Course:CONS200/2021/The role of First Nation communities in biodiversity conservation in Canada

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Protecting Canada’s remaining biodiversity is vital for maintaining the functions of human life and global climate stability. Indigenous communities across the country have been maintaining biodiversity and managing ecosystems for thousands of years. But since colonization, many of these traditional practices have been restricted, contributing to the massive decline in biodiversity throughout the country. Despite not meeting its Convention on Biodiversity goals to conserve at least 17% of terrestrial areas and 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020[1], the federal government of Canada has now pledged to protect 25% of its land and oceans by 2025, and 30% by 2030 through the Pathway to Target 1 Challenge[2]. To achieve these goals, initiatives and partnerships have been fostered between the Government of Canada and Indigenous communities and leaders in recognition of the necessity of traditional ecological knowledge and values in land stewardship as current remedial actions for the health of Canada’s ecosystems.


Current State of Biodiversity in Canada

Banff National Park (pictured), established in 1885, is Canada's first national park and utilized the fortress conservation model.

Canada has great ecosystem diversity, having 28% of the world’s boreal forests, 20% of the world’s freshwater resources, the world’s longest coastline and 25% of remaining global temperate rainforests and wetlands[1]. Within these ecosystems, there are more than 80,000 species[3], however, over 500 are listed as ‘at risk’ by federal standards[1]. Consistent with the consequences of anthropocentric land management and climate change, biodiversity has declined an average of 68% in the past 50 years globally[1]. In Canada, biodiversity loss has largely been due to mass habitat loss, pollution and overharvesting[4]. It is critical to conserve Canada's remaining biodiversity as its decline will lead to ecosystem instability, loss of the ecosystem services, biological resources and social benefits people depend on.

History of Conservation Practices in Canada

In the late 19th century, the protected areas movement began in North America centered around the fortress conservation model. The model views human interaction with the land as a threat to biodiversity, and therefore disproportionately affect Indigenous peoples. It enabled the forced removal and restricted access of many communities from territories they depend on and had stewarded for centuries[5]. In addition to inflicting cultural genocide, this historical movement ceased thousands of years of traditional ecosystem stewardship.

Importance of Indigenous Land Stewardship

Indigenous communities traditionally prioritize interconnectedness and reciprocity with the land, living off of its resources and in turn protecting and managing it to maintain ecosystem health. Connections with ancestors and cosmology are often deeply tied to the land as well[6]. Consequently, communities have developed centuries worth of local environmental knowledge which is critically important to creating holistic and ecosystem-based management practices.

The Canadian Government historically has not integrated traditional knowledge into its conservation policies or management practices. This is reflected in some of the misinformed practices implemented federally, such as fire suppression[7]. With Indigenous and local communities continuing to maintain ecosystem health using traditionally informed management practices, it is clear that partnerships between these local communities and the Canadian government could lead to large scale conservation success[8]. Consequently, Indigenous leadership is not only critical to biodiversity conservation, but also a necessary dimension of reconciliation in Canada. As early conservation efforts restricted Indigenous rights to land titles and stewardship, contemporary conservation efforts must respect and prioritize Indigenous rights, consent, and leadership.

It is necessary that Indigenous peoples are involved in biodiversity conservation in Canada due to the success of biodiversity in Indigenous-managed lands, and because ecosystems in Canada have adapted to Indigenous land stewardship .

Biodiversity in Indigenous-managed Lands

Despite the historical exclusion of Indigenous communities from large-scale conservation decision-making, their use of traditional knowledge and values in conservation practices has led to thriving biodiversity. Studies show that Indigenous-managed lands have equal or greater biodiversity than protected areas that are managed by government bodies and NGOs, and they support more threatened vertebrate species than most protected and non-protected areas[9][10][11] highlighting their effectiveness at conserving biodiversity.

A managed low-intensity ground fire which help maintain ecosystem health and resilience.

Ecosystem Adaptations to Indigenous Land Stewardship

Species evolve over time based on the unique environments of their region, adapting traits that are best suited to survive in those specific conditions. Because Indigenous communities have been carefully managing and altering natural landscapes over centuries, organisms and ecosystems as units have adapted to exist within those management regimes[12].

