Skip to main content

The Narwhal | Explainer

November 30, 2022 | Stephanie Wood

Against the backdrop of the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history, Canada is hosting COP15, a pivotal global biodiversity summit. Here’s how Indigenous-led conservation is bringing much-needed ambition and hope to the negotiations

Though they make up only five per cent of the world’s population, Indigenous Peoples steward 80 per cent of the planet’s remaining biodiversity. As leaders come together at COP15 to try to halt the worsening biodiversity crisis, Indigenous-led conservation will be key to meeting targets and saving the planet, experts say. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Next week, thousands of delegates from around the world will gather for the United Nations biodiversity conference, COP15, in Montreal on Kanien’kéha territory. Their goal is to sign an agreement to try to stop the biodiversity crisis in its tracks. But that can’t be done without true recognition of the important role of Indigenous Peoples, explained Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

“We’re kicking ass when it comes to conservation,” Courtois told The Narwhal.

And going into COP15, the political landscape is very different for Indigenous Peoples than it was the last time a global biodiversity agreement was signed more than 10 years ago.

Communities have been building up land guardian programs to steward their territories, fighting for acknowledgment of inherent rights in court, establishing protected areas and tribal parks and pursuing other conservation projects to protect land, waters and non-human relatives.

Meanwhile, scientists warn biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate as humans destroy habitats and pump carbon pollution into the atmosphere. There are 685 species listed under Canada’s Species At Risk Act, and that still doesn’t paint a full picture — there are more species disappearing that are not listed under the act, like Thompson and Chilcotin steelhead in the Fraser River.

The stakes for this global biodiversity conference are high. While countries don’t have a great track record for keeping their conservation commitments, Indigenous Peoples do. Making up only five per cent of the world’s population — and often persecuted by colonial states and displaced from their lands — Indigenous Peoples steward 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. About 90 per cent of protected areas established in Canada in the past two decades have been established as a result of Indigenous partnerships or Indigenous leadership, according to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

There’s an opportunity to centre Indigenous-led conservation at COP15 and assert Indigenous Peoples’ place as the world’s most effective stewards, Courtois, who is a member of the Ilnu community of Mashteuiatsh, said.

“There has been momentum,” she said. “I think that combination of the recognition of Indigenous Rights, reconciliation, the advancement of nationhood and the crisis that we’re under as a planet … those are all things that help people realize that there’s a better way.”

Byron Charlie, an Ahousaht First Nation guardian, on the water in the Clayoquot Sound, near Tofino. Guardians patrol, monitor and steward the land. There are 120 guardians programs across Canada. Photo: Melissa Renwick / The Narwhal

The generation of land back

Public awareness of colonization and Indigenous history in Canada has shifted vastly since the last agreement was made in 2010.

The grassroots Idle No More movement took off in 2012. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission published its final report in 2015, which introduced many Canadians for the first time to the full extent of abuse at residential schools and how those effects continue to impact people today. (More than five years later, the federal government has only completed eight of the 94 Calls to Action in the report, according to the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led research centre at Toronto Metropolitan University.)

In 2018, Canada commissioned an Indigenous Circle of Experts to explore how Indigenous-led conservation could help Canada reach its conservation goals, while strengthening the country’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples. The circle of experts’ final report outlined Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, more commonly called IPCAs, in which Indigenous Peoples lead the protection of that area in accordance with their laws and values.

Tla-o-qui-aht declared all of its territory to be tribal parks between 1984 and 2014. The parks are stewarded by the nation’s guardians including Terry Dorward, project coordinator for Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks. Photo: Stephanie Wood / The Narwhal

Also in 2019, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released its final report. It concluded persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses amounted to genocide — which was met with pearl-clutching from some non-Indigenous people.

That same year, British Columbia introduced its legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Canada went from flat-out opposing the declaration in 2007, to introducing its own UNDRIP legislation in 2021.

Also in 2021, Tk’emlups te Secwepemc announced the recovery of 215 children in unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School. Just days later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally accepted the 2019 inquiry’s conclusion that human rights abuses against Indigenous people amounted to genocide, two years after it was published.

