Cultures converge in Lutsel K’e
Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve takes centre stage as Australians responsible for protecting indigenous areas share success stories at gathering
by Cody Punter
Northern News Services, Monday, November 17, 2014 p. A25
At first glance, it might not seem like a park ranger working in the sweltering heat of the Australian outback and a conservationist from the icy shores of Great Slave Lake would have much in common.
However, a delegation of Aussies who were recently invited to Lutsel K’e proved otherwise as they shared their experiences protecting their traditional land in order to provide some guidance on the best way to set up the Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve.
“It’s amazing how similar the issues are,” said Steve Roemer, executive officer for the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation, which manages one of 63 indigenous protected areas in Australia. “The only difference is how wildly different the climates are.”
Roeger travelled to Lutsel K’e earlier this month along with several other conservationists from Australia. The trip was organized through The Pew Charitable Trusts, an international organization dedicated to preserving natural habitats around the world. It was the second time in the last four years a delegation had travelled to the NWT to discuss potential for creating the three-million hectare Thaidene National Park Reserve under the direction of the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation (LKDFN).
“There’s interest on our side with the Canadian aspirations to see how they’re dealing with miners, governments and other players because they’re often the very same issues and the same companies even,” said Patrick O’Leary, conservation partnerships manager for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Outback Australia Program.
“All lot of these issues related to our land are universal,” added Steve Nitah, the Lutsel K’e Dene
First Nations’ (LKDFN) chief negotiator on the Thaidene National Park Reserve initiative.
Plans for a national park in the area go as far back as the late 1960s, when then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau and a young Jean Chretien, who was serving as the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development at the time, flew in to Lutsel K’e to pitch the idea to the community. Band members who were there at the time still remember when the outspoken Joe Lockhart went down to the water and ripped up the maps outlining where the park would be, because the federal government wanted to evict them from their land in order to set up the park.
“We chased them out,” remembers James Marlowe who was just a little boy at the time.
After the federal government amended the National Parks Act in 1988, it developed a more collaborative approach to working with First Nations. With the encouragement of the community’s elders, the LKDFN opened up negotiations with the federal government eight years ago in the hopes of being able to protect the land around their community from over-development by mining companies. In 2013, the two sides finally signed an agreement in principle on the national park reserve, which recognizes Dene authority over the area.
Agreement in place
While the agreement is in place, both sides are still working out the details of how the park would be managed and regulated if and when a final agreement is signed.
One initiative which has been particularly successful in Australia is its aboriginal ranger program. Through the ranger program, the federal government in Australia has been able to provide employment for the equivalent of 730 aboriginal people across the country on an annual basis. While the program is funded by the federal government, it is directly managed by local indigenous people, who maintain direct control over their land.
“It’s building a mutual relationship and it’s proved incredibly successful,” said O’Leary.
Nitah said one of the main differences between the Indigenous Protected Areas in Australia and the planned Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve is that the latter will be constitutionally protected.
“Those are declarations that are supported by government but it’s not constitutionally protected so it could be encroached on by industry or it could be developed with the creation of a new community,” said Nitah.
“That’s the big difference between their protected areas and what we’re trying to achieve. What we’re trying to achieve is a legal instrument that can protect the land constitutionally.”
The LKDFN has laid the foundations of a conservation program of their own with the creation of the Nihat’ni Dene program. For the past six years, the LKDFN has been training groups of summer students to become stewards of the land by teaching them how to take water, fish, and wildlife samples. The students have also been handing out questionnaires and interacting with tourists who camp around the East Arm of Great Slave Lake.
In the last four years, the band has raised a total of $15 million through private donors to go toward starting up a trust to help fund the park. The hope is that the federal government will match that amount so that a $30 million fund can be set up, with the interest earned on the investment being used toward the running of the park.
Nitah, who travelled to Australia to give a presentation about Thaidene Nene at the World Parks Congress last week, said negotiations about the future of the park were transferred to the GNWT as part of the devolution of land, water and resources on April 1.
So far, he has sat down with Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger at least once with several talks planned by next March.
“We’re working with the GNWT now to build our relationship with them and at the same time for on the final boundary,” said Nitah.
“Hopefully by then we’ll have a better idea of how we’re going to move forward together on it if we’re going to move forward at all.”
Although there is still a ways to go before Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve gets the green light, O’Leary said he was impressed by the foundations the band has laid so far.
“From what we’ve seen they’re doing the right thing,” said O’Leary. “I think they’re looking at this in a really savvy way.”