The area around the NWT’s Great Bear Lake is set to become an Indigenous protected area under the terms of an agreement announced on Saturday.
A letter of intent states governments will work together to create a Sahtú K’aowe Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area around the lake and find long-term conservation funding for it.
The letter is signed by the Délı̨nę Got’ı̨nę Government and the territorial and federal governments. Saturday’s announcement came at the COP15 biodiversity conference in Montreal.
Great Bear Lake, or Tsá Tué, is the world’s eighth-largest freshwater lake yet has only one community on its shores: Délı̨nę, home to just over 500 people.
“My people have lived at the shores of this lake since time immemorial,” stated Danny Gaudet, the community’s Ɂek’wahtı̨dǝ́ or chief, in a news release. “After decades of work, we can finally take a meaningful step forward in leading efforts to care for and steward this lake and our homelands.”
The exact boundaries of the new protected area and a precise timeline for its creation were not immediately available.
However, the Délı̨nę Got’ı̨nę Government said the three governments expect to include the entire lake – amounting to 0.3 percent of Canada – in the country’s protected and conserved areas database, which means counting it toward the federal target of protecting 25 percent of Canada’s land and fresh water by 2025.
The federal government said Saturday’s letter of intent was “an important first step” toward creating a protected area around Great Bear Lake.
The phrase Sahtú K’aowe (Sah-tu K’AH-oh-way, phonetically, as pronounced by Gaudet) means “the lake is the boss” in the Sahtúgot’ı̨nę language, Gaudet said.
The lake is already an international biosphere reserve, meaning an area considered by UN cultural body Unesco to be a sustainability hotspot where communities have maintained a relatively pristine landscape.
Turning it into an Indigenous protected area will “support active stewardship of the Great Bear Lake watershed within the Délı̨nę district, led by Indigenous values,” the Délı̨nę Got’ı̨nę Government stated.
The community said it expected to achieve that goal with the help of private funding – a model known as project finance for permanence, or PFP, that has gained momentum in the past year.
The federal government recently announced $800 million for up to four PFP conservation initiatives, one of which is expected in the Northwest Territories. While the details of that initiative in the NWT are not at all clear, Ottawa on Saturday appeared to suggest protecting Great Bear Lake could qualify for some of that funding.
More: How could privately funded conservation work in the NWT?
Saturday’s announcement, the community stated, marked a major milestone in a “decades-long journey to protect Tsá Tué and to be recognized as knowledge holders and stewards” of its lands and waters.
Speaking from Délı̨nę by video link, Gaudet said his government would work with other partners to “make sure we are able to manage this area for the long term.” Drummers in Délı̨nę played via Zoom as politicians in Montreal signed the letter of intent.
Federal environment minister Steven Guilbeault, in Montreal, noted Great Bear Lake is the largest lake contained entirely within Canada.
“Today’s announcement brings me hope that we can halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity by working together … in a way that walks the path of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples,” Guilbeault concluded.
Shane Thompson, the NWT’s environment minister, said “meaningful jobs” would be created in the process of setting up and maintaining a protected area.
“We stand together to support Sahtú K’aowe,” Thompson said.