So much foot dragging, so much resistance — and at the same time, so much movement.

“In terms of what’s changed, I think it’s the idea of what’s possible,” Breanne Lavallée-Heckert, research manager for Indigenous Climate Action, said in an interview.

“Indigenous young people, we’re part of this generation that get to be part of a land back conversation, when our grandparents, parents, were in residential schools. How wild of a difference that is,” Lavallée-Heckert, whose Michif family is from the Métis community of St. Ambroise, Man., said.

“What a gift that is, and to be able to share that not just with each other, but with the rest of the world.”

Breanne Lavallée-Heckert with Indigenous Climate Action said she gets her hope from Indigenous youth, who are dedicated to protecting their lands, and are growing up talking about land back. Here, Nisg̱a’a youth at a three-day Oolichan camp learn about traditional practices. Photo: Marty Clemens / The Narwhal

The United Nations convention on biodiversity includes language around upholding Indigenous knowledge about the natural world and Indigenous Peoples in Canada are in an opportune position to really see what possibility that holds, Lavallée-Heckert said. She said they have a responsibility to “disrupt” status quo negotiations and push for more.

For Courtois, Indigenous Peoples and Canada are at a turning point.

“There is a bit of recognition, a reckoning in the country, around all the wrongs of the past, and thinking forward towards what a future relationship should look like,” she said.

To her, that means moving away from a paternalistic dynamic of the federal government controlling funding as programs, like an “allowance,” to true nation-to-nation relations.

“You don’t fund the U.S. as a ‘program,’ you fund exchanges with the U.S. as a partnership,” she said. “We’re done with programs. We deserve a genuine nation-to-nation approach to our relationship.”

Making space for Indigenous-led conservation at COP15

It’s in this context that Courtois and other Indigenous leaders will be walking into COP15: ready to assert themselves, and riding momentum in many ongoing assertions of sovereignty. In many ways it seems like a powerful wave, accumulating height and force and pushing forward. There are over 120 guardian programs across Canada, four times as many as there were five years ago. Three First Nations have unilaterally declared Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas in B.C. in the past two years: the Gitanyow and the Kitaasoo Xai’xais up north, and the Mamalilikulla on the southern coast.

“These Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas are not going away. They are the thing of the future,” Mamalilikulla elected Chief Councillor John Powell told The Narwhal.

Chief Councillor John Powell said establishing the Mamalilikulla Indigenous protected area is “just the beginning” of reclaiming stewardship in their territory. Mamalilikulla citizens celebrated the establishment of the protected area in May, which was the first time many of them visited that part of their territory. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

While Canada has a history of not meeting its climate and biodiversity commitments, that could change if it threw its full weight behind Indigenous-led conservation, Courtois argued.

At the last major biodiversity conference in 2010, countries agreed to cut the rate of habitat loss by one-half, and conserve 17 per cent of land and inland waters and 10 per cent of oceans by 2020.

Canada only met the goal to protect 10 per cent of oceans, and no country met all the targets. Since then, Canada committed to protect 25 per cent of and water by 2025, but it currently protects just 13.5 per cent of land and 13.9 per cent of water. That means Canada needs to roughly double its protections in two years.

Its full commitment is to protect 30 per cent of land and water by 2030. Canada and the other G7 countries have also committed to halt biodiversity loss by 2030.

Given the state of the world and the commitments the country has made, Courtois believes Canada has an obligation to support and fund Indigenous-led conservation initiatives, and an opportunity to set an example on the global stage.

Valérie Courtois said Canada has a responsibility to provide core funding to Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas to meet its conservation targets. Photo: Nadya Kwandibens

Trudeau’s Liberal government has made historic investments in Indigenous conservation, starting with $25 million dedicated to Indigenous Guardians programs in 2017. In 2021, it announced $340 million in funding over five years to support Indigenous-led conservation through guardians programs and Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areass. But it’s still only a kernel of what’s needed, Courtois said.

