Nearly 50 years since Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve was first proposed, co-management partners are still unsure of when the park will officially open.

While the planned park’s many moving pieces are beginning to settle into place, a set opening date partly depends on an establishment agreement being approved by all parties.

The park will be co-managed by the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation, the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, and Parks Canada; while other Akaitcho First Nations and the Tłı̨chǫ Government will consult on management decisions.

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Located in the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, stretching northeast from the farthest reaches of the boreal forest into the southern tundra, the 14,000 km2 park – first proposed in 1970 – is just over half the size of the lake it straddles.

The gateway to the park is the fly-in community of Łutsel K’e, home of the Łutsel K’e Denesoline, population 300. It’s a 45-minute flight from Yellowknife, but some people choose to skidoo and boat across the lake instead when the weather allows.

“Based on consultations and a desire to respect northern traditions, Thaidene Nene will be a national park reserve where visitors can enjoy activities such as: fishing, camping, hiking, skiing, canoeing, kayaking, motor boating, sailing, berry picking, collecting wood and building campfires,” wrote a Parks Canada spokesperson, adding entry fees will not be charged.

Lee Montgomery, who works for Parks Canada in the Protected Areas Establishment Branch, explained the proposed national park is currently protected by yearly interim land withdrawals – a way to protect the land from mineral development, which would erase its eligibility to become a park – while the remaining logistics are sorted.

In the past, interim land withdrawals were set for longer periods. As the process nears completion, partners want to ensure the eventual transition does not take any additional time.

Once the park is open to the public, alongside a neighbouring 12,000 km2 territorial protected area and wilderness management area, the remaining land from the total study area – a sizeable 7,500 km2 – will once again become Crown land.

In an email, Parks Canada’s spokesperson said this remaining land excluded from protection was an area “of high mineral potential which will be open for mineral exploration and development.”

Montgomery cited numerous reasons the park has taken longer than expected to open: consultation agreements with the Akaitcho, Tłı̨chǫ, and Métis peoples need to be fulfilled, land claims need to be settled, and revisions to the Canada National Parks Act need to pass three readings in the House and Senate.

In addition, following devolution of the Northwest Territories’ land and resources in 2014, land transfer negotiations further complicated the process.

Thaidene Nene Trust

While Cabin Radio could not reach the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation, online they state: “Implementing our responsibility in Thaidene Nene will require significant revenue. To this end, we have created the Thaidene Nene Trust. Now we are working to secure capital and protect it over the long term. We will use the interest to support priority programs within Thaidene Nene.”

Priorities including funding positions and training Indigenous staff to manage and operate the park, supporting tourism, and promoting Dene culture and traditions.

Thaidene Nene, which translates in Chipewyan to Land of the Ancestors from Denesoline, is seen by the local community as its responsibility to protect: from the land, to the water, to the wildlife, to local culture.

“What we are doing is unique, but it is also part of a growing trend across Canada where First Nations are forming effective and innovative partnerships to foster conservation, sustainable livelihoods, and Indigenous self-determination,” the First Nation’s website reads.

“This model will result in lower government and taxpayer costs for operations and management in the long run, as the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation will assume increasing fiscal responsibility for Thaidene Nene.”

“Łutsel K’e has raised a significant amount of money … they’re going to be in essence funding Łutsel K’e operations within the park,” said Montgomery, adding the federal government plans to match the amount raised.

The trust will fund things like the already-active Ni Hat’ni Dene (Dene Watchers of the Land) Indigenous guardian program, which began in 2008, as well as other cultural programs, when the park finally opens.

“Harvesting practices should not be affected without being accommodated”

Meanwhile, at the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, President Garry Bailey said, “We’re not even in support of [the park] yet until we see a final deal.”

The co-management partner has reason to be cautious: Bailey explained Parks has a history of negative relations with the Métis, and the creation of Thaidene Nene will subtract land from their ongoing land claims.

While some may see the process as taking a long time, Bailey feels things are moving quickly.

“When Canada wants something they work fast, but when it’s to our benefit, well, it’s been 22 years now that they’ve been negotiating the land claims,” he said.

“They’ve got to recognize our rights … our hunting, fishing, and harvesting practices should not be affected without being accommodated.”

Bailey said the park requires the full support of the Métis Nation to move forward.