For example, some Indigenous communities participated in small-scale burnings to encourage the growth of berries and maintain grasslands. However, since removing Indigenous people from the landscape, fire suppression became a common practice in Canada. Devastatingly, preventing cultural burnings has shifted the fire regime in many ecosystems to more intense and severe fires. Furthermore, seeds of several fire-adapted species are unable to be released, there are more uncontrolled invasive species, and uneven and unnatural species dynamics. Indigenous practices of fire management allowed for historically controlled, low-intensity fires, but now these areas are not adapted for current practices of fire suppression[7].

Government of Canada Initiatives

To increase the role of Indigenous peoples in conservation planning, decision making and management, the Government of Canada has launched two initiatives; the Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program and the Aboriginal Fund for Terrestrial and Aquatic Species at Risk.

Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program

The Government of Canada allocated $25 million in the 2017 Budget to support a Pilot of the Indigenous Guardians program for four years [13]. The goal of this program is to provide more opportunities for Indigenous Peoples to exercise their right and responsibility to protect and conserve ecosystems and maintain a connection to their traditional territories and the Canadian landscape [13]. This is facilitated through funding community-based stewardship initiatives in Indigenous communities [13].

Activities eligible for funding

Activities eligible for funding through the Indigenous Guardians Program include [13]:

  • research
  • surveys
  • conservation planning
  • outreach and education
  • species management
  • restoration and protection
  • habitat improvement
  • training

Examples of Inuit-lead projects funded through the Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program include the Qikiqtaaluk Wildlife Board for Community Monitoring of Caribou in Nunavut, the Hebron Ambassador and Nain Conservation Officer who encourages community and visitor engagement in Nunatsiavut’s conservation, and Munaqsi Community-Based Monitoring in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region which will utilize Indigenous knowledge systems to record environmental disturbances and safety hazards [13].

Aboriginal Fund for Terrestrial and Aquatic Species at Risk

The Aboriginal Fund for Terrestrial and Aquatic Species at Risk (AFSAR) was developed in 2004 to help increase the ability of Indigenous People to participate in the implementation of the Species at Risk Act through funding [14]. On average, funding ranges from $10,000 to $50,000 per project, and projects may extend to a maximum of two years [14].

Objectives of the AFSAR:

  • “Support and promote the conservation, protection and recovery of target species and their habitats on Indigenous lands or traditional territories” [14]
  • “Support the engagement and cooperation of Indigenous Peoples in the conservation and recovery of the target species, their habitats and SARA processes” [14]

Activities eligible for funding

Activities eligible for funding through the AFSAR include [14]:

  • habitat protection and securement
  • habitat improvement
  • species and habitat threat reduction
  • conservation planning
  • surveys, inventories and monitoring
  • project evaluation
  • documentation and use of Indigenous Traditional Knowledge
  • outreach and education
  • capacity building

Funding restrictions

However, while all Indigenous communities and organizations located in Canada are eligible for funding, projects must take place on reserves or land set aside for Indigenous Peoples under the Indian Act or section 91 (24) of the 1867 Constitution Act, other lands directly controlled by Indigenous Peoples, or lands where traditional activities are carried out by Indigenous Peoples. Furthermore, proposed projects must target species listed on Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), and/or species that have been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as endangered, threatened, or of special concern [14].

Indigenous and Government of Canada Partnerships

Woodland caribou (pictured) is a threatened species under the SARA which many Indigenous communities and ecosystems heavily depend on.

The Government of Canada has three key partnerships; the National Aboriginal Council on Species at Risk, the Indigenous Circle of Experts, and the Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership. These partners act as advisors to the Government of Canada through "collaborative initiatives in conservation and stewardship" [15].

National Aboriginal Council on Species at Risk

The National Aboriginal Council on Species at Risk (NACOSAR) was created under Section 8.1 of the SARA in 2002 [16]. The council consists of six committee members who are representatives of the Indigenous peoples of Canada and are appointed by the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change based on recommendations from national Indigenous organizations [16].

The key duty of the NACOSAR is to act as the advisory council to the Minister for the implementation of the SARA [17]. Among other duties, they provide advice and recommendations to the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council and ensure adequate consultation is done with Indigenous groups for species recovery planning and implementation of the Act [17]. For example, in 2013, the NACOSAR requested a review of Indigenous engagement under the SARA by Environment Canada in their Boreal woodland caribou recovery project and by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in their inner Bay of Fundy Atlantic salmon and American eel recovery project [18].

Indigenous Circle of Experts

The Indigenous Circle of Experts (ICE) was a key component for the Pathway to Canada Target 1, and was established to provide guidance on creating new, Indigenous-led protected and conserved areas to help achieve Canada’s goal of conserving at least 17% of land [19].  ICE was composed of 20 members including Indigenous experts from across Canada and officials from federal, provincial, and territorial jurisdictions who were mandated to work together, beginning in March 2017 [19]

ICE published a report in 2018 titled “We Rise Together” using collective input from Indigenous Peoples across Canada to utilize Indigenous knowledge and local experience when recommending actions of Indigenous-led conservation [19]. This report outlines 28 recommendations for the creation and expansion of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs), and this is the framework the Government of Canada follows in decision-making [19].

Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership

The Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership is an Indigenous-led project and coalition between “Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders and organizations, scholars, conservation agencies and organizations, and knowledge mobilization specialists” [20]. It was started in May 2019 as a seven-year initiative to act on the recommendations laid out by Indigenous Circle of Experts, evaluate Canadian conservation practices and further Indigenous involvement and leadership in conservation [20].

The objective of this partnership is to "establish a Canada-wide network to catalyze communication, coordination and reciprocal knowledge sharing amongst diverse partners, including Indigenous communities and environmental organizations working to support Indigenous-led conservation” [20].

Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas

The Indigenous partners of the Government of Canada have been largely focusing on increasing the extent of Indigenous protected and conserved areas (IPCAs) in Canada because they are the best solution to pursue for achieving Canada's Target 1 Challenge goals while promoting reconciliation.

What is an IPCA?

IPCAs are a relatively new type of protected area that place emphasis on Indigenous governance and management. The primary goal of an IPCA is the “[conservation of] ecosystems through Indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems” [21].

As outlined by the One with Nature Report, some of the key foundations of an IPCA include[21]:

  • Indigenous-led governance and management
  • Highlighting of indigenous rights and responsibilities
  • Conservation of land and water for future generations
  • Emphasis on language and cultural continuance

The goals of IPCAs are not solely conservation focused, but also a way to use conservation as a mechanism for reconciliation and Indigenous resurgence. Many IPCAs allow for regulated, sustainable resource use and the foraging and hunting of wild foods. This represents an important move away from “fortress” conservation models, which have often restricted the traditional food gathering practices of Indigenous peoples. Some IPCAs are co-management efforts between provincial and federal governments and Indigenous governments, while others are fully governed by local Indigenous peoples [21].

Why IPCAs?

Though IPCAs are a relatively new classification of protected area, they represent potential for many biological, economic, and social benefits. As discussed, research has found that biodiversity on Indigenous managed lands is often equal to or higher than biodiversity on provincially and federally managed lands[9]. IPCAs place leadership in the hands of local Indigenous governments, many of whom have occupied the areas for centuries and are aware of the unique needs of the ecosystems. IPCAs also represent a very important step in reconciliation, by restoring nation to nation relationships, as well as relationships of people to the land[22].

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve

Case study: Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve

Xaayda Gwaay (Haida Gwaii) is an archipelago of 160 islands off the coast of southern British Columbia that is known for its rich ecological and human history. The Haida Nation has proven its agency and power through its fight to protect the organisms and landscapes of Haida Gwaii. After a century of industrial resource extraction following the colonial formation of Canada in 1867, the archipelago and surrounding ocean ecosystems were left damaged and depleted[23]. By the 1970s, sea otters and several other keystone species were locally extinct, and much of the land had been clearcut, leaving both terrestrial and marine ecosystems destabilized. The Haida Nation took a stand by forming the Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program and leading the Athlii Gwaii blockage, resulting in the creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve - a 5,000 square kilometer IPCA - and a plan for adaptive co-management[24]. The Gwaii Haanas Agreement (1993) and Gwaii Haanas Marine Agreement (2010)  give management rights to the Archipelago Management Board (AMB), which is composed of half representatives from the Canadian government (from Parks Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada), and half representatives from the Council of the Haida Nation[23]. They work collaboratively to create ecosystem-based management plans, using guiding principles from Haida law including reciprocity, respect, interconnectedness, Elder counsel, interconnectedness, and balance. The ability of Haida to use traditional ecological knowledge and values in collaboration with federal land protections has led to huge increases in biodiversity and species populations in all Gwaii Haanas ecosystems, and in 2018, the AMB published Gina ‘Waadluxan KilGuhlGa Land-Sea-People Management Plan to continue this great work[25]. As Canada’s first integrated land-and-sea management plan, the Haida Nation has made it clear that putting stewardship in the hands of local communities creates biocentric, holistic and innovative conservation strategies.

