Moccasins on the ground
Ottawa announces Indigenous Guardians Network to oversee protected areas
by Ben Powless
The federal government and the Indigenous Leadership Initiative launched the First Nations National Guardians Network at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity Conference of the Parties in Montreal December 9.
Over 170 Indigenous guardian programs already exist but only became a national network with the announcement of the new organization. Environment and Climate Change Canada had previously committed $60 million to the guardian initiatives, increasing the funding to $100 million in 2021.
Up to 1,000 Indigenous guardians will be funded to “monitor ecological health, maintain cultural sites, and protect sensitive areas and species,” according to the federal announcement. Guardians will essentially function as park and game wardens while serving as environmental monitors, both informing and enforcing community policy on protected lands.
“The support, growth and development of the Indigenous Guardians initiative for the past several years has been a key pillar of the Government of Canada’s conservation ambitions,” Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a statement. “The new First Nations Guardians Network will allow for further autonomy for First Nations in managing their traditional land and water.”
Ottawa committed $5.8 million directly to the network, which will administer remaining funds from the initial $100 million funding. Guilbeault said it was the first governance model of its kind, based on a nation-to-nation model for land stewardship.
“Canada can only meet its climate change and biodiversity targets through Indigenous conservation,” Guilbeault added.
United Nations data shows that Indigenous peoples, despite making up only 6% of the world’s population, help protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity.
Valérie Courtois, ILI Director, said that guardians were the “moccasins and mukluks on the ground.” When she started working with guardians, there were only 30 programs, but now there were 760 proposals in British Columbia alone.
“Indigenous peoples are proven stewards of biodiversity, and Indigenous Guardians are on the ground caring for land and water we all depend on,” Courtois said. “With these investments, Canada is offering a model for respecting and supporting the Indigenous-led stewardship – a model we hope spreads around the world.”
In 2014, Courtois helped develop a Guardian proposal for $500 million in funding, based on the average program with a budget of $1 million. Courtois said that everyone supported it – the then-governing Conservatives saw it as a job-creation program, Liberals viewed it as reconciliation, while the Greens considered it an environmental initiative.
They managed to secure $25 million in seed funding. It was important for Courtois that all the funding decisions went through this network, and “not through Gatineau,” where ministry headquarters are located.
By contrast, she pointed to Environment Canada having one environmental officer for Labrador, the size of Texas, based in Goose Bay and without a travel budget. In comparison, the Indigenous Guardian program is a proactive approach to environmental monitoring.
The next challenge for the network is to establish a profession, which will require a curriculum that responds to Indigenous laws.
“What gives me hope isn’t what’s happening within those walls, but what’s happening on the ground,” she added. “I hope it’s an example for the rest of the world.”
Speaking at the same event, Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty said that the Cree Nation was already part of the Guardians Network, with four Eeyou Istchee Land Keepers.
She said the CNG had worked with the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, which helped with training, organization, and how to adapt it to Cree realities.
At a recent council board meeting, a resolution was passed to develop a training program with the Centre d’études collégiales à Chibougamau. Gull-Masty said the federal government plans to create an additional 19 Land Keeper positions and is pressuring Quebec to fund 50 game warden positions.
“One of my goals is to see wildlife protection officers who are under the authority of the Cree Nation,” Gull-Masty told the Nation. These would combine the roles of Land Keepers, park wardens and game wardens, based on a plan to create several parks throughout Eeyou Istchee.
Benjamin Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation