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Across the North, Indigenous communities are redefining conservation

In a packed gym in Colville Lake, N.W.T., Chief Wilbert Kochon leans into a microphone.

Across a roughly-arranged square of folding tables, officials from the territory’s department of Environment and Natural Resources listen intently.

“It’s our livelihood. For you it’s just a job. It’s a big difference,” says Kochon.

The topic is caribou, but it could just as easily be beluga, or reindeer, or salmon.

Across the North, Indigenous leaders are working to change the rules of conservation. Straining under strict hunting quotas imposed by colonial governments, they are pushing for more control over the management of species at risk.

map showing colville lake kuujjuarapik and girjas sameby
Over a week in late January, landmark hearings In the N.W.T., Nunavik and Sweden, advanced Indigenous management of wildlife. (CBC)

Over one week in late January, three landmark hearings, in Colville Lake, Stockholm, and Kuujjuarapik, Nunavik (Northern Quebec), illustrated how that effort is gradually making progress.

The work is building on a growing awareness in the scientific community — the results of decades of Indigenous advocacy — of the central importance of traditional knowledge in preserving some of the world’s most vulnerable species.

“Indigenous leadership and knowledge systems in the areas of land relationship and conservation [are] essential,” said Steven Nitah, a Dene leader from Łutselk’e and one of the negotiators behind the creation of Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve.

“We are doomed if we don’t do things differently.”

A history of exclusion

banff national park 1967
A guide in Banff National Park in 1967. The choice of Banff as Canada’s first national park is indicative of the spirit of 19th century conservation, which protected areas based on their aesthetic appeal. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Canada’s first forays into conservation were in the 19th century, inspired by the efforts of American conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt.

When Canada established its first national park at Banff, the legislation described it as “a public park and pleasure ground,” and forbid any individual to “locate, settle upon, use or occupy” the area.

That wording is of a piece with the founding principles of conservation, which selected areas to protect based on a region’s “aesthetic appeal,” according to Faisal Moola, an associate professor at the University of Guelph who works with First Nations on conservation issues.

When you actually diminish the role of Indigenous people … you can actually do more harm than good– Faisal Moola, University of Guelph

Today, conservation has evolved to “use a more explicit, science-informed process,” Moola said. Conservation areas are selected because they are home to rare species, contain extraordinary biodiversity, or represent a type of ecosystem not yet preserved.

But those rationales continue to leave out an instrumental part of the ecosystem: Indigenous land users.

Until recently, Moola said, scientists did not understand the central role traditional Indigenous land use plays in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

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A Dene man cleans a fish in the waters of Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve. Canada’s newest national park was established with the involvement of Indigenous leaders, who allowed for continued use and management of the land by the Dene people. (Emily Blake/CBC )

“Their cultures and their traditions have co-evolved with those animals,” he said. “Those populations have in fact been responding to their presence on the landscape for thousands and thousands of years.

“I’m beginning to increasingly understand that when you actually diminish the role of Indigenous people … you can actually do more harm than good.”

That understanding challenges the conventional view of “fortress conservation,” which seeks to shield protected areas from any human influence.

“The consistent Western science perspective is we isolate them and we leave them alone,” said Nitah, “whereas Indigenous worldviews and Indigenous science … is about looking at the bigger picture and developing a relationship.”

Past conservation efforts have disrupted that relationship, Moola said, and the accompanying transference of “biocultural knowledge” — techniques, observances, and language that give Indigenous people a “deep understanding … about their landscapes.”

“It’s not just that … plants and animals are disappearing,” Moola said, “but that the ways in which Indigenous people have described those things, and used those things, are disappearing.”

“I really fear that much of this biocultural knowledge is in fact disappearing, as we’re just beginning to understand how critically important it is,” he said.

The end of quotas

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A beluga whale hunt in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., in late 1950s. A patchwork of authorities, created by land claims across the North, has meant neighbouring Arctic communities harvest under different rules. In Nunavik, beluga whalers live under a strict quota of fewer than 1,000 animals. (Harry Rowed)

At the same time as Kochon was delivering his remarks in Colville Lake’s packed gym, 3,000 kilometres to the east, the Inuit of Nunavik were in a hearing of their own.

