: Parks Canada
Indigenous-led organizations such as the Indigenous Leadership Initiative and the Iisaak Olam Foundation have built on the momentum and made significant strides toward Indigenous-led conservation in Canada through initiatives such as empowering wildfire management through indigenous knowledge. In fact, the federal government recently announced an additional $40 million to establish IPCAs, bringing the federal contribution to Indigenous conservation leadership to date to over $520 million. The Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership – a program hosted by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative and the Iisaak Olam Foundation and the University of Guelph – has seen a surge in the number of new and emerging IPCAs. Today there are more than 70 declared IPCAs.

broken trust

The raid on the Łutsël K’é cultural camps on September 13 showed that protection and reconciliation still have a long way to go. When the Northwest Territories wildlife officers received a complaint about the illegal hunting of the Bathurst caribou herd, they did not turn to the Ni Hatni Dene land wardens, who are the caretakers of Thaidene Nëné, for help and advice. Instead, they obtained a search warrant for an extensive tent-to-tent search at a local cultural camp with more than 80 people. On September 13, wildlife officers flew to the Timber Bay cultural camp and spent three hours searching. These actions violated the inherent and treaty rights of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation to self-government. This incident underscores that the colonial conservation model, centered on asserting control over indigenous territory, is still alive and well, even in places like Thaidene Nëné. The principles of co-governance for conservation dictate that no entity is “responsible” but that working together to protect the site is paramount. In the words of local MP Richard Edjericon, this incident “risks setting back indigenous relations another 150 years”.

Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation Cultural Camp

Wildlife officers violated the inherent and treaty rights of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation when they raided the Timber Bay cultural camp, Thaidene Nëné, on September 13, 2022. Photo: Chase East Arm Adventures


While other Indigenous and First Nations governments consider working with federal, provincial, or territorial governments to bolster Canada’s collective conservation efforts, this incident at Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve may prompt them to reconsider such partnerships . If Crown governments cannot respect and uphold Indigenous leadership in conservation, many conservation initiatives will not see the light of day, undoing progress made to date. There is still much work to be done to restore order to the relationship between the three governments dedicated to the preservation of Thaidene Nëné. Officials must stop criminalizing tribal peoples and start upholding their rights, their responsibilities in their traditional territories. Only then can we advance our common goal of tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis.The conversation

Robin J. Roth is Professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Guelph. Her research questions the social and political dimensions of conservation policies with a primary interest in how conservation policies affect the livelihoods of Indigenous communities living in and near protected areas in both Southeast Asia and North America. It is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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