A deal between Ottawa and northern aboriginal people has put 3.3 million hectares of canyons, waterfalls, forest and tundra in the Northwest Territories firmly on the road to becoming Canada's next national park.

"The integrity of the ecosystem is what we're interested in protecting," said Steve Nitah, chief of the Lutsel K'e Dene, who signed the agreement Wednesday with Environment Minister Jim Prentice. "Our culture, our language and our spirituality is connected to the land and the integrity of the land is directly connected to our people's future."

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Environment Minister Jim Prentice, left, signs a framework agreement on the east arm of Great Slave Lake with Chief Steve Nitah of the Lutsel K'e Dene on Wednesday in Calgary. ((Parks Canada/Canadian Press))

The agreement commits the federal government and local Dene to negotiate the creation of a national park off the east arm of Great Slave Lake. It's an essential step on a path that began in 1969 when the area was first identified as worth conserving.

In 2007, the Thaidene Nene region became part of 10 million hectares around Great Slave Lake protected by Ottawa from resource development. The area had come under heavy development pressure, especially from uranium and gold exploration.

'It's been used by the people of Lutsel K'e for millennia. It sustains our culture and our spirituality.' —Steve Nitah, chief of the Lutsel K'e Dene

Lutsel K'e and the federal government will now sit down to work out boundaries, as well as agreements to ensure local people share in job opportunities and economic benefits.

"What we do at this point is we do a proper assessment of all of the alternative economic potential of the area, including mineral resources, before we define the final park boundaries," Prentice said. "There's a fair bit of flexibility in terms of what the final boundaries will look like."

However, the people of Lutsel K'e have rejected previous attempts at mineral development when exploration permits came up at regulatory hearings.

Nitah said he expects the next round of talks to take about two years.

Thaidene Nene, which means "land of our ancestors," is an area of spectacular shoreline and islands. Dramatic waterfalls and canyons occur along the rivers flowing into the lake. The land bridges the northern boreal forest and barren-ground tundra. It is home to moose, caribou, wolves, wolverines and owls.

"There are such incredibly beautiful places up there," said Prentice, who added he plans to canoe in the area this summer. But more than that, Thaidene Nene is central to the heart of the Dene.

"It's been used by the people of Lutsel K'e for millennia," said Nitah. "It sustains our culture and our spirituality.

"With the increase in resource interests in the whole of the territory, the people of Lutsel K'e wanted to protect this area for their future use and to share with Canadians and the world."

Environmentalists welcomed the news.

'This truly is conservation on a continental scale.' —Monte Hummel, World Wildlife Fund

"It's wonderful to see it moving along," said Monte Hummel of the World Wildlife Fund, which has been working on the project for years.

Hummel pointed out that, together with previously protected land, Thaidene Nene is part of a near-continuous conservation belt that stretches from Wood Buffalo National Park on the N.W.T.-Alberta boundary along both sides of Great Slave Lake up to the Thelon Game Sanctuary in central Nunavut.

"This truly is conservation on a continental scale."

Prentice said that although his government's environmental policies are often criticized, it has increased the amount of wild land under protection by 30 per cent over the last four years.

"The conservation achievements of our government have been really exceptional and I know they will be recognized in the future by Canadians and historians."