“Every feast is sacred,” JC Catholique says. The elder from Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation speaks softly, but is carrying a sizable stick. He’s just used it to lead drummers in blessing a feast of flame-grilled moose, whitefish and lake trout, with potato salad on the side.
"We pay the land," he continues, referring to the Dene custom of giving thanks to the environment that sustains the community. “We pay the water. This land has been here for thousands of years, and we’ve been here too. We’re still here.”
Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve – decades in the making and soon to be finalized – will formalize the relationship between this fly-in community of 300 and its territory. Meaning “Land of the Ancestors” in Chipewyan, traditional knowledge will be an integral part of the park’s operation.
With the help of private donors, the First Nation has established a $15 million trust fund to employ community members to plan, manage and operate Thaidene Nëné. The source of their paychecks helping ensure they are always working in the community’s best interests.
Located in the Northwest Territories, Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve will protect about 26,000+ km² of rugged Canadian Shield in a network of national and territorial parks. Even after mining interests whittled the park down from 33,500km², it covers an area more than four times the size of PEI.
It’s a rich land. Great Slave Lake is North America’s deepest, with clear waters lined with steep, rusty cliffs. Muskoxen wade in. Trout grow the size of toddlers. The forest seems infinite until it ends suddenly at the tundra’s edge, not far to the north. It’s never been commercially harvested.
Parks Canada initially proposed a park on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake in the late 1960s, but the idea was greeted coolly by the Lutsel K’e Dene. They rejected it outright, fearing a park would destroy their traditional culture.
“We didn’t want this park to be like Wood Buffalo [National Park],” Catholique says. You can’t hunt down there, can’t fish. You can’t even take a sh-- down there. And I mean that literally…. My buddy down in Fort Simpson wanted to take some buffalo dung from the park for his garden, and they wouldn’t let him.”
Anti-park sentiment in the community ebbed once the Constitution Act, 1982 affirmed Aboriginal and treaty rights, increasing confidence that the treaty they’d signed with the Crown in 1900 would be honoured.
But it was the development of diamond mines that was the catalyst: the belief that without permanent protection, mineral interests would engulf the entire region.
“Once you go all in on development, you’re all in” Catholique says. “There’s no going back.”
Negotiations on the park began in earnest in 2006, and in 2015, the park’s boundaries were finalized. Now, it’s up to negotiators to hammer out the fine print on exactly how Thaidene Nëné will work.
“Canada 150 is a great motivator for everyone,” says Steven Nitah, who is negotiating on behalf of the First Nation.
“We want to get this done, but as always, the devil is in the details.”
Final public consultations for Thaidene Nëné are being held September 21 at the Canadian Museum of Nature’s Theatre & Stonewall Gallery in Ottawa, Ontario. More details here.