Beyond Targets: Spotlight on the Saskatchewan River Delta

WWF-Canada’s Beyond Targets report proposes a new model for protected and conserved area establishment in Canada — one that prioritizes the advancement of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) and Indigenous rights and title, as well as areas that support nature-based solutions for both biodiversity and climate.

In it, we spotlight four IPCAs, including the Saskatchewan River Delta (Kitaskīnaw),  a 9,706 square kilometre inland water delta, the largest in North America.

Saskatchewan River Delta © Prairie Rising, CPAWS-SK

It is a collection of wetlands, lakes, river channels and forests that provides vital habitat for wildlife, and stores more than 949 Mt C in its plant biomass and soils up to one meter in depth. The delta has supported Indigenous peoples for more than 7,000 years, but continued habitat degradation and biodiversity loss has affected the community’s way of life.

Related stories

Spotlight on Seal River Watershed Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area

Spotlight on Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area

Spotlight on Aqviqtuuq Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area

In June 2021, the Cumberland House Cree Nation declared formal protection for the Kitaskīnaw under Canadian Indigenous law. Below, Nadina Gardiner from Cumberland House Cree Nation shares her perspective on this important area. As told to Emily Henderson.

“My name is Nadina Gardiner, I am a member of the Cumberland House Cree Nation and advocate for the Saskatchewan River Delta. Cumberland House was established as a community by the Hudson’s Bay Company because of the richness of the land and the fur trade. We were trappers and fishermen and our people moved with the seasons throughout our territory.

Cumberland House sits in the Saskatchewan River Delta, which is the largest inland delta in North America, and it’s the third largest in the world, at 10,000 square kilometres. In June of 2021, Cumberland House declared the Delta to be under the protection of Indigenous law and under our jurisdiction as a Cree Nation. This way, when the protection under federal and provincial laws and processes fail, we still maintain jurisdiction over this traditional territory — we’ve taken that upon ourselves to protect this area.

Nadine Gardiner

Right now, our Delta is dying and some people think it’s because we need water, but it’s not just water that we need, it’s the type of water that we need and when we need the water. There’s been such a change in flow as the Saskatchewan River has been dammed upstream at multiple points. When you reverse or completely change the flow of a river, you’re not just changing the flow of that river, you’re changing the flow of all the animals and all the species and everything the river supports.

We have been sounding the alarm about the Delta for years, since long before my time. There’s people and Elders before me who have tried to get the word out. Do you know what the Florida Everglades are? I do. Everybody knows that from all corners of the world, and there’s protection for them. But nobody knows about the Saskatchewan River Delta. We need to realize what we have right here.

This is such a significant area for nesting and migration for waterfowl, some of which travel all the way to South America. This doesn’t just affect us, it affects everybody in this country and beyond. Even if you just consider the amount of carbon that these wetlands capture, you would see why it was so important to keep it healthy and to maintain, restore and rejuvenate it, so it becomes an area of carbon capture instead of release. This goes beyond just our community — we need everyone to see this important ecosystem.

I think that people are seeing that distinct connection between our culture and the land, and how those two go hand in hand. Everything is connected. In the past 10 or 15 years, I have noticed that our voices are getting stronger as we have continued educating ourselves more about our rights as Indigenous peoples.

We talk a lot about reconciliation in this country, and I think it’s within ourselves to reconcile with what has happened and move forward and do something about it. Social media and technology play a big part in that, and that’s where we see what’s going on in other First Nation communities. I think even just seeing that empowers us to see how others are protecting their lands. It’s catching fire all over.”