Eyes on the Ground

Indigenous-led Guardians programs empower communities to manage ancestral lands according to traditional laws and values.

Guardians are employed as the “eyes on the ground” in Indigenous territories. They monitor ecological health, maintain cultural sites and protect sensitive areas and species. They play a vital role in creating land-use and marine-use plans. And they promote intergenerational sharing of Indigenous knowledge—helping train the next generation of educators, ministers and nation builders. The Indigenous Leadership Initiative is proud to have partnered with Dechinta Bush University in developing the Guardians Pilot Program, a training opportunity focused on core skills guardians need to conduct land use planning and other management projects.

The Indigenous Leadership Initiative is promoting a federally funded, Indigenous-led National Indigenous Guardians Network in Canada that supports development and employment of guardians across the country. This network has generated broad support, including from the Assembly of First Nations which passed a resolution in 2015 calling for a national Guardians program.

The movement to create a National Indigenous Guardians Network gained ground when the government of Canada included an initial investment of $25 million over 5 years in the 2017-2018 federal budget. While this investment will not enable new guardian programs to be established immediately, this seed funding will help develop the national network and prepare Indigenous Nations and communities to launch their own Indigenous Guardians programs.

A Proven Model

ILI draws inspiration from Australia’s Working on Country initiative. Since 2007, the Australian government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Indigenous ranger programs that protect cultural sites, foster biodiversity and manage fire. Research shows that for every $1 invested, ranger programs generate $3 in conservation, health and economic results.

Indigenous Guardians in Canada deliver similar benefits. An analysis of two emerging programs in the Northwest Territories found they create about $2.50 of social, economic, cultural and environmental results for every $1 invested. With support from a national network, researchers projected the value could increase to up to $3.70 for each dollar of investment.

Building on Success

Over 40 Indigenous Nations and communities in Canada have launched Guardians programs, including these three:

  • Lutsel K'e

    Antje Rilk

    Lutsel K’e

    The Dene community of Lutsel K’e in the Northwest Territories launched the Ni Hat’ni Dene (Watching the Land) program in 2008. These guardians help care for millions of acres near Great Slave Lake, including where the community co-created and will co-manage the Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve.

    Researchers have found that the Ni Hat’ni Dene program is delivering significant cultural and conservation benefits.

  • Caribou

    Valerie Courtois


    In Labrador, since 1992, the Innu Nation Environmental Guardians manage all environmental programs on behalf of the Innu of Labrador, including: fisheries, forestry, caribou and mining, notably the Voisey’s Bay Mine—one of the biggest nickel mines on the globe. The Innu Nation Guardians program has been a source of inspiration for other guardian programs in Canada.

  • Flickr.com/bdr.dpcove

    Haida Gwaii

    Off the coast of British Columbia, the Haida Gwaii Watchmen protect the lands and waters of their Nation according to traditional laws. They work on fisheries, forestry and parks, preserve culturally significant sites and share their knowledge with visitors. Their society inspired the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network, connecting eight Indigenous coastal Nations doing similar work.