North

'We'll speak for the lake': Deline celebrates UNESCO biosphere reserve designation

Elders in Deline, N.W.T., have long believed a massive heart beats at the bottom of Great Bear Lake, pumping its clear water through the world's rivers and oceans — and it's their job to protect it.

'It gives our community recognition that it's understood that we are the stewards,' says Mandy Bayha

Elders in Deline, N.W.T., have long believed a massive heart beats at the bottom of Great Bear Lake, pumping its clear water through the world's rivers and oceans — and it's their job to protect it.

"Finally the voices of the elders and our ancestors will be heard," said Gina Bayha, the co-ordinator of Tsá Tué International Biosphere Reserve, as the community officially celebrated its induction to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. 

'Finally the voices of the elders and our ancestors will be heard,' says Gina Bayha. (Kate Kyle/CBC)
"As the elders would say, we're going to be the voice for the lake. The lake can't speak for itself, we're going to speak for the lake."

UNESCO awarded the status last March to recognize the community's management of Great Bear Lake and its watershed. It's the first time the designation has been granted to a project entirely led by an Indigenous community.

A celebration in Deline this week included guests from UNESCO, Parks Canada, the territorial government and community leaders.

"[The elders] want to show people how to take care of the land," Bayha said. "How we do it as Dene people."

World network of reserves

UNESCO has 669 such biosphere reserves in 120 countries worldwide.

More than nine million hectares in size, the one in Deline is the largest in North America and the first North of 60.

It includes the pristine waters of Great Bear Lake — the eighth largest freshwater lake in the world, home to trophy-sized lake trout and Arctic grayling, prized food sources for the community.

Its watershed is home to caribou, muskox and migratory birds. The reserve includes a portion of Tuktuk Nogait National Park, the calving grounds for the fragile Bluenose West barrenland caribou herd.

Morris Neyelle remembers the uranium and silver mines at Port Radium, on the eastern shore of the lake. 'It really destroyed my people,' he says. 'I don't want to go through that again.' (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Haunted by uranium

Though remote — Great Bear Lake is reachable only by airplane or the winter road to Deline — industry has left its mark.

Morris Neyelle, a Deline Band subchief who helped push for Tsá Tué, remembers Port Radium, on the eastern shore of the lake.

The notorious mine produced uranium and silver between 1930 and 1982. Several workers who carried stacks of uranium from the mine died of cancer, though no official studies back up it was from uranium exposure.

"It really destroyed my people," Neyelle said. "I don't want to go through that again."

The way forward, he says, is to be stewards of the land. 

"It's all rented to you. You keep it well as you see fit for everyone," Neyelle said. 

Part of the impetus for the reserve stems from Louis Ayah, a local prophet and spiritual leader, who lived between 1857 and 1940, and whose teachings are still revered.

"He always said it's rented out to you," Neyelle said. "Nobody owns anything. It's rented out to you by the creator. You take care as you see fit for the human beings."

Great Bear Lake is the eighth-largest freshwater lake in the world, and is remote by any measure. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

'Pieces falling together'

Biosphere reserve status doesn't create further protection of the land.

But Neyelle and others, such as 30-year old Mandy Bayha, say it will help the community continue its path forward. In just a few weeks Deline will assume new powers with self-government.

"We've always been moving in this direction, puzzle pieces falling together," says Mandy Bayha. 

"It gives our community recognition that it's understood that we are the stewards. With that recognition comes partnerships, being able to work together with others, and sharing our story."

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