'Excellent results' from N.W.T. Indigenous guardians programs

The Australian Indigenous Rangers program has become known for delivering cost savings and social benefits to communities there. Now, a new report suggests the same thing is happening as a result of similar programs in Canada.

A report comparing the Canadian programs to their Australian counterparts finds similar benefits

The Deh Cho K'ehondi program brings young people onto the land to learn about their culture and the environment. Programs like this have been found to have social, economic and environmental returns. (Pat Kane)

A new report says Indigenous guardians programs in the N.W.T. that use traditional knowledge to help preserve Indigenous culture and land are delivering "significant social, economic, and environmental benefits."

This comes after members of a Canadian team called the Indigenous Leadership Initiative asked the federal government for $500 million for a national guardians program that would allow people in Indigenous communities across the country to monitor the land, preserve wildlife and maintain their culture.

Social Ventures Australia, which studied similar lauded programs in that country, looked at Indigenous guardians programs already up and running in the Dehcho First Nations and Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation in the N.W.T. It says there is a $2.5 return for every dollar invested in the programs.

The Ni Hat'ni Dene program in Lutsel K'e partners young people with older community members to patrol the land and water, monitoring changes in water quality, sediments, and wildlife.

Youth learn about wildlife and resources in the Deh Cho K'ehondi program. The report says this kind of activity helps reduce social problems in the communities. (Pat Kane)

According to Steven Nitah, a former territorial politician who is now the chief negotiator for the Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation, not only does the program have direct, short-term benefits for the community, but it has long-term benefits too: those same young people who were involved in the program have gone on to work with industry as environmental monitors and in tourism.

"We've seen excellent results," Nitah said. "It's not only that it employs people, but the youth are busy, they're learning their way of life… they're staying out of the criminal justice system." 

Less crime, more respect

The report says these Northern Canadian programs have also delivered different benefits than the Australian Indigenous Rangers program that was studied down south, which has been lauded for its social and economic gains for Indigenous communities in Australia. 

According to the report, interviewees in the N.W.T. communities with the guardians programs reported less crime, more respect from non-Indigenous community members, and better preservation of their traditional language and culture.

"It's part of decolonization of Indigenous peoples," Nitah said. "As a result, they're healthier, they have a better perspective on life, and they're better contributors to their communities."

Stable funding needed

Even still, the report says the N.W.T. community programs could use more funding. 

Things like increased respect for traditional ecological knowledge, increases in income tax, and low-cost land management were seen in Australia, but not in Canada. 

Nitah chalks this difference up to the lack of consistent funding, making it difficult to do any long-term planning.

In the Deh Cho K'ehondi program in the Dehcho First Nations, for example, funding has come from a smattering of NGOs, and securing that funding for a few years at a time requires constantly writing proposals.

Language is an integral part of the Deh Cho K'ehondi program; elders in the community say the language itself helps communicate the Dene relationship to the land. (Pat Kane)

The report suggests stable funding could increase the benefits from the N.W.T. programs from $2.5 return for every dollar spent, to as much as $3.7.

The Deh Cho K'ehondi program, which focuses on using Dene language and culture to rebuild relationships with the land, is a newer program that's only coming together over the past few years.

But Dehcho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian has high hopes.

"As we're moving along and looking at taking care of our territory… we need moccasins on the ground to make sure we know exactly what is going on," Norwegian said.

"It will be our barometer, so to speak."


Jimmy Thomson is a former reporter for CBC North.