Case study: Edéhzhié Protected Area

A recent IPCA that has been established is Edéhzhié Protected Area, located on the territory of the Dehcho First Nations in the Northwest Territories. At 14,218 km², this protected area is twice the size of Banff National Park. The establishment of this IPCA was a key part of the effort to hit the target of 17% of Canadian land conserved by 2020[1]. Though this target was not met, Edéhzhié still represents the first of hopefully many new forms of place-based Indigenous-led conservation efforts. A focus of Edéhzhié Protected Area is not only to conserve and monitor the habitat of species at risk such as woodland caribou, wood bison, and wolverine but to preserve and celebrate the cultural and spiritual significance of the land as well[26]. Parts of the land are the site of Tłichô Dene and Dehcho myths, and there is a strong emphasis on cultural continuance, such as continuance of traditional hunting and food gathering techniques. The Edéhzhié Protected Area contains three main ecoregions that support an abundance of plant and wildlife biodiversity: The Horn Plateau, The Hay River Lowlands, and the Great Slave Lake Plains[26].

Management of the Edéhzhié Protected Area is a joint effort between the Government of Canada and the Dehcho First Nations, with both groups “agreeing to act in the best interests of Edéhzhié”[26]. Edéhzhié Protected Area was established in 2018, so it is relatively new, but it is a promising endeavour into a new model of protected area that puts Indigenous leadership and cultural continuance at the forefront.


For centuries, Indigenous communities have managed and protected Canada’s beautiful and diverse ecosystems. Local management strategies have fostered a deep understanding of the environment, and proven to be effective at maintaining high rates of biodiversity. Historically, the Canadian government has undervalued Indigenous knowledge of ecosystems. This has led to damaging federal management practices, the undermining of human rights, and the decline of vital biodiversity across Canada.

