First Nations students from across the North are training to become leaders in land protection and management as part of a new pilot program in the NWT.
The Indigenous Boreal Guardians training program launched last week at the Dechenla Lodge in the Mackenzie Mountains near the Yukon-NWT border and will finish next March at the Dechinta Bush University Centre for Research and Learning.
Nine students are currently enrolled in the program, learning core skills needed to work with government and industry on land use planning and protection, and in the assessment, development, management and monitoring of resource projects.
“The program is designed to identify and develop new leaders who understand the complex challenges facing the future of the land – leaders who can advocate for management practices based on indigenous knowledge, community values and scientific methods,” said Erin Freeland-Ballantyne, dean of programs at Dechinta.
“The idea is that it will become a training program for all the indigenous nations in Canada to contribute to and be supported by, to develop their own guardian programs.”
The pilot group includes individuals from Deline, Colville Lake, Fort Providence and Fort Simpson in the NWT, along with students from northern Manitoba, northern B.C. and Yukon. They will spend three weeks at Dechenla and 12 weeks at Dechinta.
In between semesters, the students are expected to return to their communities and put their newfound leadership skills to use by connecting with elders and residents around establishing a local guardian program.
“The hope is that it gives people the leadership and the program development and research skills to go back and ask the fundamental questions, what does protecting the land look like for our community and how can we organize that so that we’re in charge of that process?” she said.
The course features an interdisciplinary curriculum taught by a variety of experts, elders and university professors at Dechinta, a land-based postsecondary institution accredited by the University of Alberta located at Blachford Lake Lodge in the NWT.
Freeland-Ballantyne said the desire for the program was identified by the Kaska Dena nation in northern B.C. and Yukon, who approached Dechinta about expanding their existing coursework on indigenous governance and law to include areas like environmental monitoring or science in a land-based context.
The pilot will see students commit for a year in hopes that additional funding will turn the program into a full, four-year Bachelor degree.
Looking at best practices
Guardian programs already exist in Australia, where the federal government worked with Aboriginal groups to establish an initiative that created work for indigenous people on the land, protecting their traditional territories as part of the national parks system. That model has been adapted somewhat within Canada, on the West Coast with the Haida Coastal Watchmen network and in Labrador with the Innu Guardian Program.
Now with the Nihat’ni Dene Rangers of Lutsel K’e involved in protecting the national park of Thaidene Nene and interest among the Dehcho First Nations in establishing their own watchmen program, Freeland-Ballantyne said there was immediate widespread interest in looking at best practices and having the necessary conversations around indigenous-led land protection in the North.
“There are questions around what, in practice, does it mean to take care of the land, and what does it look like to have boots on the ground and boots in the boardroom? What’s the continuum of skills that we need to protect land on all different levels, but also to participate as equal partners and leaders so that whatever happens on the land is done by the directive of the nation whose land you’re on,” she said.
Apart from providing the students with leadership skills, Freeland-Ballantyne said the program is expected to have multiple secondary benefits that stem from connecting people with their land and culture in a stewardship context.
“What they found when they did this program (in Australia) was that it had really incredible impacts in terms of education completion, drastically dropping crime rates, (boosting) cultural pride and language revitalization – there were all of these impacts, simply by making sure there was funding for people to be on the land, protecting their traditional territory in whatever way their own nation defined ‘protection,’” she said.
Freeland-Ballantyne said the need for such training is increasing in indigenous communities as more First Nations complete self-government and land claim agreements, as interest grows in resource development and as precedent-setting court cases refine the understanding of indigenous rights over land and title.
“It’s going to be an important role that people are playing as self government is implemented and we see Aboriginal governments taking back the care of lands and resources,” she said.