Beyond Targets: Spotlight on Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area

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 Thaidene Nëné, which translates to “Land of the Ancestors” in Dënesųłiné Yati and spans more than 26,000 square kilometres in the Northwest Territories.

Thaidene Nëné © Steven Nitah

Lying at the transition between the boreal forest and the tundra, it includes the east arm of Great Slave Lake, North America’s deepest freshwater source. Thaidene Nëné is home to a variety of wildlife including grizzly bears, wolves and moose.

Designated as an IPCA in 2019 by the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation under Dene Law, and through establishment agreements with Parks Canada and the Government of the Northwest Territories, the IPCA comprises a national park reserve (14,305 km2), a territorial protected area (8,906 km2) and a wildlife conservation area (3,165 km2) — each with its own set of laws. The IPCA is co-managed by Indigenous and Crown governments to conserve the natural and cultural heritage of the region.

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Below, Steven Nitah from the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation shares his perspective on this important area. As told to Haley Lewis.

“Growing up I moved around a lot. As a family we’d go with the seasons, following the hunting and gathering cycles.  In the summer, we’d be out in the barren lands, hunting caribou, then come the end of August we’d be back in the community drying fish we’d collected for winter.

In the fall, we’d go to the boreal to hunt and trap lynx, mink and other fur animals and then when summer came back around it was time to repeat. That’s how the family grew up. These days, it’s different. People are spread out all over the country, but there’s still the homeland to come back to, and it’s a homeland I’m proud to say I help protect.

As a member of Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, I serve as the chief negotiator for the Thaidene Nëné, an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) here in the Northwest Territories.

I, and my community, have always had a deep relationship with the environment, nature and territory that makes up Thaidene Nëné. It’s a relationship that’s interconnected, reciprocal and one that defines who we are as people and the knowledge systems we use.

Steven Nitah © Steven Nitah

Protecting Thaidene Nëné

Established in 2019, Thaidene Nëné is in the heart of the Łutsël K’é Dene homeland. It’s over 26,000 square kilometers – an amount of land that’s nothing to sneeze at – and protected under Łutsël K’é Dene law. But that protection isn’t what you might think — it’s less about managing the territory and more about managing people.

The land will do what it wants and it’s our job not to over manage it. Where management on the ground is required, we utilize traditional Indigenous ecological knowledge and place-based knowledge combined with science of today.

And while that all sounds well and good — which it is — it wasn’t easy establishing Thaidene Nëné as an IPCA. This is mining territory — a large part of the economy in the Northwest Territories relies on resource extraction — so locking up land of this size was difficult to grapple with for a lot of people, governments and industry.

Thaidene Nëné as an IPCA

IPCAs represent a new relationship between Indigenous governments and the Crown. The mandate that was given was to implement the spirit of intent with which we entered the treaty — to share the land, the benefits of it and the responsibility for its management. We achieved this through an agreement with Parks Canada and the territorial government.

The United Nations even gave us an award, indicating that this is a good project and a model worth replicating. Thaidene Nëné is a place we know we have to defend and fight to protect on a continuous basis. Protecting it is consistent with our way of life and will continue to provide us the opportunity to be Dene. But in thinking about the future of the territory, there are things that are out of our control.

We’re always thinking of ways we can mitigate the impacts of climate change. We know that if left unmanaged, the impacts of climate change, the fires, they’ll be detrimental — but presently, we don’t have the financial resources to manage that. Thaidene Nëné, like all IPCA’s should be a place where Indigenous people can exercise their rights and responsibilities.

We need the financial resources to create opportunities for economic reconciliation, land reconciliation and cultural reconciliation so we can use our worldviews and knowledge systems to manage territories across this nation.”