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

Inside the hard work of implementing Indigenous protected areas


A new report outlines the realities of implementing Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs), including common challenges and foundations for success.

The research, conducted by the MakeWay Foundation and the Firelight Group, was based on conversations with representatives from five IPCAs, including three in the Northwest Territories and one in Nunavut.

IPCAs are lands and waters where Indigenous governments or organizations have a lead role in managing and conserving ecological and cultural values. They protect Indigenous rights and reflect Indigenous laws and traditions.

Edéhzhíe, in the NWT’s Dehcho region, became Canada’s first Indigenous protected area in 2018. Since then, Indigenous-led conservation has been gaining traction, with the Narwhal reporting that IPCAs extending to roughly 500,000 square kilometres had been proposed across Canada as of 2022.



Yet establishing an IPCA can take decades.

For example, talks about Thaidene Nëné in the East Arm of Great Slave Lake started 50 years before an agreement was signed.

The paperwork and negotiations to set up IPCAs are “a lot of hard work,” said Steve Ellis, who leads MakeWay’s programs in northern Canada, in a Tuesday webinar about the new report.

“But actually,” Ellis said, “the real rubber hit the road when these places were established formally.”



The new report, published online in April, builds on a 2020 report by the same group that covered best practices for negotiating IPCAs.

Huge administrative burden

In 2022, MakeWay and Firelight conducted nine interviews with representatives from five IPCAs – Ts’udé Nilįné Tuyeta, Edéhzhíe and Thaidene Nëné in the Northwest Territories, Tallurutiup Imanga in Nunavut and Torngat Mountains in Labrador.

The interviews were followed by a two-day workshop to discuss the findings.

Members of the Ni Hat'ni Dene crew perform surveys in the Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve
Members of the Ni Hat’ni Dene crew perform surveys in the Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve. Photo: Submitted

One of the takeaways from the research is that implementing IPCAs requires a variety of dedicated staff. People are needed to complete administrative tasks and on-the-land work. There are also capacity needs related to planning, policy-making, management, communications and other roles.

In Tuesday’s webinar, Iris Catholique – who manages Thaidene Nëné on behalf of the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation – said she wishes she had known from the start how much work, capacity and commitment would be needed to implement the agreement.

“I probably would have fought for some more administrative support in the beginning, instead of having to do 10 jobs all at the same time,” she said.

Neil Kigutak, senior Inuit stewardship manager of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, echoed Catholique’s statement. Kigutak oversees the Tallurutiup Imanga Inuit impact benefit agreement for the association.

Addressing Catholique, he said: “You and I are taking on the daunting work of building something that wasn’t there and creating new policies, procedures, co-management boards, subsequent management boards and committees, working groups, and the list goes on.”



 He added that he gets roughly 80 new emails on a good day, and 200 on a bad day.

“The administrative burden is very, very high,” he said.

Challenges and successes

Besides the need for dedicated staff, the new report highlights several challenges communities have faced in implementing IPCAs.

A lack of long-term, consistent and flexible funding was one of the major hurdles mentioned by interviewees. While some said they had enough funding, others said their arrangements were not adequate or flexible enough to need their needs.

The report states some contribution agreements do not allow for funds to be reallocated after programs are built, when partners have a better understanding of where money is needed. These agreements might also have onerous reporting requirements, which can take time and resources away from other work.

In the webinar, Catholique said one of the trickiest parts is actually knowing the full detail of agreements made with public governments and other signatories.

“You have to know those agreements in and out,” she said. “We’re always reminding the parties, and even government officials, of the promises that were made.”

Daniel Masuzumi Sr – executive director of the K’ahsho Got’ine Foundation, the management arm for Ts’udé Nilįné Tuyeta – said some challenges he has faced surround building capacity in the community and infrastructure. He added the community’s partnership with the GNWT can be tricky to manage.



Aurora over Ts’udé Nilįné Tuyeta, the NWT’s newest protected area. Photo: Pat Kane

“We always have to trust our partner that what we ask for is going to be done in good spirit,” he said. “Sometimes, it may turn against us.”

According to the report, some Indigenous governments and organizations entered into IPCA agreements despite believing that public governments would break their promises. Nonetheless, they saw IPCAs as an opportunity to protect ecological and cultural values.

In line with the purpose of an IPCA – to protect Indigenous values and relationships to the land – the report’s authors say a foundation for success is to focus on Indigenous connection.

The authors also stress the importance of a common understanding of the agreement, communication between parties, and patience.

Asked in the webinar about their biggest successes and sources of strength, Masuzumi, Kigutak and Catholique spoke about the strength of their teams, their ability to overcome problems, and their success in gaining the flexibility to build programs and policies that work for communities.

Catholique said that people as young as 12 to 15 years old often ask her how to become a Guardian or when the next youth-Elder camp will take place.

To see young people wanting to be involved is amazing, she said. “I know I’m doing something right.”