Our Voices

Antje Rilk

National Guardians Gathering Celebrates Indigenous-led Conservation

Indigenous Guardians are caring for the land across the country. They are restoring animals and plants and managing protected areas. They are combining traditional knowledge and science and bringing youth and elders together. They serve as the “moccasins and mukluks” on the ground for communities, and their work helps conserve clean water and healthy land for all Canadians.

More than 40 Indigenous communities are helping deliver these benefits now, and many more want to start their own programs. A national network can help extend this stewardship. It can also create a new kind of partnership between Indigenous Nations and the Government of Canada.

On March 12 and 13, over 300 guardians, leaders and partners will gather in Vancouver to discuss the next steps in realizing that future. Hosted by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations and Environment and Climate Change Canada, the First Nations Guardians Gathering 2019 will present recommendations for how to expand the network of guardians programs.

This is an exciting time for the network to take shape.

Guardians are at the forefront of a movement—a movement growing up from the land, from elders, from youth—calling for Indigenous leadership on the land. More people recognize that reconnecting with culture, healing from trauma and feeling pride in identity—all of it is rooted in the land. Guardians help foster those connections.

Imagine how vibrant our lands and communities will be when hundreds of guardians programs are launched and thriving.

Advocating for a National Network

The Indigenous Leadership Initiative has been working to spread the impact of Indigenous Guardians. We believe honouring the cultural responsibility to care for the land strengthens communities and provides a powerful expression of nationhood.

Communities that have guardian programs have healthy lands and waters, like the Great Bear Rainforest. They have new protected areas, like Edéhzhíe in the Dehcho First Nation. They have active engagement with development, like the Innu Nation’s monitoring of the largest nickel mine in the world. And they have public health, social and cultural benefits, like in the Lutsel K’e First Nations—and many other communities.

Sustained federal investment in guardians will ensure more Indigenous Nations generate these benefits. The ILI has been advocating for a national network, and the Assembly of First Nations passed a supportive resolution in 2015. Inspired by the power of this vision, Canada’s federal budget 2017 committed $25 million over five years to support a pilot Indigenous Guardians Initiative.

Canada’s investment marks a significant opportunity for reconciliation. Supporting Indigenous Guardians—and honouring Indigenous Nations’ right to manage the land—is a concrete way to put reconciliation into action.

A New Approach to Nation-to-Nation Partnerships

The national guardians network is a chance to create a new way for Indigenous Nations and the Government of Canada to work together on stewardship.

Rather than having the government design and deliver a program to Indigenous Peoples, this process encourages Indigenous and Crown representatives to collaborate as partners.

In September 2018 Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and the ILI created the First Nations-Federal Pilot Joint Working Group for Guardians. It includes eight Indigenous Knowledge Keepers and four federal representatives. At the Vancouver gathering, the Joint Working Group will present suggested criteria for future funding to guardian programs, a training framework and a proposed structure for the national network.

Caring for the Land

The theme of the Vancouver gathering is: “If we take care of the land, it will take care of us.” Guardians across the country have confirmed this. But we know we can do more.

Sustained support for guardians programs will empower more communities. More people will be shaping the future of their nations, and more lands and waters will be managed for the benefit of all.