Indigenous protected areas: Transformative opportunities, part four

By Nick Leeson and Jacqueline Ohayon

Law360 Canada (October 19, 2023, 8:06 AM EDT) --
Nick Leeson
Nick Leeson
Jacqueline Ohayon
Jacqueline Ohayon
As we journeyed from the history and potential of IPCAs in our preceding sections, it’s crucial now to envision their pivotal role in our collective future. Emerging from a rich tapestry of Indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems, IPCAs are Indigenous-led initiatives. These initiatives, guided by an Indigenous Nation’s practices and priorities, centre on the protection and conservation of ecosystems, culture and language. Rooted in Indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems, IPCAs are not merely conservation labels. They are dynamic frameworks echoing the heartbeat of Indigenous Peoples, resonating with their aspirations, rights and deep connections to their lands.

Indigenous governments take the lead role in setting the goals for the area, drawing the boundaries, making the management plans and structuring the governance for IPCAs. While external partnerships with Crown governments, environmental NGOs and philanthropic bodies may support these acts of self-determination and enhance IPCA initiatives, it’s the leadership of the Indigenous communities that remains the axis of this wheel.

Role of IPCAs in reconciliation

IPCAs can provide a pathway toward reconciliation by acknowledging and confirming the inherent rights and traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples. They highlight the importance of Indigenous laws as part of Canadian federalism and legal system, calling for a level of legal pluralism that demands mutual respect and co-operation. And they promise not just protection, but the maintenance of living connections between people and the environment. IPCAs rekindle active, meaningful connections between people, places, values and ensuing generations — a vital strategy in our rapidly changing world.

The most northerly parts of Turtle Island are already recognized as providing leadership in Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship, not just within Canada but globally. The triumph of the Thaidene Nëné IPCA in the Northwest Territories, important to several Indigenous communities, serves as an example. Protected through Dene law and co-managed via a $30-million trust fund, it won the 2020 Equator Prize for innovative, nature-based solutions for biodiversity, climate change and development challenges. This success story exemplifies the promise that IPCAs hold and should be repeated across Turtle Island many times over.

The crucial role of IPCAs in reconciliation can’t be overstated. They provide a path towards reconciliation by acknowledging and affirming Indigenous Peoples’ inherent rights and traditional knowledge. They not only recognize but reinvigorate Indigenous languages, cultures and sovereignty over ancestral and unceded territories. They contribute to the unequivocal recognition of Indigenous laws by acknowledging the distinct legal order and governance structure that the Indigenous nation possesses.

True decolonization, road ahead with IPCAs

However, properly implementing IPCAs underscores the essential truth that decolonization involves far more than symbolic gestures; it demands substantive action, collaboration and systemic change. It’s about restructuring the relationship between the Canadian government and Indigenous Peoples, emphasizing partnership and shared responsibility rather than dominion and ownership.

The collaborative implementation and sustained support of IPCAs serve as potent tools for rectifying and redressing historical injustices. This approach aligns with the goals of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the requirement for Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). The Canadian government has a legal obligation to ensure that IPCAs fully respect and uphold these international standards.

Given this context, the evolution and acceptance of IPCAs set a course for transformative change. IPCAs symbolize not just an alternative approach to conservation, but a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable vision for our shared future. More, they’re not merely a conservation tool, but a beacon guiding us towards a more reconciled, respectful and responsible relationship with our natural world and with one another.

Navigating future: Imperative of collective commitment

The emergence of IPCAs marks an important moment in Canada's journey toward reconciliation and sustainable conservation. We must all play our part in amplifying their momentum and championing these significant initiatives. By doing so, we contribute to a collective future that acknowledges past injustices, honours Indigenous rights and knowledge and aims for environmental and social well-being.

Canadian governments and conservation organizations should prioritize Indigenous-led conservation. This includes providing adequate funding, opportunities for capacity-building and legal frameworks that recognize Indigenous jurisdiction and decision-making authority. A collective approach that invites federal departments, philanthropic organizations and Indigenous communities to work together could magnify the benefits of initiatives like PFP, which unite partners to finance locally designed conservation systems that support not just ecological health but also Indigenous economies.

The Canadian government and conservation organizations must commit to Indigenous-led conservation as we navigate this critical juncture. This will involve providing adequate funding, capacity-building opportunities and legal frameworks that recognize Indigenous jurisdiction and decision-making authority. The potential benefits are vast, including new job creation, investments in workforce training and skill development, educational opportunities, support for new local businesses and significant infrastructure investments.

IPCAs hold the potential to herald not just a future of conservation, but a horizon where healing, community growth, education, and reconciliation merge. By working together in a way that respects and promotes Indigenous laws and rights, we can better protect our land, waters and future together. We can raise hundreds of millions of dollars for existing and new protected areas, land use plans, Indigenous Guardian programs and diversify our economy in a way that provides support for healing and wellness, community capacity, training and education, while furthering reconciliation. The promise of IPCAs, as underscored by the recent N.W.T. PFP agreement, lies in the transformative impact they can have on our collective future — a future where Indigenous wisdom and sovereignty guide our shared stewardship of the land.

This is the fourth instalment of a four-part article. Part one: Indigenous protected areas: Transformative opportunities in bridging conservation, reconciliation. Part two: Indigenous protected areas: Transformative opportunities, part two. Part three: Indigenous protected areas: Transformative opportunities, part three.

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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