Edéhzhíe, the subject of a historic conservation agreement that placed Indigenous leadership at the forefront of land stewardship, has now been declared a national wildlife area.
Some 14,218 square kilometres of wetland and boreal forest – more than twice the size of Banff National Park – has been permanently reserved for the protection of boreal caribou, wood bison, waterfowl and other migratory birds.
National wildlife area designation protects Edéhzhíe’s biodiversity through federal legislation. The N.W.T. government has protected the area from mineral, oil, or gas exploration and development.
Edéhzhíe had already become Canada’s first Indigenous protected area in 2018.
It is the 55th national wildlife area declared in Canada, and easily the nation's largest.
The federal government said this week it had placed $10 million in an Edéhzhíe Trust Fund, providing long-term funding for the Dehcho K’éhodi Stewardship and Guardians program. Ottawa said the program, which involves patrolling, research projects and mentorship, will ensure future generations of Tłı̨chǫ and Dehcho youth can connect with the land.
The announcement from Steven Guilbeault, the federal environment and climate change minister, was timed to mark the beginning of National Indigenous History Month.
For generations, Edéhzhíe has been a critical harvesting location for the Dene people, leading some to call it "the breadbasket of the Dehcho."
The designation of protected lands and national parks by the Canadian federal government has long been a source of suffering and controversy for Indigenous people, in large part because of issues around food security.
But the program in Edéhzhíe has been recognized by many as an initiative that breaks new ground in moving from a eurocentric concept of parks – empty spaces preserved for occasional visits – to spaces that offer opportunities to foster an ongoing relationship between humans and the natural world. For the Dene, this relationship includes harvest as part of that stewardship.
According to Stanley Sanguez, interim Grand Chief of the Dehcho First Nations, the protection of Edéhzhíe is the fulfillment of a "decade-long dream."
"For Dehcho First Nations and our surrounding communities, this is a huge milestone, yet only a stepping stone for our Guardians," Sanguez stated in a news release.
"Indigenous-led protected areas are nationally and internationally recognized as the cornerstone for Canadian conservation networks.
"Together with our partners we hope to honour the words and intentions of our Elders and ancestors moving forward, who have blessed us with energy to keep Edéhzhíe protected as a sacred area."
Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio