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The Other Natural Resource

The Other Natural Resource

The Lutsel K'e Dene aim to prove they can make a business out of protecting the land
By Tim Edwards
May 08

A two-week in, two-week out fly-in shift for Northerners usually means 14 days of long hours drilling, hauling or cleaning, followed by two weeks of relaxation, where you can get out on the water and maybe cast some lines. Imagine if your two weeks in consisted of being out on the land doing what you love, and what very few southerners are more capable of doing than you. For one thing, we’d probably have a lot more local employment.

For the 300-person Dene community of Lutsel K’e, the proposed Thaidene Nene park, covering part of Great Slave Lake, is an experimental combination of sustainable local industry and lifelong employment, environmental protection, social program and cultural revival. It promises to be more reliable than the mines that come and go, boom and bust, and typically bring the territory’s economy up and down with them. As Steve Nitah, one of Lutsel K’e’s negotiators for the park, puts it: “Thaidene Nene is worth more than one diamond mine over its lifetime.” 

The East Arm of Great Slave Lake has all the makings of a wilderness tourism destination: clear waters in which you can see the trout and whitefish swimming before you catch them; plenty of islands to camp on, or to shelter behind when the winds pick up while you’re boating; magnificent north-facing cliffs; hiking trails inland; the rolling Lockhart River and the legendary Old Lady of the Falls, a beautiful 20-foot waterfall with ancient cultural significance. And this beauty not only stands out; it’s accessible—you can canoe, kayak or motorboat there from Yellowknife or take a 45-minute, $250 flight from the city to Lutsel K’e, which is nestled right inside the arm and whose people’s traditional land encompasses it.

Jean Chretien visited the community in the 1960s, as minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, to pitch the idea of a park, and it was thoroughly shot down. “The leadership at the time did not like the idea of a national park,” says Nitah, who’s also a former chief. “It would have been another Wood Buffalo,” he says, citing the gigantic national park on the southern border of the NWT. Never one to mince his words, territorial environment minister Michael Miltenberger describes Wood Buffalo, near his hometown of Fort Smith, thusly: “It’s controlled and run as a federal fiefdom, basically, of Parks [Canada]. They have their own way of doing business. In the past, they excluded the Métis, for example, [from exercising aboriginal rights in the park.]” As far as the NWT is concerned, Wood Buffalo is no longer part of it.

A few things have happened since the 1960s to open the door for Thaidene Nene: mainly, the constitution, passed in 1982, enshrined aboriginal rights and trumped the Canada National Parks Act. This includes subsistence hunting rights in parks created after 1982. As mineral staking interest grew in the area during the ’90s diamond rush, elders in Lutsel K’e figured it was time to revisit the idea of a park, but it had to be based on their relationship with the land. “That’s got to be respected,” says Nitah, as must their treaty. With that, the community began researching its options, speaking to other aboriginal groups who’ve dealt with Parks Canada—even looking at how aboriginal groups in other countries deal with their post-colonial governments. Lutsel K’e didn’t just want to protect its land; the business opportunities for having such a tourism product on its doorstep were manifold, and the band wanted its membership to be the ones cashing in. Now it just had to convince the federal government that not only were they the ones who should be in control of the park, but there were no better people for the job.

My skype interview with Patrick O’Leary is delayed by 15 minutes while he waits for animal control to take away a kangaroo with a broken leg lying in his front yard. I’d first met O’Leary, manager of conservation partnerships in Australia with the Pew Environmental Group, last fall in Yellowknife after he returned from a trip to Lutsel K’e. He and his delegation had been exchanging information about how Australia’s Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) work, and how Thaidene Nene is intended to roll out. It’s odd to think there might be many parallels with Australia, which is about as far away from the NWT as you can get on Earth; whose hot and humid climate rarely produces the snow that utterly dominates Canada’s North. But the parallels are there.

“We [at Pew] concentrate on most of Australia, which is the Outback,” says O’Leary. “It’s not unlike the Canadian North ... in that it occupies this huge part of our continent but most Australians live on the east coast, a bit like most Canadians live on the southern border.” The Outback is populated mainly by aboriginal people who live in remote communities and are largely at a socio-economic disadvantage, even when a mine temporarily picks things up.

The first IPA in Australia was established in 1998. The government had set aside money that groups could access for conservation programs, and the IPA was the culmination of years of figuring out how aboriginal groups could use these funding streams to not only protect the land but employ their people to do it. So the government created a voluntary process, initiated by aboriginal groups (who also decide when consultation is finished), after which they can access funding and support from the government to manage the land. There are requirements for a management plan, and for reporting on finances and management actions, but “within that, there’s quite a degree of flexibility,” says O’Leary.

