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Land keepers celebrated at National Guardians gathering

BY Patrick Quinn Jun 2, 2023

The conservation movement was celebrated at the largest ever First Nations National Guardians Gathering in Ottawa May 9-11. Since the first gathering in 2016, the number of guardians programs across the country has quadrupled from 30 to more than 120. 

Co-hosted by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI) and the new First Nations National Guardians Network, the event brought together over 250 guardians and 100 allies for three days of sharing circles, “small wigwam” workshops, ceremonies and entertainment. 

“This was about showcasing the work and elevating the voices of guardians,” said ILI executive director Valérie Courtois. “It’s an initiative that changes lives.”

In 2014 the ILI was asked at that time to advocate for a national network, stable funding and recognition for guardianship as a profession. After a federal investment of $25 million in 2017 laid the groundwork for a national network, further funding of $173 million in 2021 demonstrated these programs’ success. The launching of an independent Guardians Network at COP15 last December enabled programs to access sustainable resources.

“We’ve proven the return on investment,” Courtois told the Nation. “The federal government has a duty to support the core capacity of these initiatives. Guardians are agents of reconciliation – it’s just as important to fulfill our responsibility to the land and waters as it is to each other.”

Federal leaders have acknowledged that this stewardship is essential for reaching international conservation commitments. Guardians are helping restore populations of at-risk species, manage threats like wildfires, improve land resiliency and support diverse cultural programs. Courtois is calling for permanent funding for guardian programs so that every Indigenous community that wants to can have one. 

Their contributions were recognized at an awards ceremony on the Gathering’s first night before rousing performances from Halluci Nation and Twin Flames. Honorary lifetime awards were presented to Kaska Dena leader Dave Porter and Inuk Governor General Mary Simon.

The Collaboration Award was presented to Rodney Petawabano and Willie Loon from the Eeyou Istchee Land Keepers Program along with Innu Chief Mike Mckenzie in recognition of the Cree-Innu partnership to protect and share traditional harvesting of caribou. During these hunts, land keepers ensure that safety measures and tallyman protocols are followed. 

“It’s a very natural exchange, promoting healthier relations with our neighbours,” said Cree Nation deputy executive director Melissa Saganash. “The Cree land keepers are kind of superstars when they show up on their skidoos with clearly identified uniforms. They’re there to support, not necessarily to be police.”

Courtois wanted the gathering to hear the Cree Nation’s inspiring governance and land guardianship evolution. Similar examples were shared in a panel with three young Dene women by Ethel Blondin-Andrew, the first Indigenous woman to be elected to Parliament. She told of building a moose-skin boat with Elders in the mountains then descending into the river valleys, which Courtois called “a mode of transportation essential in eras of the past but also an incredible symbol of reappropriation.” 

Guardians described water monitoring, enforcement, collecting data with drones and healing on the land. Several have grown from young apprentices into community leadership roles. 

As working in remote environments can be isolating, many participants were reinvigorated by the gathering. Young storytellers from across the country are helping to carry these messages thanks to a media mentorship program through the ILI’s Land Needs Guardians campaign.  

Storyteller Amberly Quakegesic said that while the cohort meets virtually five or six times a year, they truly bonded during this first in-person meeting. Provided with a camera, microphone and editing iPad, she interviewed storytellers from other guardian programs, connecting a supportive network of like-minded people.

“People are finding themselves through this program,” Quakegesic shared. 

Growing up in a non-Indigenous family with an incomplete understanding of her history, guardianship strengthened Quakegesic’s ties to her culture and land. As program manager of the Wahkohtowin guardian program near Lake Superior, she now supports youth in activities like tree planting, moose tracking and harvesting birch syrup.  

“It’s powerful for all our youth to know we exist because our ancestors were the ultimate survivalists who understood not taking more than you need,” asserted Quakegesic. “Being a part of these conversations is huge – it’s exposing me to things I need to know about. Now I spread the word like wildfire.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.