In Kuujjuarapik, the topic was not caribou, but beluga. A patchwork of authorities, created by various land claims, has meant neighbouring communities harvest under different rules. For 40 years, Nunavik’s beluga harvest has been subject to a tight harvest quota of fewer than 1,000 animals.

tommy palliser executive director nunavik marine region wildlife board
Tommy Palliser, the executive director of the Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board, says traditional knowledge of the belugas is ‘very quickly eroding.’ (Submitted by Tommy Palliser)

In an effort to preserve the endangered Eastern Hudson Bay beluga, the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) banned outright any harvesting from some traditional hunting grounds, forcing Inuit to travel hundreds of kilometres over unfamiliar ground.

At the hearings, the connection between those bans and the loss of biocultural knowledge was made explicit.

“The young people have basically lost their knowledge of belugas,” said James May, president of Nunavik’s regional hunters, fishers and trappers organization, “because of what DFO imposed on them.”

“That knowledge transfer is very quickly eroding, within one generation,” said Tommy Palliser, executive director of Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board, which organized the Kuujjuarapik beluga hearings, in an interview with CBC.

Bans on traditional hunting grounds and other barriers to the harvest make it harder to pass down “what tools to hunt with, where to find them during the seasons, how to hunt them, how to butcher them, what parts are good to eat, [and] what parts are good for making oil,” he said.

Translating knowledge

hunters in boat
Hunters pack their boat from the shore in Igloolik, Nunavut. As Indigenous authorities push for local control, using hunters’ expert knowledge of the land and its animals is key for successful conservation. (Nick Murray/CBC)

That knowledge transfer becomes all the more important as Indigenous authorities develop local alternatives to the quota system.

In the Northwest Territories, Indigenous leaders are formalizing traditional methods of land management in the form of local caribou management plans, which combine harvest reporting requirements with spiritual teachings about responsible use of the land.

But leaders like Colville Lake’s Wilbert Kochon are conscious of the fact that traditional law is often not enough for governing authorities.

We’ve been doing this too long to say that it’s wrong.– David Codzi, president of Ayoni Keh Land Corporation

In response, they’ve hired lawyers to defend their plan, and held workshops on translating Indigenous knowledge for the benefit of Western scientists.

Their local plan shows the fruits of this labour. To “avoid intervention” by the territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the plan demands regular self-reporting, the documentation of harvesting customs, and the development of new research standards.

“We’re trying to make sure our way of life is relevant,” said David Codzi, president of Colville Lake’s Ayoni Keh Land Corporation. “We’ve been doing this for too long to say that it’s wrong.”

Other jurisdictions are taking the same approach.

“The biggest feeling we have is we need a group of people … to gather information on Inuit law, what was used in the past, to help develop our own management,” said May at the Kuujjuarapik hearings. “Without that, we will always stay under DFO’s authority.”

Hunting for trophies

sami saami reindeer herder in sweden
A Saami reindeer herder from the Vilhelmina Norra Sameby in Sweden labels a reindeer calf. At the same time as Canadian authorities were debating local control, Saami in Sweden won a major Supreme Court victory giving them control over hunting and fishing management in the Girjas Sameby region. (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

But where self-determination and state interests collide, the results can be ugly.

Across the Arctic Ocean from Canada’s North is the Saami village of Girjas Sameby. In the same week as Colville Lake and Kuujjuarapik were pleading for local control, the Saami were winning it in a landmark Swedish Supreme Court decision.

“There is no precedent,” said Christina Henriksen, the vice president of the transnational Saami Council. “No one dared to hope that this would actually happen.”

In 2003, the Swedish state allowed individual landowners in the area of Girjas Sameby to manage hunting and fishing rights on their property. Traditionally, those rights had been managed by Saami reindeer herders, who lived largely off the land.

