Indigenous protected areas: Transformative opportunities, part two

By Nick Leeson and Jacqueline Ohayon

Law360 Canada (October 17, 2023, 10:57 AM EDT) --
Nick Leeson
Nick Leeson
Jacqueline Ohayon
Jacqueline Ohayon
In 2018, an inflection point in conservation efforts was marked. The Indigenous Circle of Experts (ICE) proposed strategies for Canada to achieve the global target of protecting 17 per cent of land and water by 2020, predominantly through establishing Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs).

But what are IPCAs? In the words of ICE, they are the “lands and waters where Indigenous governments take the reins, leading the protection and conservation of ecosystems through a tapestry of Indigenous laws, governance, and centuries-old knowledge systems.” While these areas take distinct shapes across different communities, they are united by three non-negotiable pillars:

1) they are Indigenous-led,

2) they elevate Indigenous rights and responsibilities, and

3) they are a long-term commitment to conservation.

Decoding IPCA framework

First, IPCAs aren’t just areas on a map. They are a recognition that Indigenous governments are central in sculpting the goals, management plans and governance frameworks of those areas. IPCAs are shaped and governed by the Indigenous peoples and communities, who possess deep knowledge about the lands and waters and continue to fulfil their stewardship responsibilities over their territories. This approach recognizes and respects Indigenous rights and the profound connection between Indigenous Peoples and their territories. Indigenous Nations have the right to choose the lands and waters included within any IPCA. This is often done through comprehensive community planning processes. It's more than conservation — it’s about respect, recognition and realization of Indigenous rights.

Second, IPCAs are not a silent nod but a loud proclamation of Indigenous rights and responsibilities. They highlight the pivotal role of Indigenous laws in shaping conservation outcomes. This includes the inherent right that Indigenous Peoples derive benefits from their natural resources, coupled with the duty to protect and honour the land and water under their laws and governance.

A key part of IPCAs is that they let Indigenous governments and Crown governments work together in a way that deeply recognizes and engages with Indigenous sovereignty. In this way, IPCAs are established through the application of Indigenous law, followed by the formation of partnership agreements between Indigenous governments and Crown governments. These agreements operate on a Nation-to-Nation basis, with each party collaboratively delineating their respective roles and responsibilities. While IPCAs may sometimes be jointly designated as national parks or national wildlife areas, Indigenous governments are always central active participants and co-creators — Indigenous voices aren’t just in the room; they’re leading the conversation. This enables collaboration between Indigenous and Crown governments, reinforcing Indigenous sovereignty while achieving conservation goals.

Third, for Indigenous Peoples, conservation isn’t a project; it’s a legacy. Through IPCAs, they enshrine a multigenerational perspective, preserving their territories for posterity and honouring the wisdom of ancestors. Indigenous Peoples often govern with a multigenerational lens, conserving their territories for future generations and maintaining the duties of past generations. Embedded in Indigenous laws and governance systems is this timeless vision that binds both humans and the environment in a delicate but enduring dance. This approach, which focuses on safeguarding territories for future generations, captures the essence of Indigenous sovereignty.

Role of IPCAs in upholding Indigenous sovereignty

Before treaties, before borders, Indigenous Peoples have been the unwavering stewards of Turtle Island. IPCAs are not just tools but torches, illuminating the path some Indigenous governments are taking to honour the ancient laws that dictate their reciprocal relationships with every living being. Guided by Indigenous legal and knowledge systems, IPCAs aim to achieve not just ecological preservation but also sustainable livelihoods, self-determination, culture and language revitalization and preservation of Indigenous knowledge systems. IPCAs, with their dual focus on social and environmental justice, are not only conserving biodiversity but are also forging harmony between protected areas and local communities. IPCAs uphold an Indigenous government’s authority in collaborating with their communities to determine sustainable land and water use, achieving both conservation and cultural goals. This makes sure the enduring connection between Indigenous Peoples and their ancestral territories is unbroken.

Roles of IPCAs as tools of rights resurgence

More than mere areas on a map, IPCAs are arenas of resurgence. Spaces where Indigenous laws, knowledge, governance systems and cultures thrive and take centre stage. There are areas guided by Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies, which inherently value the interconnectedness of all beings, both human and non-human alike. They aren’t just conservatories of biodiversity, but repositories of rich histories, relationships and stories interwoven within ecosystems and between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories. These sacred bonds and relationships form the cornerstone of Indigenous stewardship practices and environmental management strategies.

IPCAs represent a holistic reimagining of how we approach stewardship, rights and cultural preservation. But what challenges and opportunities lie ahead in this transformative journey? That’s where we head next. Stay with us for part three in this four-part series of articles on Indigenous and Protected Conserved Areas in Canada.
This is the second instalment of a four-part article. Part one: Indigenous protected areas: Transformative opportunities in bridging conservation, reconciliation.

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

Interested in writing for us? To learn more about how you can add your voice to Law360 Canada, contact Analysis Editor Peter Carter at or call 647-776-6740.