This photo of people on the water in the region of Thaidene Nëné, provided by the UN Development Program, formed part of the First Nation's nomination.
The Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation (LKDFN) is one of 10 Indigenous communities from around the world to win a 2020 Equator Prize, awarded by the United Nations.
The prize recognizes four decades of effort on the part of the First Nation in establishing Thaidene Nëné, or “Land of Ancestors,” as an Indigenous Protected Area and national park reserve.
Thaidene Nëné spans 26,376 square kilometres of Indigenous land on Great Slave Lake’s East Arm where the boreal forest fades into tundra. Grizzly bears, barren-ground caribou, muskrat, falcons, and 28 different species of fish make their home among natural features like waterfalls, islands, and harbour cliffs.
For Łutsël K’é Chief Darryl Marlowe, it’s a “great honour” to be receiving this global recognition.
“Over the years, there’s been a lot of leaders before me that have worked on this [life-long] dedication by our people, and there was a mandate from my Elders that was given to the leaders before me,” he said.
“I’m just happy and honoured to be a part of this and receiving this Equator Prize.”
It’s the first time a Canadian group has received the honour. The prize, first awarded in 2002, is part of the United Nations Development Program’s Equator Initiative, which highlights Indigenous and local communities who are pioneering new paths to sustainable development and leading with “nature-based solutions.”
Competition was stiff. Łutsël K’é was one of 650 nominees for the prize from 120 countries. With the award only rolling around every other year, it takes a group of 50 adjudicators months to make final decisions.
According to Jamison Ervin, manager of the Equator Initiative, Łutsël K’é “rose to the surface right away.”
A few things stuck out to the committee, Ervin said. First and foremost was the First Nation’s commitment to the project since 1970.
“The original plan was to have the East Arm National Park run by the government,” Ervin said, “in which [the Dene people] would not have their traditional homelands respected as traditional homelands.
“And [Łutsël K’é] stuck with it for 30, 40, 50 years. That’s almost a whole lifetime to have a new model of governance – co-governance with the government – that provides a new model for Canada.”
Since being signed into existence last August, Thaidene Nëné has been breaking new ground in Canada. It is governed jointly through territorial, federal, and Denesoline law, and is one of the first examples of co-governed land tenure in the country.
Alongside LKDFN, the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, Deninu K’ue First Nation, and Yellowknives Dene First Nation have cultural and historical ties to the area.
Indigenous rights to hunt, trap, and fish remain protected in the area so communities can continue to live off the land. Local guides and park rangers educate visitors on Dene and Métis ways of life.
Stewardship of Thaidene Nëné is a “sacred responsibility” passed down by Elders and ancestors for generations, Chief Marlowe said.
“We’re going to be working together, co-managing … and keeping our land, our animals, and our water this pristine and clean,” he said.
After offering the First Nation a heartfelt congratulations on the win, Ervin said showcasing the innovative ways communities are making a difference helps everyone imagine new possibilities for the future.
“[Łutsël K’é] is putting nature in the heart of their development and Canada’s development,” she said. “It shows us a new pathway. We have to decarbonize – you have to put nature at the heart of what we do. And they’re showing the way.”
The NWT’s Covid 19-related border restrictions mean the park hasn’t yet received the number of national and international visitors locals had hoped to see.
However, Marlowe said staff are working tirelessly to prepare for borders opening and visitors flooding in.
In the meantime, the park staff, leaders, and community members have plenty to celebrate. Alongside a $10,000 prize, the First Nation will be honoured in a virtual ceremony in September, which everyone is looking forward to, Marlowe said.
“We’re proud to be Dene, and we’re proud to come from a little community like Łutsël K’é,” Marlowe said.
“We’ve been making a lot of history, if you’d like to say, for ourselves here.”