Park management deal brings jobs, buildings and pride to Nahanni Butte

A new agreement gives Nahanni Butte more control over the massive Nahanni National Park Reserve, a move that also boosts the Dehcho community’s economy.

Ten jobs will be created in a community of less than 100 people. Three new buildings will be built: a Parks Canada office, a guardians program office, and a lodge for tourists and Elders.

The agreement also marks a warming of relations between Nahanni Butte’s Nahʔą Dehé Dene Band and the Dehcho First Nations, who parted ways five years ago. Both are signatories to the agreement alongside Parks Canada.

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Jayne Konisenta, a longtime councillor in Nahanni Butte, said a Parks Canada office in the community fulfilled a request Elders had made for decades.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of our Elders who are no longer here. When I was talking to them, things were not going the way they wanted,” Konisenta said at a signing ceremony on Friday.

“I sat around with them and I told them, ‘It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take years.’

“I started this when I was in my 20s. I’m in my 60s now, and our Elders have passed. Now I’m becoming an Elder and I’m still at the table, but I’m very glad to see where we’re at today.”

Chief Steve Vital, looking ahead, added: “It’s for our past Elders – it’s what they wanted – and it’s for our future generations.”

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Ten jobs has the potential to be transformative for Nahanni Butte, said Elliot Holland, a negotiator who worked on the agreement for the community.

“This is something you’re going to be able to feel and see in the community every day,” Holland said.

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“That’s why we’re so proud of what we’ve done with today’s agreement.”

Park had been ‘source of tension’

Alongside the jobs and buildings, the deal signed on Friday – referred to as the Ndahecho Gondié Gháádé Agreement – provides what the federal government called “new and innovative models for cooperative management.”

In practice, that means reshaping the existing co-management of the Nahanni National Park Reserve so that Nahanni Butte has a larger role. The Dehcho First Nations retain a share in the park reserve’s governance.

The Nahʔą Dehé Dene Band will now have “the resources to bring their traditional knowledge and to collect scientific knowledge to bring to the table on their own terms, to be true partners with Parks Canada,” Holland said.

Delegates at the signing of a new agreement governing the management of the Nahanni National Park Reserve
Delegates at the signing of a new agreement governing the management of the Nahanni National Park Reserve. Chloe Williams/Cabin Radio
Jayne Konisenta and Elsie Marcellais sign a new Nahanni National Park Reserve management agreement on September 30, 2022
Jayne Konisenta and Elsie Marcellais sign a new Nahanni National Park Reserve management agreement on September 30, 2022. Chloe Williams/Cabin Radio

There is also funding for a new on-the-land guardianship program, named Nahʔą Dehé K’ehodi, which will operate within the park reserve. More on-the-land programming will be opened to local youth and Elders.

“This is an area where we still have very pristine, free and untouched land,” said Michael McLeod, the NWT’s Liberal MP, whose grandparents were born in nearby Fort Liard to the south.

“It’s important that we have shared governance by the Government of Canada, the Dehcho First Nations and the band council here,” McLeod continued. “I know Steve [Vital, the chief] has done a lot of work, and we want it to be very well managed over the next generations.”

Vital had told Cabin Radio earlier in the summer that he was “very excited” about renewed relations with the Dehcho First Nations. Former chief Peter Marcellais withdrew Nahanni Butte’s Dene band from the Dehcho First Nations in 2017, reportedly over concern about how a boundary dispute was being handled.

But Holland said the national park reserve, too, had been “one of the greatest sources of tension” between the Dehcho First Nations and Nahanni Butte.

Grand Chief Herb Norwegian of the Dehcho First Nations speaks in Nahanni Butte on September 30, 2022
Grand Chief Herb Norwegian of the Dehcho First Nations speaks in Nahanni Butte on September 30, 2022. Chloe Williams/Cabin Radio
Nahɂą Dehé Dene Band Chief Steve Vital at home in Nahanni Butte in June 2022. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio

The agreement sees the Dehcho First Nations effectively step aside to allow Nahanni Butte greater authority over the park.

“This agreement, we think, is a big step toward repairing that tension and strengthening the bonds between the regional government and the community government. This is a step toward closer collaboration with the Dehcho First Nations going forward,” Holland said.

Grand Chief Herb Norwegian of the Dehcho First Nations struck a conciliatory note, casting himself and his organization as parents prepared to “stand on the sidelines and help out as much as possible.”

“Nahanni Butte, this is the time for you to get in there and start managing,” Norwegian said.

“It’s a good, positive step. For the first time, a smaller community is taking that kind of authority, that major step, and managing a large tract of land and a large piece of the Dehcho territory. It’s almost like a small land claim agreement for the community.

“For the longest time, Nahanni Butte has been on our case about that, that we were too much in control of the Nahanni park. Now, today, it’s back in their hands and I’m hoping that they will do justice with it. It’s their territory and we will do everything we can to help.”

‘Don’t settle for anything less’

The Nahanni National Park Reserve is a giant park, the third-largest in Canada, spanning everything from canyons and mountains to waterfalls and tufa mounds. Virginia Falls and the Cirque of the Unclimbables are among its treasures.

The federal minister responsible for Parks Canada, Steven Guilbeault, called the park reserve an “ecological and cultural treasure” as he praised an agreement that, he said, “recognizes the deep, indelible connection Nahʔą Dehé Dene Band and Dehcho First Nations share with the land of Nahanni.”

“This agreement will ensure Indigenous connections to the land are honoured and integral to the protection of this wholly unique ecosystem,” Guilbeault said in a press release.

The Ram River on the eastern edge of the Nahanni National Park Reserve
The Ram River, on the eastern edge of the Nahanni National Park Reserve. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The Nahanni River at the top of Virginia Falls. Vadim Nikolaevitch Gouida/Dreamstime
The South Nahanni River at the top of Virginia Falls. Vadim Nikolaevitch Gouida/Dreamstime
A file photo of Virginia Falls in Nahanni National Park Reserve. Pancaketom/Dreamstime
Virginia Falls. Pancaketom/Dreamstime

The park reserve was expanded six-fold in 2009, partly on the understanding that some form of impact benefit agreement would follow for the Dehcho First Nations, of which Nahanni Butte was then a part.

Negotiations to reach that agreement, disrupted by the 2017 dispute, resumed last year. Not unintentionally, the agreement was signed at a ceremony on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

“Canada now acknowledges that this is Indigenous land that has to be managed by Indigenous people, and that is a big step,” said Larry Innes, legal counsel for the Dehcho First Nations.

“Working to give that space in an existing national park reserve is truly innovative.”

More: Does the Nahanni National Park Reserve have the world’s greatest climb?

Norwegian said the new agreement should serve as a model for other Indigenous groups thinking of protecting areas.

“If various First Nations across Canada are looking at protecting or creating parks, don’t settle for anything less than what Nahanni Butte has settled for,” Norwegian said at a press conference in the community on Friday.

“Don’t settle for anything less. Make sure that you have joint authority, joint control over the land.”