Koeye River Mouth, British Columbia. Image: Sam Beebe/Wikimedia Commons

Major changes are coming to Canada’s relationship with our First Nations, Métis and Inuit, as the federal government prepares to ask Indigenous peoples to become official stewards of almost all the nation’s undeveloped land.

Following a UN statement last August, the world is quietly inching towards consensus that Indigenous peoples should have stewardship of all unoccupied land — including what is now Crown land in Canada. Implicitly, this move recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of Indigenous peoples’ land claims.  

On the other hand, there’s a practical side too. To reach the Paris Agreement goals, we need somebody to speak loudly and persistently on behalf of nature — something Indigenous people worldwide have been doing for decades.

From the UN Development Program: “There is a growing understanding that Indigenous lands and waters represent 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, that Indigenous peoples are effective stewards of these areas, and that these ecologically intact areas of the earth are a vital strategy for tackling climate change.

“In short, if we are to achieve the Global Goals for sustainable development by 2030, we must recognize, celebrate, advance and safeguard the rights of Indigenous peoples to govern their lands and waters.” The UNDP provides two longstanding successful examples.

There’s “the Manquemapu community in Chile, which is protecting local forests and marine resources from overexploitation…. They also promoted the launch of the Mapu Lahual Community Parks Network — the first Indigenous conservation area in Chile — and successfully lobbied the Chilean congress to designate a marine protected area along the Osorno coast.”

The second is

“the Nguna-Pele Marine and Land Protected Area Network in Vanuatu, an example of a locally managed marine area…..[they] protect iconic turtle species by encouraging traditional turtle hunters to conserve turtles for ecotourism purposes; hunters capture sea turtles alive and, for a fee, allow tourists to tag and release these turtles. As a result, communities have doubled household income, not by harvesting more natural resources but through traditional tabu practices and through ecotourism that protects sea turtle populations and increases fish diversity and abundance….”

The Nature Conservancy calls Indigenous people, “Nature’s First Defenders.” In Canada, it has brokered a deal with the British Columbia and federal governments — and the forestry industry — whereby Heiltsuk people and 26 other First Nations will handle the long-term sustainable management and protection of 19 million acres of the Great Bear Rain Forest National Park.

A major political clue to impending change came when the federal budget allotted an extrordinary $1.3 billion for environmental rehabilitation and protection.  A year or so ago, the Indigenous Leadership Initiative prepared a paper that called on the federal government to provide environmental protection money in the 2017 budget.

The ILI asked for $500 million over five years. They cited Australia, where “evaluators calculated that every dollar invested in their Indigenous Rangers program created at least $3 in social, economic and cultural value.”

Assuming the government does follow the global trend and continue appointing Indigenous communities and companies as environmental stewards — paid environmental stewards — I can only imagine that significant social changes would follow, especially in rural communities.

Overnight, Indigenous people would become environmental enforcers. As First Nations, they would have the authority of the Crown behind them, instead of against them. Say good-bye to the tyrannical, obsolete, Indian Act.

The Liberal’s budget also included substantial funds for rebuilding reserves, including the $411 million for First Nations child welfare — finally fulfilling a 2016 Human Rights Tribunal order won by Indigenous advocate Cindy Blackstock — and $1.5 billion for health care. 

“Budget 2018 includes a total investment of $4.76 billion over five years for Indigenous peoples and communities,” observed Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde. “This represents a running total of $16.6 billion in investments in the past three budgets.”

Of course, as a retired federal civil servant commented about this news, all the billions of the dollars in the world won’t help, if the government department that is supposed to deliver the funds, doesn’t. In the past, there have been some testy relations between First Nations and the old “Department of Indian and Northern Affairs” (DINA).

DINA has been re-organized into Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and its first concern, says the website, is “working to advance reconciliation and renew the relationship with Indigenous peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership.” 

Sometimes change seems glacially slow, especially during the Harper government’s retrograde policies. No amount of money can ever compensate the Indigenous peoples for the European invasion of their territories. Even so, the idea of appointing First Nations to be environmental stewards in the territories they once patrolled, strikes me as divine and poetic justice.

Image: Sam Beebe/Wikimedia Commons

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Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...