What Canada's newest national park will mean for young people in the North

Valedee Lockhart says she's spent her summer doing "the best job in the world." 

The 16-year-old has been helping to monitor the lands and waters on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. She's learned how to skin and butcher bison, use plants as medicine and make dry meat on the land outside Łutsël K'é, N.W.T.

"The reason why I came back here is more to connect with like the land and just get back into my heritage in a way," said Lockhart, who lives in Yellowknife most of the year for school.

She is one of the Ni hat'Ni Dene Rangers or "Watchers of the Land." They're the guardians of the newly established Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve who monitor wildlife, document visitor activity and maintain cultural sites in the area. 

With the signing of final agreements on the park reserve in Łutsël K'é Wednesday morning, 26,525 square kilometres of land and water is now permanently protected northeast of Łutsël K'é.

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Many across the territory are celebrating and say the park reserve is especially important for young people like Lockhart. 

"This was a mandate given to us by our elders and I'm very proud to be the chief that has ensured our future is protected for future generations," Łutsël K'é First Nation Chief Darryl Marlowe told the crowd in the community Wednesday. 

He encouraged young people to stay in school and said the park reserve will mean new opportunities in tourism and resource management. 

"Our future is bright for our youth," he said. "They're the ones that one day are going to be carrying this on. They're the ones we're going to be giving guidance to as they become future leaders."

Thaidene Nëné is one of Canada's few national parks where both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are able to fish, hunt, use motorized boats and carry a firearm. The park reserve will be co-managed by Indigenous groups along with the federal and territorial governments. 

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"It's an important area for us for hunting area, fishing, water," said Łutsël K'é Dene elder Albert Boucher.

"We're doing this for young people. Young people are going to work on it, they're going to stay on it." 

Catherine McKenna, Canada's minister of Environment and Climate Change, also espoused the benefits of Thaidene Nëné for future generations. 

She spent Tuesday night camping — and even taking a chilly morning dip — at the tip of Thaidene Nëné with several of the Ni hat'Ni Dene Rangers including Lockhart. 

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"I have three kids. I always think about this job, it's not about us, it's about our kids, our kids' kids, our kids' kids' kids so they can come back to this really incredible place," McKenna said. 

"I hope my kids come here. I hope they meet the young people here who will be leaders one day. That you'll have good jobs here in your own community on your land protecting your land, what you value." 

The Ni hat'Ni rangers are also making sure to pass on knowledge to younger members. 

"I tell them stories. I always ask them 'do you care for your land?' Or 'do you care for the water, the animals?' And the answer I always get back is ' yes'," said Terri Enzoe. 

"I always talk about how to protect our land because anywhere I go in the boat or on the Ski-Doo, the land is my pillow. I could sleep wherever I want to."

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Funding for the Ni hat'Ni Dene Rangers program comes from a $30 million trust. Half of that was raised by Nature United, the Canadian arm of a charitable environmental organization, while the rest of the funding came from Parks Canada. 

The trust means the rangers program will be safeguarded against potential future federal budget cuts.