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Seal River Watershed to be Indigenous Protected Area

Four First Nations have signed an agreement with the federal and provincial governments to aid in a feasibility study of protecting the Seal River watershed in Northern Manitoba. The four nations are working together through an initiative called the Seal River Watershed Alliance to protect the land West of Churchill, making the massive region an Indigenous-Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA). 

Present at this momentous signing was Stephanie Thorassie, executive director of the Alliance, as well as Premier Wab Kinew and federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault. 

“For so long, outsiders dictated where we lived, where we went to school, how we wore our clothes, our hair, what languages we spoke. Now our communities are standing up and defining how we’re going to care for these lands and waters,” Thorassie said.

“Instead of our knowledge being an amendment at the back of a report, we are holding the pen to this report. And this is what’s so powerful and so important about this moment.” 

IPCAs are areas of land and water which are protected and conserved primarily by Indigenous governments. These Indigenous-led initiatives reflect the objectives and needs of their nation. Among Indigenous communities, there is a multi-generational obligation to steward the land of their nations. This particular region is more than 50,000 square kilometres.

“Some people call it the middle of nowhere, but that’s because this land is untouched. There are not many places left in the world that are as lucky as we are,” said Barren Lands First Nation Chief Micheal Sewap. 

“In the Seal River watershed, we have big open water. There are no permanent roads, no mines, no hydro. Instead, we have clean water you can drink straight out from the river. We have moose, fish and venison. We have places our ancestors lived in and [were] buried.” 

According to the Conservation Through Reconciliation Partnership, the relationship between Indigenous people and the land is physical, spiritual, and timeless. It is a give-and-take relationship. As people benefit from the values of the natural world, there is a responsibility to take care of the land.

“These relationships have always included the right to benefit from the bounty of the natural world and the reciprocal responsibility to care for and respect the land and water, consistent with natural and Indigenous law,” Sewap said. 

On its website, Seal River Watershed Alliance states its goal is to “permanently protect the Seal River Watershed from industrial development as an Indigenous Protected Area.” 

“We envision a pristine watershed where people, animals and fish are healthy, our unique languages and cultures are thriving, and there is hope and abundance for all future generations.” 

With the establishment of protected areas under Indigenous leadership, the Alliance believes they will be able to protect the wintering grounds of Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herds while also creating sustainable economic development in the region in addition to creating eco-tourism similar to that seen in Churchill, which will create jobs in the area. There will also be opportunities for young people in the community to work as land guardians who monitor and report changes in the environment. The value is substantial as the region is home to 22 known at-risk species, including polar bears and orca whales.

“Having safe access to safe protected lands, healthy lands, brings you healthy people. Making sure that this is something that’s set aside for the people to access is so important to the health and well-being of our nations,” Thorassie said at the signing. 

An agreement in principle was signed in 2019 by Sayisi Dene First Nation, Northlands Dene Nation, Barren Lands First Nation and O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation as a collective agreement to support the shared vision of protecting the Seal River watershed. Funding for the forthcoming feasibility study will come from federal pockets. They plan to use both traditional knowledge as well as Western science to explore where the boundaries of the protected land should be.

The terms of the agreement, in principle shared by the Seal River Watershed Alliance, states the nations involved will work cooperatively and collectively with one another as well as with other nations or governments involved in the name of the shared objective of protecting the Seal River watershed as well as other yet to be determined ancestral lands from any industrial development.

The watershed is one of the largest pristine watersheds in the world and is among the richest carbon sinks, a naturally occurring area capable of absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide. According to a study done by Ducks Unlimited in 2021, the watershed is capable of holding 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon. This is the equivalent of 8 years of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. The watershed channels water from the massive Seal River region, every spring to lakes and streams in the surrounding area, reaching as far as Hudson’s Bay.

This alliance project was announced in 2022 after a UN COP15 biodiversity conference. At that point, the federal government and the government of Manitoba announced they would be joining forces with the Watershed Alliance to perform the study, which was confirmed this week.  

According to Environment Minister Guilbeault, progress on the project was stalled for months on end until the Manitoba NDPs, elected last October, withdrew the land from any future mining operations.

“The previous provincial government [Progressive Conservative], after the announcement at COP15, seemed less interested in ensuring that the project could move forward swiftly,” Guilbeault said. 

Wab Kinew said at the conference that mining operations will still be taking place in northern Manitoba, but the watershed will be fully protected. He said this agreement is as much about wetland conservation as it is about reconciliation.

“This agreement paves the way for a new type of development in this region,” Kinew said. “It is a type of development that would be fitting for eco-tourism and fitting for other opportunities like that to take place… But I want to say importantly, it is also about the cultural, social and spiritual development of young people in northern Manitoba and ensuring that every person in the region has the ability to learn on the land from the Elders, an unbroken chain of knowledge that stretches back through the millennia.”

Protecting this region will aid the national goal of conserving 30 per cent of Canadian land and water by 2030, as discussed at the COP15 conference in 2022. Thus far, Canada has conservation protection for approximately 14 per cent of its land and 15 per cent of water bodies.

“Our ancestors protected the watershed for thousands of years,” said Northlands Denesuline Chief Simon Denechezhe. 

“We are carrying on the traditional ways in a modern way. We are building towards a future of healthy land, healthy people and healthy economies.” 

Kinew said his government would meet the 30 per cent target, and the watershed would increase the protected land in Manitoba from 11 per cent to over 18 per cent. The feasibility study agreed to this week will take approximately two years to complete and will determine the boundaries of protected space. Upon completion of surveying, the protected watershed will be the first federally recognized Indigenous-protected area in Manitoba. 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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