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The 14,000 square kilometres of rugged boreal forest and sprawling wetlands in the Northwest Territories will be protected from resource extraction and stewarded by Indigenous guardians from the Dehcho First Nations

A light snow started to fall as leaders of the Dehcho First Nations, federal officials and Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna gathered in Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, Thursday for an announcement that has been more than 20 years in the making.

“It was a beautiful day. You could feel that the room was full of pride and hope,” said Dahti Tsetso, Dehcho resource manager, who heads the Indigenous guardians tasked with protecting the newly announced Edéhzhíe (eh-day-shae) Indigenous Protected Area.

The snow gave a special atmosphere to the traditional fire feeding ceremony when tobacco and special foods are put in a basket to honour ancestors and the spirit of the land and water, she said.

“Then to drum music and drum prayers the offerings are fed into the fire. It was a beautiful way to start such an important event,” Tsetso told The Narwhal.

Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian said people in the communities of Fort Providence, Jean Marie River, Fort Simpson and Wrigley have worked hard for decades to protect the massive culturally and ecologically significant area.

“It has been a long time coming, but I was always hopeful,” Norwegian said. Edéhzhíe Indigenous Protected Area. Illustration: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal In addition to rich wildlife and myriad berries and medicine plants the area has a wealth of spiritual connections and many Dene myths are based in the Edéhzhíe.

“For some of our leaders this was a very emotional day. The Dene have a special relationship with the land…It is a place our ancestors used from time immemorial,” said Norwegian, who hopes the Edéhzhíe will be an example of how government and Indigenous communities can work together.

The 14,281 square-kilometre Edéhzhíe protected area is the first of what Minister McKenna promised will be many new Indigenous Protected Areas funded by the federal government’s nature legacy and the addition will make a dent in Canada’s international commitment to protect 17 per cent of land and fresh water by 2020.

“By creating the Edéhzhíe Protected Area and National Wildlife Area under the leadership of the Dehcho First Nations, we are protecting a very special place in Canada while working in partnership with Indigenous Peoples to advance reconciliation,” McKenna said in a news release .

The new classification of Indigenous Protected Area will offer the same protection as a National Wildlife Area.

Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative , told The Narwhal the establishment of the new protected area is an important step ahead for Indigenous-led conservation.

“The kind of past models of protected areas has always been led by crown and public governments and this is a case where the Dehcho under their own authority and own laws were able to declare the Edéhzhíe as a Dehcho protected area,” Courtois said. Tania Larsson stands watch on the shore of Great Slave Lake. She’s a member of Dene Nahjo, an organization of young leaders looking to advance social and environmental rights for indigenous people in the N.W.T. Their motto is “Land, Language and Culture Forever.” Photo: Pat Kane

“And to the credit of the federal government they responded to that and recognized the role of Indigenous governments as decision-makers over their own lands.’

The Edéhzhíe, in the southwestern Northwest Territories, will be managed through a consensus-based management board, with federal and Indigenous members, with eyes on the ground provided by the Dehcho First Nations Indigenous guardians .

“Any protected area really only becomes real when there are […]

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