Bev Sellars: Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and Guardians are truly essential services

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      By Bev Sellars

      Indigenous peoples have always known the importance of taking care of the land and the waters. Archaeologists and scientists are discovering more and more evidence of what Indigenous peoples have always emphasized through their oral history: that they treated the lands and waters as a garden. Our ancestors knew that their survival depended on clean water and taking only what was needed. Indigenous peoples lived by the natural laws of the land and waters and that allowed our societies to thrive. In recent years, I have heard a few times that “science is finally catching up to Indigenous knowledge.”  

      Today, we have a competing economy that often puts money ahead of the environment and that has to change. Protecting our homelands is essential for the survival of everyone, not just Indigenous peoples. But this does not have to come at the expense of jobs, or a healthy economy. There is a better way. Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas are an opportunity for Indigenous peoples to thrive on our land, to protect Mother Earth, and to approach development in sustainable ways.

      From the lush rainforest of Wah-nah-jus Hilth-hoo-is on the west coast of Vancouver Island, to the serene spruce bog of K’in Tsaa?dze in the Peace River region, our people are taking the lead in caring for the land and working to establish Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas.

      Take Dene K’éh Kusān, 240,000 square kilometers of mountains and valleys in the heart of the North. In the Kaska Dena language, it means “Always will be there”. It is the largest tract of intact wilderness in the province and a place where the Kaska practice their traditions and outdoor enthusiasts can visit and enjoy solitude. 

      Indigenous Nations all over the province are setting aside areas for future generations and creating sustainable jobs for their people in the process. Indigenous Guardians are the eyes and ears for First Nations, monitoring what’s happening on the land and water, and educating visitors to their territories. Whether guiding tourists on fishing expeditions or monitoring water quality downstream from a mine, these Indigenous Guardians play an important role in protecting the lands and waters for everyone. 

      Over thousands of years Indigenous people gained an intimate knowledge of their territories. Even though the transfer of knowledge from elders to the youth was interrupted by intrusion into our lives by residential schools and other destructive laws, the knowledge has survived. Now our Guardians are combining traditional knowledge and methods of modern science and are best equipped to be out on the land. Oftentimes Guardians are the first to know when something is wrong. 

      The Indigenous Leadership Initiative works with Nations across Canada to realize their vision for their territories. That includes supporting land-use planning, establishing protected areas, and developing Guardians programs. Our goal is to strengthen Indigenous Nationhood in fulfilling their cultural responsibility to the land. We see a new generation of leaders coming up and we want to help develop the skills and capacity needed to be equal partners in their territories.    

      Governments are starting to take notice. In the federal budget this past month, there was $2.3 billion worth of funding for conservation, partly to support Indigenous Guardians and Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. But more will be needed if we are to achieve the goal of an environment in which we can thrive as Peoples.

      If Canada wants reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, it has to start with reconciliation with Mother Earth. After 150 years of destructive practices on the lands and waters that greatly affected our way of life, we need to make change for everyone.  

      Investing in Indigenous Guardians programs and Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas is the number one thing Canadians can do to safeguard the natural wonder we all should treasure. Indigenous peoples have stewarded the lands and waters you now call home for countless generations. It is time that Canada leads a global effort for change. All children, born and unborn, have a right to a healthy world. Before the pandemic, all around the world, our youth were out in the streets fighting for their future. We have to help them. 

      Investing in IPCAs and Guardians is a great place to begin.

      Bev Sellars is a former councillor and chief of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation in Williams Lake, British Columbia. First elected chief of Xat'sull in 1987, a position she held from 1987-1993 and then from 2009-2015, she also served as an adviser for the B.C. Treaty Commission. Sellars has spoken out on racism and residential schools and on the environmental and social threats of mineral resources exploitation in her region. Sellars is the author of They Called Me Number One, a memoir of her childhood experience in the Indian residential school system and its effects on three generations of women in her family. The book won the 2014 George Ryga Prize for Social Awareness.