Environment

Thaidene Nëné signing: Land of the Ancestors gains life, at last

A new park for the Northwest Territories, 50 years in the making, rises off Great Slave Lake's East Arm on Wednesday as leaders sign the final documents heralding its creation.

Thaidene Nëné – or Land of Our Ancestors – comes into being as Dene, Métis, federal, and territorial representatives gather in Łutselkʼe, the park's southwestern gateway.

Celebrated by the Łutselkʼe Dene as a "historic new partnership between Indigenous and public governments," the agreement is designed to protect 26,376 square kilometres of land through a combination of federal, territorial, and Dene law.

Advertisement.

This is a critical step toward ensuring our way of life can be maintained and shared with all Canadians.

CHIEF DARRYL MARLOWE, Łutselkʼe Dene

At the same time, local communities hope Thaidene Nëné will become a "permanent diamond mine" of government investment and tourism revenue.

Industry leaders feel such a large region, covering areas that could have been mined, may be even more valuable if development were allowed.

However, those arguments now lost, Wednesday's events will focus on the park's future and its meaning to both nearby communities and the North as a whole.

Advertisement.

Parks Canada expects Thaidene Nëné to immediately become the most-visited of its 15 northern parks.

The federal government is responsible for 14,000 square kilometres of national park reserve at Thaidene Nëné's core; a further 12,000 square kilometres to the north, west, and south form territorial protected and conservation areas.

The 9,000 square-kilometre protected area is permanent, has the NWT's highest level of protection, and no industrial development is allowed. The 3,000 square-kilometre conservation area is governed by less restrictive measures.

Both the federal and territorial governments have been anxious to point out that a large range of activities will continue to be permitted across Thaidene Nëné – from canoeing, snowmobiling, fishing, and camping, to the use of motorboats and float planes.

The Indigenous right to harvest food through hunting, trapping, and fishing remains protected.

'Breathtaking beauty'

For the Łutselkʼe Dene, excitement about Wednesday's announcement extends to both protection of their land and the imminent economic benefits.

"It's going to feel good," said Steven Nitah, the First Nation's chief negotiator for the park.

"The immediate impact will be that we'll be hiring full-time guardians and staff," Nitah told Cabin Radio. "Then there are the tourism impacts. We'll work to promote Thaidene Nëné. People in the community have already started."

For the Łutselkʼe Dene, said Nitah, "Thaidene Nëné represents a new diamond mine every 25 years. Thaidene Nëné will be a permanent diamond mine."

A map provided by the Łutselkʼe Dene First Nation shows the boundaries of Thaidene Nene – the federal national park reserve, the darkest colour, is at the centre, with territorial protected and conservation areas to the north, west, and south.

Parks Canada has promised to spend $40 million on the park in its first 12 years, followed by $3.4 million annually thereafter to fund its operations.

The federal government is also providing the NWT with almost $8 million to establish and operate its side of the park, while Nitah said a $30-million trust fund associated with Thaidene Nëné would provide revenues starting in the 2020-21 financial year.

Shaped by ice

Federal environment minister Catherine McKenna, representing Ottawa at Wednesday's ceremony, said in prepared remarks: "Thaidene Nëné is an area of breathtaking beauty, natural abundance, and immense cultural significance.

McKenna said Thaidene Nëné's creation helped to meet the Liberal government's commitment "to double the amount of nature protected across Canada for today and future generations."

Chief Darryl Marlowe of the Łutselkʼe Dene said protecting Thaidene Nëné was "a decades-long dream and a critical step toward ensuring our way of life can be maintained and shared with all Canadians."

A muskox is seen in what is now Thaidene Nëné. Pat Kane/Łutselkʼe Dene First Nation

The East Arm of Great Slave Lake. Jeff Hipfner/NWT Tourism

Parks Canada said its portion of Thaidene Nëné will remain a national park reserve – in other words, technically a proposed national park – until land claims with the Akaitcho Dene First Nations and the Northwest Territory Métis Nation have been settled. The North Slave Métis Alliance also asserts rights in the area.

All groups involved in creating the park will sit on a co-management board to oversee its operations.

The reserve will cover areas like Artillery Lake, a portion of the East Arm's Christie Bay, parts of Eileen and Whitefish lakes, the Lockhart River, most of the Snowdrift River, and Fort Reliance.

The reserve and adjacent territorial park together harbour cliffs, islands, waterfalls, and peninsulas shaped in part by ice sheets of eons past.

The area is considered culturally important as both a traditional and present-day hunting, fishing, and gathering ground for Indigenous peoples.

Wildlife like wolves and bears can be found on the land of Thaidene Nëné, which transitions from boreal forest to tundra, while the park provides important habitat for waterfowl and birds of prey.

First imagined in 1970

Organizations large and small celebrated the completion of a half-century-long process on Wednesday.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada, or NCC, announced it had "contributed in a small way" by purchasing a small, private land holding, less than a hectare in size, that would otherwise have been marooned within the national park reserve.

Cliffs of the Pethei Peninsula in Thaidene Nëné. Pat Kane/Łutselkʼe Dene First Nation

"Working with partners and a willing landowner, NCC was able to purchase the outstanding piece of land to ensure it would never become subject to incompatible land uses that could threaten the ecological integrity of the larger park reserve," the charity declared. The property has been transferred from NCC to Parks Canada.

Nature United, which has contributed to the Thaidene Nëné trust fund, said the park's creation provided a "precedent-setting approach to Indigenous co-governance."

The federal government first contemplated a national park in the area in 1970, only for plans to be rejected several times by Dene leaders concerned about the impact on harvesting.

By the year 2000, Chief Felix Lockhart had become sufficiently concerned about the area's land and wildlife that he initiated renewed discussions with Parks Canada, according to a Łutselkʼe Dene First Nation briefing document.

Thaidene Nëné began to be called by that name in 2004 and formal negotiations began in 2010.

"It is one of the most, if not the most, progressive establishment agreements in Canada and globally," said Nitah of the finished agreement, almost 10 years later.

"This is something that Łutselkʼe as a community, and Canada, along with the GNWT, should be very proud of.

"We should celebrate this. It is an international standard."

Advertisement.