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Feds, Northwest Territories to create Indigenous protected area for Great Bear Lake

MONTREAL — The federal government, the Northwest Territories and the Délı̨nę Got'ı̨nę government signed off on a plan Saturday to create an Indigenous protected area around Great Bear Lake.
Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault, left, and Northwest Territories MLA for Nahendeh Shane Thompson bow during a prayer performed via videoconference and shown on screen during a news conference at the COP 15 summit on biodiversity, in Montreal, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter McCabe

MONTREAL — The federal government, the Northwest Territories and the Délı̨nę Got'ı̨nę government signed off on a plan Saturday to create an Indigenous protected area around Great Bear Lake.

The three governments signed a letter of intent at the COP15 biodiversity conference in Montreal in what the First Nation describes as a major win, having fought to have the lake declared an Indigenous protected and conserved area.

"Our people have kept it that way for many generations, we believe that we have the responsibility to keep it that way for the future generations yet to come," Chief Danny Gaudet of the Délı̨nę Got'ı̨nę said via Zoom.

"It's our turn to have a responsibility to treat this place with respect, it is something that we have been told to keep alive (by elders) because it will be a place of refuge for the future of people, for all living things."

Great Bear Lake is the world’s eighth largest freshwater lake and is considered one of the most intact ecosystems in the world with cultural significance to the Dene people. It is also the biggest lake contained entirely within Canada's border.

It was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2016 and is surrounded by boreal forest, which provides an important habitat for muskox, caribou and moose.

Gaudet said they hope to come to an agreement in the coming months to ensure management for the long term.

Shane Thompson, N.W.T.'s environment and natural resources minister, said establishing and funding a conservation area will mean active Indigenous stewardship of a critical habitat.

"Great Bear spans over 31,000 square kilometres or 0.3 per cent of the area of Canada," said Thompson. "Put in perspective, this is an area larger than Belgium."

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said the Indigenous leadership in nature conservation is crucial as they bring a unique perspective about knowledge, rights and responsibilities to their lands, waters and ice. 

The announcement Saturday bookends several commitments and funding announcements with provinces and communities during the COP15 conference, including an $800 million investment to support Indigenous led conservation projects.

All of it brings Canada closer to a target of protecting 25 per cent of its lands and oceans by 2025. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was unequivocal that Canada would meet that target.

As of December 2021, Canada had conserved 13.5 per cent of land and almost 14 per cent of marine territory. To hit "25 by 25,'' Canada must further protect more than 1.2 million square kilometres of land, or approximately the size of Manitoba and Saskatchewan added together.

Guilbeault said the types of announcements made in Montreal over the past few weeks is an example of how to achieve the goal. He also remains confident the COP15 agreement will include a commitment to 30 per cent by 2030 — the target Canada and some other countries are pushing for.

"We are very close, in fact, to be able to to show how we get to 25 by 25, we're getting there," Guilbeault said. "And Canada can only meet this target through strong partnerships with provinces, territories as well as with indigenous peoples."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2022.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press