Indigenous group wants guardian program expanded across Canada

Ottawa is being asked to fund a resource monitoring network that would expand on programs operated by Indigenous governments in Labrador.

Group pushing Trudeau government to commit $500M over 5 years

The Indigenous Leadership Initiative's Valerie Courtois ran the Innu Nation's conservation guardian program in Labrador for a decade. (Submitted by Valerie Courtois)

A resource monitoring program already adopted by Indigenous governments in Labrador may be expanded across Canada if a proposal to the federal government is accepted.

The non-profit Indigenous Leadership Initiative wants the federal Liberals to fund a national network of Indigenous guardians to monitor resources both on the land and water.

The group's director, Valerie Courtois, is meeting with politicians, top bureaucrats and political staffers in Ottawa this week.

"I personally have been involved in managing the program at [the] Innu Nation in the 2000s and I saw the transformational power of these programs," Courtois told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning Wednesday.

A recent report says Indigenous guardian programs in the N.W.T. that use traditional knowledge to help preserve culture and land are delivering "significant social, economic, and environmental benefits." (Pat Kane)

"When people are employed and make their own decisions for their own nations, the empowerment in that is just incredible."

The group is looking for the federal government to invest $500 million over five years. Courtois said that would create 225 Aboriginal guardian programs across the country, employing 1,600 people.

She said studies in Canada and Australia have calculated the value of guardian programs at between $2.50 and $3.50 for every dollar invested.

Those results are calculated by tabulating the decreased costs of food, reduced rates of incarceration, increased rates of physical and mental wellness and other factors.

Courtois said Aboriginal governments across Canada don't have the financial resources for such programs.

There may be money for one such position under existing funding, but she said one person usually has other responsibilities as well and can't fully concentrate on conservation.

Innu hunters admitted in 2013 they killed caribou in a closed hunting zone in central Labrador. The province has since put a permanent ban on caribou hunting in Labrador after populations went into freefall. (CBC)

In Labrador, both the Innu Nation and the Nunatsiavut Government have been at odds with the provincial and federal governments' approaches to resource management.

In the case of the Innu Nation, it disagrees with the province's ban on caribou hunting in Labrador. For the Inuit, another issue is the federal government's approach to the spring bird hunt on Lake Melville.

'Root of nationhood'

If the Indigenous Leadership Initiative gets its wish, Indigenous nations and bands would have ultimate control over how resources are managed on their territory.

"Even in cases of disagreement, the fact that guardians are on the ground noting, observing and interacting on those issues makes those cases better. They make, at least, a conversation happen," said Courtois.

What I've seen across the country [is that] 80 to 90 per cent of enforcement is simply being out there.- Valerie Courtois

She said such an approach should even reduce the temperature on some of those simmering disputes.

"What I've seen across the country [is that] 80 to 90 per cent of enforcement is simply being out there," she said.

"Hunters see you there, they see the uniform and they know there's a group that's responsible and watching what's happening — behaviours tend to be much better."

Courtois said there has been a string of meetings between her group and federal officials.

She said her group will continue to push its proposal and remains hopeful that the next federal budget will fund a nation-wide program.

"It really is, in a way, an opportunity for the Government of Canada to have traction on that commitment of a nation-to-nation relationship, particularly on lands. That's the root of nationhood."

With files from Labrador Morning