The idea caught on. There are now 51 IPAs across Australia, managing 36 million hectares of land (nearly five per cent of the country). “From what I’ve seen in Australia, we can have as high or higher quality management than national parks. Because of the local commitment, if you get the right funding in place, if you get the cultural management that’s overlaid, you can have really, really strong and high quality environmental management.”

In addition to campsites, there’s potential for an ecolodge and other facilities in the park.

Conservation is a huge part of Thaidene Nene, too, but Lutsel K’e is banking on a big upsurge in tourism once the park is established. In 2013, the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation released its business case for the park. In direct employment by the park, the report anticipates 18 year-round positions, at least five of which would be full time. Most of these would be through the Ni Hat’ni Dene program, which is already training people for the jobs—spending time on the land, monitoring use of the area, talking to visitors on the lake, monitoring fish numbers and quality through partnerships with universities. But the spin-off benefits look to be more lucrative.

With its proximity to Yellowknife, and cheap, scheduled flights to the community (compared to the rest of the NWT), Lutsel K’e considers itself in a better position to get traffic than most other Northern parks. The East Arm gets at least 500 sport fishers per year, according to a report prepared by tourism consultancy Pure North Canada Ltd. With branding and tourist infrastructure, the Thaidene business case estimates the area could host more than 1,000 visitors per year (the Nahanni National Park Reserve’s
average). With Lutsel K’e right in the heart of the area, that sort of visitation could be lucrative for the community. The report envisions an ecolodge, in-town lodging and food service, interpretive guiding and outfitting, arts and crafts sales, transportation and general recreation services. If this level of infrastructure comes to be, the report guesses it could result in at least 20 year-round and 30 seasonal jobs, as well as helping support other general businesses around town—such as maintenance agencies or contractors.

Yellowknife could also benefit from Thaidene Nene, says Stephen Ellis, another Lutsel K’e negotiator, adding there’s potential to link the steady Yellowknife tourist industry with its upstart neighbour across the lake. “For every night that a tourist spends in Lutsel K’e, they’ll probably spend two nights in Yellowknife ... so partnering with Yellowknife operators makes sense.” He mentions Aurora Village, which hosts upwards of 12,000 Japanese tourists per year who trek to Yellowknife to see the Northern Lights. Visitors could take a short flight to Lutsel K’e to experience its Dene culture and get out for quick, scenic trips on the lake, then return to Yellowknife.

While most of the conversation revolves around “the park,” the East Arm might end up being a conglomeration of various land designations. Since the NWT’s devolution in April 2014—when it took jurisdiction over most of the territory’s public land, waterways and resources from the federal government—the Government of the Northwest Territories has kickstarted its own negotiations with Lutsel K’e, and compressed what might otherwise have taken years to just about half a year of talks. (Everyone wants to see this finalized before this fall’s federal and territorial elections.)

As the GNWT took over the land from the federal government, it would have to give some back for it to become a national park—and the government isn’t keen to give much of it away. It’s wary of designating the whole area as federal and relinquishing rights to manage the wildlife and ecology, and to lock away areas high in mineral potential from further development. “The more we give away to the feds, locked up permanently under a huge park, we lose access to that,” says Miltenberger.

Right now, 33,000 square kilometres are in land withdrawal while the three parties work on borders and designations. Miltenberger says the area could contain a small federal park, a territorial park, wilderness and conservation areas, as well as areas left open for mineral development. The same geological trend as the Gahcho Kue and Snap Lake diamond areas continues in the northwest, inland away from the lake. That area could also host uranium and gold. “Everybody thinks there might be some potential there,” says Miltenberger. “We want to make sure that we don’t lock it away before we know that.”

Both Ellis and Nitah say Lutsel K’e is on board to have the GNWT involved, as long as the territorial park designation is similar to what they’ve been working on with Parks Canada. Miltenberger says having Lutsel K’e manage the park is “very consistent with the approach that we are taking in a whole number of areas.” Lutsel K’e also hopes any money that the federal government would otherwise commit would be picked up by the territory. “The last thing that we’d want to do is take federal dollars out of the territory that otherwise would be spent here,” says Ellis. Lutsel K’e has been building up a $30 million trust fund for the park.

And Lutsel K’e’s position on leaving some areas open for mineral development? Nitah says the community is open to it, citing the community’s four impact benefit agreements currently in place with local projects. He hopes the park will act as a counterweight for the mining industry’s booms and busts. “It stabilizes the economy in this region so we’re not so totally dependent on the mining extraction. Lutsel K’e can have its cake and eat it too in these circumstances.”