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At the Fifth International Marine Protected Areas Congress, Indigenous and Parks Canada representatives showcased their work toward the creation of new conservation areas. Photo: Daphné Dossios.

Indigenous communities lead in ocean protection

Many nations at work on preserving marine areas seen as key to environmental health

By Daphné Dossios , in City Environment , on February 17, 2023 Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Indigenous communities hold key roles in protecting Canada’s marine areas, said representatives from Parks Canada speaking at a national conference in Vancouver earlier this month.

“To be frank, Parks Canada was struggling to catch up last year, in terms of the amount of planning you have done, the financial support you brought to the table, and the involvement of non-government organizations,” said Kevin McNamee, director of the protected areas establishment branch at Parks Canada, at a recent conference on protecting Canadian marine areas.

“It really is Indigenous leadership at work.” 

That conference showcased the work done over the last few years toward the creation of five additional marine conservation areas with a combined surface of almost 350,000 square kilometres.

Indigenous leaders from all over Canada spoke at a recent conference on protecting Canadian marine areas. Left to right: Belinda Webb, Rodd Laing, Vern Cheechoo, Lawrence Martin.

The conference occurred in the context of the Fifth International Marine Protected Areas Congress held in downtown Vancouver from Feb. 3 to Feb. 9 with the goal of supporting Canada commitment to protect 30 per cent of the country’s land and oceans by 2030. 

The speakers stressed the importance of Indigenous leadership roles because knowledge holders, such as elders, could offer invaluable environmental expertise and a better understanding of the areas to be protected. 

In northern Ontario, for instance, the federal government and the Mushkegowuk Council are working toward the creation of a Omushkego-led marine conservation area located in the Hudson Bay and James Bay.

Nine communities will be extensively consulted by the Mushkegowuk Council to learn about the region, comprehend prevalent uses and pursuits, and determine Omushkego conservation priorities. A Mushkegowuk marine task force made up of elders, youth, and community members will be created as well.

“Water surrounds Mother Earth and protects it as water protected us when we were in our mother’s womb. Without it, we are nothing.” – Vern Cheechoo (Mushkegowuk Council)

Indigenous communities are often the ones at the forefront of climate change and experience its impacts daily, said Vern Cheechoo, director of lands and resources at the Mushkegowuk Council. In some areas in north Ontario, permafrost is melting, which provokes drought as the soil is more permeable. That, in turn, impacts fishing activities.

“People are driving trucks on the river, that’s how dry it is,” he said.

Richard Hall, hereditary chief of the Nuxálk Nation, and Danielle Shaw, chief councillor for the Wuikinuxv Nation.

Many Indigenous speakers at the conference said that preserving marine areas is of cultural and spiritual significance.

“Water surrounds Mother Earth and protects it as water protected us when we were in our mother’s womb. Without it, we are nothing,” said Cheechoo.

Danielle Shaw, chief councillor for the Wuikinuxv Nation in the central-coast region of British Columbia, added that in Indigenous beliefs, humans need to take care of the ecosystem as a whole, so that it will take care of them back.

“When resources are managed for human consumption as the ultimate priority, it leads to chaos in the natural world. And as our people are so intimately connected to the natural world, it provokes cultural depreciation, despair, stress and uncertainty within our own homes and families,” said Shaw. 

Nunatsiavut representatives also highlighted the socio-economic benefits that could result from having Inuit-led conservation areas. 

Not only it would be an opportunity for the communities to co-manage the area under Inuit laws and cultures, but it could also create Inuit jobs and business opportunities, as well as strengthen Inuit connections notably between youth and community members, said Rodd Laing, director of environment for the Nunatsiavut government.

Reconciliation should infuse the whole process of co-managing marine conservation areas, stressed Richard Hall, a hereditary chief of the Nuxálk Nation in British Columbia and residential school survivor. Indigenous communities and settlers have to put their differences aside to protect marine areas and leave a better future for the next generations to come, he concluded.