In recent decades, there have been several examples of successful co-management models between Indigenous communities and the Government of Canada. The recognition and incorporation of indigenous knowledge and leadership is vital not only to meet Canada’s Target 1 goals and ensure long-term biodiversity conservation, but also as a way of ensuring just conservation going into the future. In some instances, effective conservation is not only unjust, but impossible without Indigenous consent and leadership[12]. Creating conservation policies and practices based on traditional ecological knowledge and stewarded by local communities is the best way forward to ensure a recovery of biodiversity across the nation as well as restoring the rights of many Indigenous and land-based communities.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Environment and Climate Change Canada. (2019). Summary of Canada’s 6th National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
  2. Trudeau, Justin (2019, December 13). Minister of Environment and Climate Change Mandate Letter to Jonathan Wilkinson.
  3. Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council & National General Status Working Group. (2016). Wild Species 2015: The General Status of Species in Canada.
  4. WWF (2020) Living Planet Report 2020 - Bending the curve of biodiversity loss. Almond, R.E.A., Grooten M. and Petersen, T. (Eds).
  5. Montgomery, Robert A.; Borona, Kendi; Kasozi, Herbert; Mudumba, Tutilo; Ogada, Mordecai (11 February 2020). "Positioning human heritage at the center of conservation practice". Conservation Biology. 34 (5): 1122–1130.
  6. Redvers, Nicole; Yellow Bird, Michael; Quinn, Diana; Yunkaporta, Tyson; Arabena, Kerry. "25 June, 2020". International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 17 (12).
  7. 7.0 7.1 Eisenberg, Cristina; Anderson, Christopher L.; Collingwood, Adam; Sissons, Robert; Dunn, Christopher J.; Meigs, Garrett W.; Hibbs, Dave E.; Murphy, Scott; Kuiper, Sierra Dakin (26 November 2019). "Out of the Ashes: Ecological Resilience to Extreme Wildfire, Prescribed Burns, and Indigenous Burning in Ecosystems". Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. 7.
  8. Notzke, Claudia (May 1995). "A new perspective in aboriginal natural resource management: Co-management". Geoforum. 26 (2): 187–209.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Schuster, Richard; Germain, Ryan R.; Bennett, Joseph R.; Reo, Nicholas J.; Arcese, Peter (November 2019). "Vertebrate biodiversity on Indigenous-managed lands in Australia, Brazil, and Canada equals that in protected areas". Environmental Science & Policy. 101: 1–6.
  10. Coetzee, Bernard W. T.; Gaston, Kevin J.; Chown, Steven L. (August 27, 2014). "Local Scale Comparisons of Biodiversity as a Test for Global Protected Area Ecological Performance: A Meta-Analysis". PLoS ONE. 9 (8).
  11. Gray, Claudia L.; Hill, Samantha L. L.; Newbold, Tim; Hudson, Lawrence N.; Börger, Luca; Contu, Sara; Hoskins, Andrew J.; Ferrier, Simon; Purvis, Andy (28 July, 2016). "Local biodiversity is higher inside than outside terrestrial protected areas worldwide". Nature Communications. 7 (1). Check date values in: |date= (help)
  12. 12.0 12.1 Zurba, Melanie; Artelle, Kyle; Bhattacharyya, Jonaki; Chan, Diana; Brown, Kelly; Housty, Jess; Moola, Faisal (December 2019). "Supporting resurgent Indigenous-led governance: A nascent mechanism for just and effective conservation". Biological Conservation. 240 – via Science Direct.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 Government of Canada (December 9, 2020). "Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program". Government of Canada. Retrieved April 14, 2021.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 14.5 Government of Canada (January 19, 2021). "Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk: program overview". Government of Canada. Retrieved April 14, 2021.
  15. "Indigenous leadership and initiatives". Government of Canada. Retrieved April 15, 2021.
  16. 16.0 16.1 "The National Aboriginal Council on Species at Risk (NACOSAR)". Government of Canada. Retrieved April 15, 2021.
  17. 17.0 17.1 "Authorities responsible for Species at Risk Act". Government of Canada. Retrieved April 15, 2021.
  18. Maritime Aboriginal Peoples Council (2014). National Aboriginal Council on Species at Risk: Case Study on Consultation, Accommodation and Cooperation with Aboriginal Peoples Undertaken by Environment Canada in Regard to the Boreal Woodland Caribou, and by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Regard to the Inner Bay of Fundy Atlantic Salmon and American Eel; and Identification of Gaps and Suggestions to Increase the Level of Aboriginal Participation in the Species at Risk Act. Nova Scotia, Canada. line feed character in |title= at position 90 (help)
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 "Who we are". Conservation 2020. Retrieved April 15, 2021.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 "About". Conservation Through Reconciliation Partnership. Retrieved April 15, 2021.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Canada’s Federal, Provincial and Territorial Departments Responsible for Parks, Protected Areas, Conservation, Wildlife and Biodiversity (2018). One with Nature - A Renewed Approach to Land and Freshwater Conservation in Canada. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada. ISBN 978-0-660-26811-8. line feed character in |title= at position 49 (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  22. Zurba, Melanie; Beazley, Karen; English, Emilie; Buchmann-Duck, Johanna (January 2019). "Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs), Aichi Target 11 and Canada's Pathway to Target 1: Focusing Conservation on Reconciliation". Land.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Council of the Haida Nation; Government of Canada (2018). Gwaii Haanas Gina 'Waadluxan KilGuhlGa Land-Sea-People Management Plan (PDF).
  24. Nika Collison, Jisgang (2018). Ahtlii Gwaii - Upholding Haida Law at Lyell Island. Locarno Press.
  25. "Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site". Parks Canada.
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Government of Canada. "Edéhzhíe Protected Area". Government of Canada. Retrieved April 16th, 2021. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
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