‘Moccasins on the ground’: What extra funding for Indigenous Guardians means for one First Nation

·4 min read

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault has upped support for the Indigenous Guardians program, which gives First Nations greater sovereignty over ancestral territories. An additional $30 million announced last week will enable 80 First Nations to move forward with their Guardians programs, creating employment for Indigenous communities and supporting Indigenous-led conservation efforts.

For Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (KZA) near Ottawa, the Guardians program is being welcomed by the community. The funding received for 2023 is the same amount as this year, so it’ll help maintain the program, said Erik Higgins, a representative from KZA’s Natural Resource and Wildlife Office.

Higgins said the cash support allows KZA to have “moccasins on the ground” — Guardians who go out on the land to monitor developments on traditional Algonquin territory and report back to ensure they are in line with KZA’s values, he added.

This makes way for community members to contribute to policy when they can, Higgins said. “We do try to change the forestry laws and mining laws for the better.”

For KZA, the emphasis is always on water protection, water sampling and advocating for greater buffers around waterways, he said.

The program also deepens a transfer of traditional knowledge to youth and the community, Higgins added. For example, an Elder demonstrated how to build a birch bark canoe, which KZA filmed.

Although the Indigenous Guardians program officially started in 2019, the work began long before that for many First Nations, including KZA.

More than 15 years ago, KZA started monitoring endangered species within the territory. KZA’s species at risk program, which now ties into the Guardians’ work, keeps tabs on the health of the wood turtle, sturgeon and other threatened species.

“The Guardians program gives it a name and structure, but we've been doing that type of work for a little bit,” Higgins said.

The First Nation is looking for other funding to help grow the program beyond the current scope of six Guardians. The hope is that community members can eventually become Guardians themselves, so when they are on the land, community participation in the program can cover the entire First Nation.

“Which makes the number of eyes on the ground exponential.”

The Guardians program and others like it haven’t been welcomed by all stakeholders, including some provinces and territories. In an interview with Canada’s National Observer, Guilbeault points to the first dedicated Indigenous-centred day that took place last week at the meeting of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, an intergovernmental organization between the federal government and its provincial and territorial partners.

“If you go and look at the communiqué online, there is a phrase saying we did that, it was the first time, we want to do it again,” Guilbeault said, paraphrasing. “Some provinces or territories were enthusiastically in support of that, some less.”

“It’s not always harmonious, but I really think there is more willingness,” he added.

For example, in an agreement between the federal government and Québec to protect endangered caribou, the federal government demanded Indigenous partners be at the table.

Québec met the condition with quite a bit of reluctance, but in the end, knuckled under.

“I suspect it will change the dynamics in the province, but we’ll see. There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Guilbeault said.

The $30 million in funding for the Indigenous Guardians program, announced at a meeting with Indigenous organizations and provincial and territorial environment ministers, was made in the lead-up to COP15, an international conference on global biodiversity to be hosted in Montréal in December.

COP15 was supposed to be held in China, but due to COVID, was moved to Montréal. China still holds the presidency, however, and Guilbeault said he had a long conversation with his Chinese counterpart to ensure Canada-based Indigenous voices are “front and centre” at the conference.

China agreed, Guilbeault said.

“We’re doing outreach now to national Indigenous organizations, but also to Indigenous nations now,” Guilbeault said. “We want Indigenous voices to be felt and heard as part of COP15.”

Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer