Private donors and Indigenous leaders continue funding talks

Last modified: October 25, 2022 at 2:01pm


A working group met at the Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife last week to discuss plans around Project Finance for Permanence (PFP), a conservation model that would pair private investors with governments to protect NWT land and water.

Representatives from non-profits, the GNWT, the federal government, the Gwich’in Tribal Council, the Inuvialuit Corporation, the Sahtu Secretariat, the Tłı̨chǫ Government, and a number of other Nations were in attendance to discuss the partnership and listen to speakers.

Since the potential PFP was first announced in May, a US-based NGO called the Pew Charitable Trusts has continued reaching out to potential American investors.

First established by J. Howard Pew, who founded petroleum company Sunoco LLP, the Pew Charitable Trusts have been supporting Indigenous-led conservation projects in Canada for over 20 years. They have also worked to set up other successful PFP conversation projects in Costa Rica and Brazil.

At the same time, two Canadian organizations — Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI) and the International Boreal Conservation Campaign (IBCC) — have begun reaching out to potential private donors closer to home.

Proponents hope the PFP will help to establish long-term funding support for Indigenous-led conservation as well as economic development. Projects on the table include land use planning, land stewardship programming and health and wellness initiatives.

“We’ve been engaging with Indigenous governments in the NWT since last fall and through the winter months,” said Dahti Tsetso, deputy director at ILI.

“And since the spring, we’ve initiated a working group process to kick off the exploration of this idea. We put forward a fairly ambitious timeline to have the PFP established by mid-2023, but of course, we want to do this right, we don’t want to rush.”

Since Cabin Radio first covered the kickoff event in May, there have been three more meetings to discuss PFP funding over the summer.

Decades in the making

Herb Norwegian, Dehcho Grand Chief, who was also in attendance, has been involved with the IBCC for years.

“They’ve existed for almost 20 years now, and their role has always been to bring together various First Nations across the country,” said Norwegian.

Norwegian remembers that at first, it just a small group, but as recognizable names in the NGO community became involved, such as Monte Hummel, former president of WWF Canada, it grew. They invited Norwegian to meet with them in the early 2000s.

In a room packed with conservation enthusiasts, Norwegian unveiled the Dehcho First Nation’s ambitious plan to protect 50% of their traditional territory – an area more than twice the size of Banff National Park.

Earlier that year, Norwegian had been approached by a group of Elders who were concerned there was too much focus on protecting the land, and not enough on water. He made water the focus of his presentation to possible donors at the event, which was hosted by the IBCC. After his talk, some questioned whether protecting water was outside the mandate of boreal conservation and, according to Norwegian, there didn’t seem to be much interest in the idea. He left.

But within half an hour, he got a call in his hotel room. A US-based non-profit called the Wyss Foundation was willing to hear more.

“Bringing together land and water… it was totally new to them,” said Norwegian. “And from there, the relationship just took off.”

The foundation ended up pledging $750,000 toward what is now the Edéhzhíe national wildlife area and protected area.

Norwegian says he hopes to see continued support for Dehcho projects through the PFP.

What’s next?

Ashley Menicoche, Edéhzhíe regional coordinator, was appointed to sit in on the meetings as a Dehcho representative.

One of the proposed outcomes of the funding would be to expand the Edéhzhíe guardianship program, the First Nation-led stewardship initiative.

“Edéhzhíe is a very large protected area,” said Menicoche. “Fourteen thousand square hectares of land. We have four communities, and each community only has two guardians. That’s a lot of land for them to monitor with few resources.”

A forest inside the Edéhzhíe Protected Area
A forest inside the Edéhzhíe Protected Area. Photo: Amélie Roberto-Charron

Menicoche says cost of fuel and food and inflation has factored into the strain.

But even more importantly, she wants to ensure the guardian program has continuity.

“I’d like to see us training the guardians a little big younger,” Menicoche said. “While they’re in school, on summer vacation. A lot of our Elders are taking their knowledge with them when they pass and there is not enough of a connection between Elders and youth in many areas.

“I would love to see a junior guardianship program happen, strengthening the ties to our language, bringing the youth and the Elders together, creating infrastructure that will serve generations for years to come. I’m nervous, I’m excited, hopefully it’s good things for the future with this NWT PFP.”

During the event, there was also talk of expanding the guardianship program beyond Edéhzhíe.

“There’s a massive push to get these guardians in place across Canada,” said Norwegian. “There have been discussions about setting up a major institution just to train guardians.”

While Indigenous-led conservation projects are already growing and gaining momentum across the territory, Norwegian says there is potential for a more unified national guardianship program in Canada, such as Australia’s Working on Country.

Is Menicoche concerned that American donors will want a say in the NWT?

“That’s a tough one,” she said. “But when our friends from the States come up and talk about these dollars, show us plans from Bhutan, Australia, at the end of the day, they’ve come a long way to sit among us, listen and share. It’s about building that partnership, that collaboration, together. Without any mountains between us. Hopefully our visitors from the south are coming with open hearts, clean minds, clean hands, and are really committed to working with us on a brighter future.”

For her part, Tsetso believes there is tremendous potential in the project, and that the conversations and pledges made last week could bring about significant positive change in the NWT.

“It could have such a transformational impact in creating a really bright and hopeful future for the North,” Tsetso said. “The impact it has on our communities when we honour Indigenous leadership, the healing and the connection it promotes when we honour Indigenous knowledge, it’s immense. I believe it could be the most important outcome of the project.”