Comment: Guardians program empowers indigenous peoples

Canada’s shameful treatment of indigenous people was rooted in a double abuse, of both their personal lives and their sustaining values. Now, some of the most significant reforms are being driven and led by indigenous citizens themselves, and by a respect for their cultures and experience. A compelling example is the proposed National Indigenous Guardians Network.

It is a program of stewardship that empowers indigenous people to manage their own lands, in ways that combine the best of modern science with the wisest of traditional indigenous practice, and trains young people to become the next generation of leaders — educators, scientists, and legislators — not by rejecting their culture, but by embracing it.

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The network builds on the work of more than 30 existing Indigenous Guardian programs across Canada. From Sheshatshiu, Labrador, to Deline, N.W.T., Guardians act as stewards on the land. They research wildlife, track the impacts of climate change, patrol protected areas and monitor development projects.

A federally funded national network, promoted by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative and its indigenous partners, will build on their success. It will provide the support and training necessary to realize the full potential of Guardian programs.

Canadians are ashamed of the past wrongs of colonialism and the social challenges that take such a cruel toll on individual lives and community values. Now we are beginning to recognize that indigenous nations are full of profound wisdom and deeply spiritual and that progress can only be made through a partnership based on equality and trust.

The time is ripe for a forward-looking model that honours indigenous leadership and cultures and provides a path to a healthy future for our young people. This approach has already proven highly successful.

Some of the Canadian Guardians have been inspired by indigenous stewardship programs in Australia. The Australian government is investing the equivalent of $623 million in the “Working on Country” initiative over 10 years. Researchers documented that the initiative has increased employment, reduced domestic violence and other crime and strengthened local governance, among other benefits.

In fact, for every $1 invested in the program, Australia has generated $3 in social, economic and cultural value. Nearly 110 ranger programs operate in the country’s vast remote areas and help combat the social problems that accompany poverty and lack of hope.

Guardians in Canada show similar promise. A forthcoming case study of two emerging programs in the Northwest Territories has found they already deliver about $2.50 of social, economic, cultural and environmental benefits for every $1 invested. The researchers expect that with support from a national network, the value could increase to up to $3.70 for every dollar of investment. Stewardship in a culturally relevant way is just one aspect of what they achieve.

They also create jobs. They offer indigenous youth a sense of pride and purpose. They improve public health and well-being in indigenous communities. And they empower indigenous communities to determine the fate of their own lands. In short, a national network of Guardian programs will create a path to reconciliation.

Canada has a long history of telling indigenous peoples what is best for them and thus forcing First Nations to challenge aggressively what’s imposed upon them. The Guardians model reverses this destructive tendency through empowerment. It is indigenous-envisioned and led, created through research and consultation, and supported by indigenous and non-indigenous groups alike.

It is rare in public life to come across an idea that addresses so many challenges at once and attracts so much broad support. Given the widespread benefits, many voices have joined the call for a federally funded National Indigenous Guardians Network. Leaders recognize that it provides a powerful way to fulfil the government’s 2015 speech from the throne promise to establish nation-to-nation and Inuit-to-Crown relationships with indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples know the healing power of the land. It’s time to draw on that power and move toward reconciliation. It’s time for indigenous peoples to manage their own lands and strengthen their own communities.

Joe Clark is a former prime minister and a founding director of Canadians for a New Partnership. Stephen Kakfwi is a former premier of the Northwest Territories, Sahtu Dene, and is a founder and CEO of the group. This commentary first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.

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