Indigenous-led efforts key to Canada's conservation goals, say advocates

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, announced $800 million in funding over seven years for large Indigenous-led conservation projects covering almost a million square kilometres of land.

$800 million in federal funding for Indigenous-led conservation announced at COP 15

Canada's conservation goals that can't be achieved without Indigenous-led conservation projects, says the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, a national network that aims to affirm nationhood through asserting rights over land and water. (Eeyou Conservation)

Indigenous-led conservation and a national network of land protectors are key to Canada and Quebec reaching targets of land conservation by 2030, according to Indigenous leaders taking part in COP15 in Montreal this week.

On Wednesday, at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $800 million in funding over seven years for large Indigenous-led conservation projects covering almost 1 million square kilometres of land.

Trudeau said the initiative will help Canada reach its target of conserving 25 per cent of Canada's land and waters by 2025, and 30 per cent by 2030. 

These are goals that can't be achieved without Indigenous-led conservation projects, according to Valérie Courtois, the director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, a national network that affirms nationhood through asserting rights over land and water. 

Biodiversity on Indigenous lands key 

Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, pictured, along with Quebec Cree Nation Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty, are highlighting some Indigenous-led conservation success stories at COP 15 in Montreal. (Nadya Kwandibens/ Indigenous Leadership Intiative)

"Eighty per cent of the world's remaining biodiversity is found on lands that are managed and loved by Indigenous peoples," said Courtois. According to the United Nations, Indigenous lands make up around 20 per cent of the Earth's territory and contain 80 per cent of the world's remaining biodiversity. 

Courtois added that more than half a million square kilometres of proposed protected areas in Canada are from Indigenous peoples, who have a much different and "more wholesome and comprehensive" approach to land management. 

"It's a way of countering [a model] that has often been based on … what you can take from these landscapes," said Courtois, who has a background in forestry.

In 2020, the Cree Nation and the province of Quebec announced the creation of a Cree-managed network of protected areas, which sets aside 20 per cent of Cree territory. The 2020 addition of the new territories brings the total to roughly 39,000 square kilometres of protected land in in Eeyou Istchee, equivalent to the area of Switzerland, according to a Quebec government release. 

"We envisage a Cree management of these protected areas and operating them with green employment, so we are talking about having Cree park rangers, having Cree programming to be carried out within the protected areas," said Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty, who, along with Courtois, is presenting Thursday at COP 15. 

The Cree Protected Areas Project is the result of thousands of years of Cree expertise and knowledge of the territory, as well as extensive consultations carried out over the last decade, said Gull-Masty. 

Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty and Quebec premier François Legault in Mistissini, Que. (Emilie Nadeau)

The project, Gull-Masty said, is a great example of how government and Indigenous groups can work together to achieve common conservation goals. 

"I think that Quebec has been very progressive in establishing this protected areas network. It was something built with a Cree perspective and a Quebec perspective," said Gull-Masty. 

Growing network of Indigenous land guardians

As part of the project, the Cree are also building a team of experts, known as Cree Land Keepers, who will help manage and monitor these protected areas with an eye to long-term sustainability and a focus on Cree traditional knowledge and world views, according to the Cree Nation Government website. 

They will also act as a bridge between all the stakeholders, such as the Cree tallymen, who are traditional land stewards named along family lines.

The Cree Land Keepers are but one example of a growing national network of Indigenous-led land protectors known as Guardians, explained Courtois.

"We are people of place. We spend time in these places and often we are better placed to notice impacts than many crown governments or even proponents of projects are," she said. 

"They're kind of our moccasins on the ground, who actively manage that relationship."

The Cree Nation has identified more than 80,000 square kilometres of its territory that it would like protected from development. (Greenpeace)

There are now more than 110 guardians programs operating across the country.

In 2021, the federal government announced $340 million in new funding over five years to support Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship, including more than $173 million for guardians programs, according to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative website. 

As part of COP 15, the Indigenous Leadership Initiative will host an "Indigenous village," which it hopes will be a meeting place for people to exchange ideas and find hope in the race to protect species at risk. 


Susan Bell has worked with CBC News since 1997 as a journalist, writer-broadcaster, radio host and producer. She has been with CBC North since 2009, most recently as a digital producer with the Cree unit in Montreal.