Indigenous protected areas: Transformative opportunities in bridging conservation, reconciliation

By Nick Leeson and Jacqueline Ohayon

Law360 Canada (October 16, 2023, 12:24 PM EDT) --
Nick Leeson
Nick Leeson
Jacqueline Ohayon
Jacqueline Ohayon
Canada’s vast landscapes, steeped in deep and rich histories, face a pivotal juncture. Driven by Canada’s ambition to achieve its “30 by 30” conservation goal, lies a transformative force: Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs). More than just a designation, IPCAs are emerging as a potent catalyst for change. A force for challenging traditional conservation narratives. Here, we embark upon a four-part series of articles that will unearth how IPCAs are fusing Indigenous knowledge with governance, challenging conservation narratives and presenting a new bridge to ecological sustainability and reconciliation.

Footprints of colonialism’s impacts, rise of IPCAs

Canada’s story is marred by settler colonialism and extractive capitalism. Few know this better than Indigenous nations and communities. These forces have threatened Indigenous sovereignty and disrupted the natural rhythm of their lands and waters. Yet, despite facing colonialism’s harmful impacts, Indigenous communities have maintained a strong and enduring connection to their territories, safeguarding invaluable ancestral environmental wisdom.

IPCAs symbolize a paradigm shift towards Indigenous-led governance and knowledge systems. By going beyond European-derived conservation frameworks and affirming Indigenous laws and sovereignty, IPCAs provide a crucial link between ecological sustainability and reconciliation. And this doesn’t just signify a shift in power, but a holistic transformation in understanding and interacting with nature. Instead of imposing human-centric paradigms, IPCAs signify a revolution in comprehending and co-existing with the natural environment.

From Eurocentric conservation to Indigenous-led guardianship

Historically, settler colonialism and extractive capitalism in Canada have undermined Indigenous sovereignty, compromising both their lands and waters. On the other hand, Crown-led conservation initiatives have, at times, further strained relations by displacing Indigenous Peoples under the banner of environmental protection (For a multitude of examples, see Canada’s National Parks are Colonial Crime Scenes and The shady past of Parks Canada: Forced out, Indigenous peoples are forging a comeback.) But despite the enduring impacts of colonialism, Indigenous Peoples and communities retain an invaluable reservoir of traditional knowledge regarding environmental guardianship, which has been passed down for millennia.

IPCAs engage directly with the knowledge and stewardship responsibilities Indigenous Peoples hold over their territories, by facilitating a deeper engagement with Indigenous laws and sovereignty. IPCAs exemplify a transition from colonial conservation towards Indigenous-led guardianship. This shift fosters the resurgence of Indigenous knowledge and governance, embodying a dynamic reassertion of Indigenous laws, cultures, languages and livelihoods. IPCAs serve as platforms for a fundamental shift from a divisive human-nature dichotomy ingrained in colonial perspectives towards sustainable ways of living with natural environments.

Embracing future with IPCAs

As Canada aspires to meet its 30 by 30 conservation goal, aiming to protect 30 per cent of its land and water by 2030, IPCAs emerge as powerful allies. They serve as more than conservation tools. They embody an avenue to honour Indigenous rights, invigorate Indigenous cultures and traditions, and promote genuine reconciliation. By rejecting colonial conservation narratives, IPCAs light the way for Canada to fulfil its ecological conservation commitments while fostering meaningful ties with Indigenous Peoples.

This transformative approach deepens our engagement with Indigenous laws, merging the goals of reconciliation and ecological sustainability. In championing IPCAs, Canada creates an opportunity to heal our relationship with both the environment and one another.

Canada’s conservation commitments, project finance for permanence

A key mechanism that bolsters this shift is the Indigenous-led Project Finance for Permanence (PFP) initiative. PFP is a pioneering conservation funding model that combines contributions from Canadian governments, Indigenous governments and interested philanthropic organizations to ensure enduring protection for land and water ecosystems. By securing the necessary funds at the outset, PFPs deter projects from becoming underfunded or abandoned.  

In December 2022, at the 15th Conference of the Parties — COP15 — Canada showcased its commitment to these PFP agreements to meet its pledge to conserve at least 30 per cent of its lands and waters by 2030. Key to this is the $800 million allocated in the 2023 federal government’s budget to bolster PFP agreements, earmarked for Indigenous conservation initiatives. This signifies significant new funding to support PFP agreements to provide long-term financial support for Indigenous conservation initiatives.

These funds will support four major PFP initiatives in Ontario, Nunavut, the N.W.T. and British Columbia. These projects aim to protect vast land areas and coastal and inland waterways. The federal government has already committed an initial $100 million to each of these four initiatives, aiming to bolster Indigenous-led conservation efforts and contribute to Canada’s protected area commitments for 2025 and 2030. The final allotments will be determined through dialogues with Indigenous Nations, reflecting the specific needs and goals of each initiative.

Recent announcements from the Canadian government and Indigenous governments in the N.W.T. have further highlighted the significance of Indigenous leadership in conservation efforts. This week, they celebrated the signing of a framework agreement to support the world’s largest Indigenous-led land conservation initiatives.

The federal government has released key considerations that will guide negotiations for Indigenous-led PFP agreements, emphasizing that PFPs for any IPCA be regionally designed and adapted, respect Indigenous rights, and consider the unique diversity of Indigenous cultures, sovereignty and traditions. Central to these considerations is the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) from involved Indigenous Nations, under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). These PFP initiatives aim to bring all vital partners to the negotiation table, ensuring Indigenous leadership and conservation goals are at the heart of the discussions.

These efforts highlight a reimagining of Canada’s approach to conservation that should be applauded and supported. As Canada grapples with its historical and ongoing impacts of colonialism, IPCAs emerge not only as sanctuaries of biodiversity but as arenas of rights resurgence and sovereignty affirmation. This commitment heralds a paradigm shift, weaving conservation, Indigenous rights and reconciliation together. But as we move forward, it's important to demystify IPCAs. In our next segment, we pull back the curtain on the structure and essence of IPCAs. Stay tuned.
This is the first instalment of a four-part article.

Nick Leeson is a senior counsel with Woodward & Company LLP, a law firm located in Victoria, B.C. and Whitehorse, Yukon. His practice is based out of British Columbia, from where he represents Indigenous clients and interests from coast-to-coast-to-coast. Jacqueline Ohayon is a term student with Woodward LLP. She is also a master’s in law student (LL.M.) at the University of Victoria. Her research focuses on settler allyship in contexts of Indigenous ecological stewardship and governance.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, LexisNexis Canada, Law360 Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

Photo credit / Valerii Molodavkin ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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