The decision to open rights to individual landowners rapidly increased the amount of sport hunting and fishing in the area, Henriksen said, and made it more difficult for the people who had used the land for centuries to survive. So they sued the Swedish government.

In the decade-long court battle that ensued, Swedish officials used colonial-era language and “racist” documents to defend the supremacy of the state, Henriksen said.

vast herd of reindeer in lapland
Saami herdsmen photographed in 1969. The decade-long court battle for hunting and fishing rights was marked by government lawyers’ use of colonial-era documents and language to defend the supremacy of the state. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

“It has been very troubling to sit in court and listen to the government lawyer talk about them as inferior,” she said.

In the end, they won a precedent-setting decision extending the recognition of Indigenous title. But Henriksen is quick to temper any optimism.

“We’re not holding our breath that the other states will follow,” she said.

An eye for an eye

sahtu hearing 2020
Officials from the N.W.T. department of Environment and Natural Resources listen to an elder during hearings on caribou management in Colville Lake. Increasingly, wildlife authorities are expressing a desire to integrate Indigenous knowledge into their conservation methods. (John Last/CBC)

At hearings in Colville Lake and Kuujjuarapik, at least, government biologists struck a conciliatory note.

“We would prefer to see if there was a traditional way that could be used,” said Mike Hammill, a research scientist with DFO, at the beluga hearings. “That would be actually much more exciting than [what] I’m presenting here.”

But those biologists were also battling criticism that undermines the premise of conservation itself.

“I don’t feel there is a need, an urgent need, to conserve the beluga like it is being conserved today,” said May at the Kuujjuarapik hearings. “The numbers aren’t what DFO says they are.”

Western science … is not informing policy makers in a way that is sustaining life.– Steven Nitah

At the same time, in Colville Lake, leaders from several communities questioned the dramatic drop biologists have estimated in certain caribou herds. Some even argued biologists were drawing false distinctions between the herds.

“You know, [a] caribou is almost like [a] human,” said Joseph Kochon, band manager in Colville Lake. “We move around here and there, and you can’t really tell the difference.”

At a moment when governments appear more eager to hand over control of conservation, these criticisms are a source of unease.

Biologists, invariably, stand behind their science. And some wildlife authorities question the ability of local authorities to collect accurate data on the harvest, when few hunters seem to believe the count is really necessary.

steven nitah
Steven Nitah, who helped negotiate the creation of Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve, said history shows the Western approach to conservation has failed. ( Sheldon Alberts/Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership)

For Faisal Moola at the University of Guelph, these disagreements are a sign of how isolated the two knowledge systems have been from each other.

“If there is a conflict between Western scientists and Indigenous knowledge holders, partly it is a reflection of the fact that Western scientists have had very limited access to Indigenous knowledge,” he said. “All through my professional training as a student, I never was exposed to any Indigenous knowledge, at all.”

Moola says conservation must embrace “two-eyed seeing,” a concept developed by Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall. The idea is to use Indigenous and Western knowledge jointly in making decisions about conservation, without “deferring to one knowledge system or the other.”

For Tommy Palliser, who oversaw the Kuujjuarapik hearings, that means investing in Indigenous knowledge holders.

“There’s a lot of support for scientific research,” he said. “It’s great, but we need similar supports and structures for traditional knowledge.”

Some scientists, including Moola, are taking steps in that direction. The Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership, launched in 2019, connects Indigenous leaders with Western scientists to develop a new approach to conservation that empowers local authorities and preserves biocultural knowledge.

“Western science … is not informing policy makers in a way that is sustaining life,” said Steven Nitah, who also advises the partnership. “Their way of doing things have not been working.”

If the stories of Kuujjuarapik, Colville Lake and Girjas Sameby show anything, it is that, after a long wait, that way of doing things may be open to change.

“We are entering a new phase of Inuit governance,” reads a closing statement from Makivik Corporation, the Nunavik land claims organization, submitted at the beluga hearings. 

“Self-determination is essential to this future.”

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