Indigenous

Australia's Indigenous 'guardians' program finding favour in Ottawa

An experiment that has won favour in Australia is gathering steam in Ottawa as the federal government scrambles to live up to its promise to help despairing Aboriginal Peoples.

National program would allow Indigenous communities to monitor land and maintain culture

Senator Murray Sinclair met with members of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative on Wednesday to discuss Australia's guardians program. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

An experiment that has won favour in Australia is gathering steam in Ottawa as the federal government scrambles to live up to its promise to help Aboriginal Peoples.

Members of a Canadian team called the Indigenous Leadership Initiative are proposing a national "guardians program" that would allow people in Indigenous communities to monitor the land, preserve wildlife and maintain their culture.

They say the program could be structured to allow Indigenous youth to learn about cultural traditions and nurturing the environment from their elders.

The team has secured nearly two dozen meetings with some of Ottawa's most powerful players this week, including coveted face time with four cabinet ministers and several policy advisers to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office said there was interest in meeting the group to learn more about its vision as well as best practices gleaned from the Australian program.

"We are working on creating a national program, a national network, of what ... are essentially moccasins on the ground," said Valerie Courtois, the project's director.

The initiative also provides an opportunity for the federal government to figure out what it means to have a nation-to-nation relationship, she said.

"This program really is the very expression of nationhood and the ability of First Nations to manage their own lands," Courtois said.

"That allows for a much better, deep conversation not only with other ... governments, but also with industries and other Canadians."

A similar project employing Indigenous rangers who conduct environmental work has been successful at the national level in Australia as part of a government reconciliation initiative, she noted.

The program called Working on Country, which began in 2007, now employs more than 680 Indigenous people.

The Australian government suggests it has helped to address social, education, health, employment and economic development issues, as well as environmental concerns.

The idea is also not untested in Canada, Courtois said, adding there are already 30 programs operating, including one she ran in Labrador with the Innu Nation for almost a decade.

"We do have experience here in Canada of developing these programs and they have had a remarkable impact in the areas where they operate," she said.

This is a way for individuals to come to terms with their sense of responsibility to their ancestors and to their future and to their teachings.- Senator Murray Sinclair 

It is also significant this proposal is being spearheaded by Indigenous people, said Bev Sellars, a senior adviser to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

"There's a history of all the programs that have been imposed on us — probably 99 per cent of them don't work," she said.

"The most successful ones are the ones that Indigenous people have created and have developed for themselves. We are the ones who know what is best for us."

Senator Murray Sinclair, the former Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairman, met the group on Wednesday.

He said the project offers an intriguing way for Indigenous youth to connect to the land that could also serve as a tool for "personal reconciliation."

"Reconciliation, as we said in our report, is about changing the nature of the relationship that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have," Sinclair said in an interview.

"Reconciliation ... also permeates down to the individual. Each individual has to find a way to reconcile with their own situation and their own existence. This is a way for individuals to come to terms with their sense of responsibility to their ancestors and to their future and to their teachings."

The guardians initiative is designed to be a healing program, Courtois said.

"It is about enforcing one's identity and pride in that identity," she said.

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