Dene ‘find themselves’ as guardians of the land

Participants in the Nę K’ǝ́dikǝ́ learned traditional Dene practices. (Photo by Amos Scott and courtesy of the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board.)

Stephen Kakfwi grins as he says it had been at least 20 years since he slept outside in -40 degree temperatures.

Kakfwi is one of the advisors of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI) behind Nę K’ǝ́dikǝ́ (or Keepers of the Land) guardianship pilot program that took place in the Sahtú last month.

In early February, Kakfwi spent the first week of the month-long program out on the land at camp Nehrahten with 20 other participants from across the Sahtú.

Much like other guardianship programs in the territory, including in the Dehcho and Lutsel K’e, the Sahtú version was inspired by the Indigenous Rangers and Protected Area program in Australia.

In 2007, through its Working on Country program, the Australian government set up the ranger program with a $5.3 million (AUD) investment to “support Indigenous aspirations in caring for country.”

Seeing an immediate benefit, there was another $90 million put into the program over the next five years.

Since then, the program has grown to include 839 full-time equivalent rangers across 123 different ranger groups that span the continent.

Two years ago, The Guardian wrote about the value of the work, saying that a Social Ventures Australia report showed that, “between the 2009 and 2015 financial years, an investment of $35.2m from government and third parties generated $96.5m worth of social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes…”

Now Indigenous guardianship groups in the Northwest Territories are looking for that same return.

Just a start

But for there to be a return, there first needs to be an investment.

Initially, Kakfwi said ILI and other Indigenous organizations were lobbying the Government of Canada for a $500 million investment over 10 years into Indigenous-led management projects.

While nowhere near the requested amount, the federal government earmarked about $25 million towards such projects in its 2017 budget. That money is split among 28 Indigenous guardianship programs across the country. Three of them are in the NWT: the Sahtú’s Nę K’ǝ́dikǝ́, the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk community fishery plan and Watching the Land in K’atl’odeeche First Nation.

Participants discussed future guardianship possibilities. (Photo by Amos Scott and courtesy of the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board.)

The Nę K’ǝ́dikǝ́ project received $300,000 to put on a four-week training program for 20 participants from across the Sahtú. The first two weeks focused on wellness training and Dene history. The third week went into the details of conservation and monitoring, and the final week saw future planning.

One future project in the works is to establish a guardianship program around the proposed protected area of Ts’ude niline Tu’eyeta (Ramparts River and Wetlands) west of Fort Good Hope.

Getting people back out on the land in this area isn’t a new idea. Kakfwi says in the 1970s entire families would get a fuel and food allowance and be out on the land for three or four months at a time in the fall and spring. However, he says the program was stopped after the fur market crashed in the late 1980s.

Now consistent funding is key to maintaining this most recent iteration.

Dean Yibarbuk of Warddeken Land Management in Australia says that consistent baseline government funding allows the organization to seek other funding opportunities to grow their programs.

Kakfwi recognizes this and plans on asking for longer term funding and calls the initial $25 million just “a start.”

The legal side

While Nę K’ǝ́dikǝ́ in Ts’ude niline Tu’eyeta may still be a ways off, a guardianship program linked to a protected area could come as early as this summer.

Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation (LKDFN), the federal government and the Government of the Northwest Territories are in the final stages of establishing Thaidene Nene National Park encompassing the eastern arm of Great Slave Lake.

Last month, a strong majority of LKDFN members voted in support of the establishment of the park; for its part, the GNWT’s proposed Protected Areas Act received its second reading in the house.

In an email, Meagan Wohlberg, spokesperson for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), explained the act “will be the tool used to establish candidate protected areas in the NWT.”

She said the act will be flexible to develop regulations specific to each area, which would include establishment agreements with Indigenous governments and organizations. While there is no mention of guardianship programs within the proposed act, Wohlberg said the establishment agreements could include a guardianship component.

The bill is likely going to become law before the end of the current Legislative Assembly. Once that happens, Thaidene Nene could be established as soon as this summer, according to Steven Nitah, LKDFN’s lead negotiator.

And he says guardians are going to play a central role.

Building long-term

In 2008, LKDFN created the Ni Hat’ni Dene (Dene Watchers of the Land) program. Nitah says these guardians will be responsible for upholding LKDFN’s end of the bargain once the park is established.

“The Ni Hat’ni will have the added responsibility of managing sacred and other special places of the Dene using Lutsel K’e Dene knowledge systems and the responsibility of transference of that knowledge to the next generation,” said Nitah.

According to a 2016 report by Social Ventures Australia (the same firm that analyzed the Australian ranger program), in the 10 years since the Ni Hat’ni program started there have been significant returns.

Following a $4.5 million investment to launch the Lutsel K’e and Dehcho guardian programs, the report reads, “Already that initial investment has generated $11.1 million in social, economic, cultural, and environmental value.”

The report goes on to say that will likely grow over time, with more funding and sustained national support.

It also outlines non-economic advantages of guardianship programs: “They help communities derive benefit on their own terms, rather than having tourism ‘done to them’ by outsiders.”

(Photo by Amos Scott and courtesy of the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board.)

Language of the land

On February 4, representatives from the Australian ranger program, Nę K’ǝ́dikǝ́ in the Sahtu, Ni Hat’ni in Lutsel K’e and Dehcho K’éhodi came together at the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre to present their take on conservation.

Representatives from the NWT programs all said their language was an integral part of guardianship.

In a follow-up interview, Stephen Kakfwi explained why: “The land is full of names of legends and there’s sacred sites that are all over… so we need the language in order to learn those things and in order to really spiritually connect.”

Having an important language component has also proved practical for the rangers in Australia.

Dean Yibarbuk says the ranger funding has helped establish a bilingual school where kids learn the local language and culture as well as “mainstream curriculum.”

“We need both going forward,” he said.

Asked if there was any advice he’d give to the guardian programs in the NWT, Yibarbuk said to lean on its people.

“Your elders are your strength, your youth are your future,” he said. “Combine the two with your own responsibility to your traditional lands and that will give you power. But make sure the government is playing its role in the partnership.”

Kakfwi knows that firsthand. He lobbied for the Sahtú program because he believes in the Dene people and their unshakable tie to the land.

He put it simply, “It’s where people find themselves.”

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