“[If] Canada financed the ambitions of First Nations, we’d far surpass any other country globally both in conservation achievements, but also the role of Indigenous Peoples,” she said.

There are 500,000 square kilometres of proposed Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas in Canada. If all these proposals came to be, that would protect about five per cent of the colonial state’s boundaries, and the thousands of animals and plants within those lands and waters. And Indigenous Peoples hold intimate knowledge of those lands and creatures.

“We actually do know what we’re talking about,” Gillian Staveley, director at Dena Kayeh Institute and member of the Kaska Dena, said with an exasperated laugh. The Kaska Dena have proposed an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area called Dene K’éh Kusān, which received $587,500 from the federal government in 2019, under the Pathway to Canada Target 1 Challenge, which funds projects that can help Canada meet its 25 by 25 goal. The protected area would encompass four per cent of B.C. The province has been slow to support the project, though she said that is slowly changing.

Saulteau First Nations and West Moberly First Nations guardians care for caribou at a maternity enclosure near Hudson’s Hope, B.C. Caribou herds have experienced dramatic declines in B.C., and hold significant relationships with First Nations. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal

Staveley said United Nations conferences can provide an opportunity to show how effective and important Indigenous stewardship is on a global stage.

“If we’re going to start trusting Indigenous leadership to show us the way, and allow us to advance our visions for the people and the land, then we’ll see real outcomes coming from COP15. But I think a lot of us are just kind of waiting to see if that’s going to happen or not,” she said.

“I really hope that Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and land guardians are a big part of the conversation, because, for me, it is the most important example of what we can do in Canada.”

Gillian Staveley, a Kaska Dena member who is working on the establishment of the Dene K’éh Kusān protected area, surveys a wildfire with the Kaska land guardians. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Staveley said her goal in sharing Kaska Dena’s story is “bringing people in” and showing them “there’s so much we can do together.”

“If we can find a way to do that on a global stage at COP, then I’ve got a lot of faith,” she said.

COP15: If we lose biodiversity ‘we lose the diversity of who we are as people’

There are still challenges in attending United Nations events like COP15. These conferences are colonial spaces that centre the authority of non-Indigenous governments — but Indigenous Peoples still always find a way to make space, Lavallée-Heckert said.

Lavallée-Heckert was at the recent United Nations climate conference in Egypt and said there was a designated area people were supposed to smudge. But she and a group of Indigenous folks wanted to hold ceremony without having to walk all the way to that designated area. They didn’t have a smudge bowl, so they used a tiny Indigenous Climate Action souvenir pin as a bowl and a Lactase bottle as a rattle. They sang and smudged where they stood, making a circle where there was no space for circles, she explained.

“That’s where the hope comes from. Even though we were in a really colonial space, we still were able to have ceremony our own way, whatever that looks like,” she said.

That hope is a big reason why she attends these conferences, and “solidarity and peace with Indigenous Peoples all over the world.”

“We still show up there and we still exercise our sovereignty amongst each other,” she said. “It’s almost like a piece of resistance in those spaces.”

Mark Cleveland, head fisheries biologist with the Gitanyow Fisheries Authority, pilots the Lax Yip Protector research vessel on Strohn Creek. The creek is part of the 54,000-hectare protected area the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs declared, tired of waiting for approval from the B.C. government. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal

Another reason she wants to attend these conferences is holding Canada accountable for its action at home and abroad, especially since Canada wants to be a “leader in those spaces,” she said. She wants to add context to Canada’s international reputation, pointing out Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples, and its extraction at home in addition to Canadian mining corporations’ extraction abroad.

And, she wants to bring Indigenous worldviews into these negotiations. To Lavallée-Heckert, biodiversity isn’t simply a scientific term for a bunch of species, and it shouldn’t be thought of that way when establishing targets and policies.

Biodiversity is “a diversity of relationships with the natural world,” she explained.

“We are all part of the land. We are all made up of water. We all require trees to breathe. We require animals to clothe and feed us. That’s all life. That’s all biodiversity.”

“Without that diversity, we lose the diversity of who we are as people.”