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A vast region of the Northwest Territories that local Indigenous people call their “breadbasket” because of the abundance of wildlife has been declared permanently off limits to resource development, eight years after the federal government tried to open it to mining. The Edéhzhíe, a 14,250-square-kilometre plateau west of Great Slave Lake, was declared an Indigenous Protected Area in Fort Providence, NWT, on Thursday afternoon. Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and leaders of the Dehcho First Nations that call the region home attended the ceremony.

Covering a territory twice the size of Banff National Park, the Edéhzhíe is a blend of boreal forests and wetlands populated with caribou, moose, wolves, fish and other wildlife. It has been a place of cultural and spiritual significance for Indigenous people for generations, and likely for millennia.

Indigenous Protected Areas are closed to development and managed with the participation of local Indigenous people. The new area is a partnership between the Dehcho – a coalition of Dene and Métis people – and the federal government. It will be managed by a board of directors, a local Indigenous conservation group known as the Dehcho K’ehodi guardians, and the Canadian Wildlife Service.

“We are proud to be working with the Dehcho First Nations to protect a very special place in Canada,” Ms. McKenna said. "By protecting more of nature, we are ensuring a healthier and more prosperous future for our kids and grandkids.”

It is the first Indigenous protected area to be announced since Ottawa included $1.3-billion for conservation in the budget released last winter. And it takes Canada another short step toward fulfilling its international commitment to preserve 17 per cent of all lands and inland waters by 2020.

But eight years ago, a different story appeared to be unfolding. Negotiations on protecting the area had begun in 1998. In 2002, the federal government agreed to prohibit development for the next eight years. But in 2010, as the Dehcho waited for the Edéhzhíe to receive a final designation as a protected area, the former Conservative government paid for an assessment of below-ground resources and opened it up to mineral exploration.

The Dehcho took the government to court. In 2012, a judge ruled that the government should not have allowed subsurface exploration without consultation, and Ottawa returned to the talks.

The protected area had been envisioned at 25,000 square kilometres, but Dahti Tsetso, resource management co-ordinator for the Dehcho First Nations and director of the Dehcho K’ehodi Stewardship and Guardians Program, says there is consensus around the current boundary.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Ms. Tsetso said of the new protected area. “It will give us some capacity to start addressing the goals of our communities and approaching protection in ways that make sense to them, that helps our communities approach stewardship in a meaningful way.”

Dehcho elders have always said the land was too important for cultural reasons and for harvesting animals to be degraded by mining and other resource development, Ms. Tsetso said.

The guardians program was launched in 2016 to help protect it. The guardians monitor the land, mentor younger generations about how to use it wisely, record observations, and could eventually help with enforcement, Ms. Tsetso said. But much of the management planning has yet to be done, so their exact role has yet to be determined, she said.

Another issue is how much of the Edéhzhíe will be open to people who are not part of the Dehcho communities. Tourism is being discussed, Ms. Tsetso said, but rules for that will be part of a management plan that is still being formulated.

Valerie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, a conservation […]

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