Indigenous Stewardship is true Conservation: We Need to Move Beyond Eco-Colonialism

Since time immemorial, Indigenous Peoples have stewarded the lands and waters in this place now known as Canada.  Through advanced practices, grounded in Indigenous law, these ways of knowing and being have supported abundant, thriving ecosystems. 

Historically Canada’s approach to conservation was grounded in a romanticized idea of an empty, untouched, pristine wilderness devoid of human influence. To manifest this vision, Canada displaced and dispossessed Indigenous Peoples of their homelands to create parks and protected areas without the consent of those who had stewarded those lands for thousands of years. 

“Historical efforts to create “parks” and “protected areas” by Canadian governments were not centred on the health and well-being of nature; nature was instead the backdrop for recreational experiences. In these early days of parks creation in Canada, Indigenous Peoples were understood as obstacles to the enjoyment of nature. Thus, they were often forced to relocate or were restricted by imposed jurisdictions that effectively eliminated the Indigenous practices and economies that were so critical to healthy biological diversity.” — We Rise Together report.

“Since my dad was chief, as far as I’ve always learned, governments in Canada have reserved parks for their own benefit for later use. And, as a reflection of that, a couple of years ago, B.C. passed Bill F4 to open parks to [mining] exploration. So that’s the reality of that.” — Marilyn Baptiste, Xeni Gwet’in

We are still seeing the dispossessing impact of the colonial concept of conservation play out today: witness the settler response to Mi’kmaq asserting their treaty rights to manage their waters and lobster fishery. 

Elder Albert Marshal from Eskasoni First Nation in Unama’ki, spoke to this sentiment at the Mi’kma’ki Nova Scotia Eastern Regional Gathering in 2017: “We have to find a way and be mindful as how we go about exercising our inherited responsibilities of ensuring that no action that we will take will ever compromise the ecological integrity of the area, nor compromise the cleansing capacity of the system. Because our overall objective is to ensure that the next seven generations will have the same opportunities as we have, and hopefully better opportunities than we have—of not just being able to sustain themselves and harvest the gifts from the Creator, but also being able to enjoy and learn from her, just as our ancestors have learned from her.”

Meaningful, successful and just conservation necessitates the re-establishment of Indigenous relationships, knowledge and practices that have been utilized for thousands of years on the land and water. 

Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAS) are changing the face of conservation in Canada 

Indigenous Nations are leading the way out of a problematic past in which ‘conservation’ gave cover for racist erasure, displacement and land appropriation. Visionary leaders are stepping into a thriving future where lands and waters are protected by Indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems. IPCAS, which include Tribal Parks, are an important step toward community and ecological healing from the impacts of colonization. 

The assertion of Indigenous governance of lands and waters represents a long-term, intergenerational commitment to sustainable ecosystems stewardship. It also recognizes Canada’s treaties and legal commitments, including Section 35 of the Constitution and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

With ongoing environmental degradation and threats of steep ecological decline from the failure of the provincial and federal government to effectively manage the cumulative impacts of industry, it’s time for the stewardship of lands and waters to be returned to Indigenous Peoples. Read on to discover how the actions taken by Tsilhqot’in, Heiltsuk and Secwepemc Nations  to assert their rights and restore their lands and waters shows the way forward for justice-based ecological protection. .  

Tsilhqot’in: From Taseko Mine, to Dasiqox Park

Nexwagweẑʔan — which means “it is there for us” and is  also known as Dasiqox Tribal Park — was established in 2014 in Tsilhqot’in territory. The park is located within the Declared Title Area where Tsilhqot’in Title to the land was upheld by the Supreme Court of British Columbia. 

Dasiqox covers approximately 300,000 hectares of wilderness, wildlife habitat and waters, including the Dasiqox headwaters – an essential water source for the area’s waters, fish and wildlife. The motivation to establish the Tribal Park was spurred by the RAVEN-supported fight to protect Teztan Biny and Nabas from a proposed copper and gold mine. 

Because they approach the Dasiqox Tribal Park as an assertion of their Indigenous law over unceded territory, Tsilhqot’in communities have rejected a co-management model and opted not to seek provincial protected area designation. Councillor Marilyn Baptiste emphasized the assertion of sovereignty by First Nations is “not about kicking people out,” but is instead about presenting an alternative decision-making process, led by people living in the region.

As a Tribal Park, Nexwagweẑʔan presents a vision for the management and governance of the land that reflects the values, knowledge, and ways of its people. 

“The thing we need to look to is the healing of our people, and we can’t do it without our land and water. That’s a part of this tribal park process,” says Marilyn Baptiste, Xeni Gwet’in.

Heiltsuk: A Maritime Nation poised to set a powerful precedent

Historically, colonial jurisdiction over B.C.’s coastal waters has been divided between the federal government and the province. This division of jurisdiction ignores pre-existing Indigenous rights and title to the lands and waters. Heiltsuk Nation are taking legal action to address their unjust omission from the governance of coastal waters. With their legal challenge, Heiltusk are pointing to the sidelining of Indigenous stewardship and knowledge as a detriment to sustainable marine management. 

Prompted by the Nathan E. Stewart disaster in the Seaforth Channel, the Heiltsuk case stands to set several important legal precedents. One outcome of the legal challenge currently before the courts — also supported by RAVEN — could establish Heiltsuk Aboriginal title to reserve lands, near-shore and seabed in the Seaforth Channel and surrounding areas: a win would establish the first-ever Indigenous Title Declaration over a marine area.

Heiltsuk’s relationship with the ocean is one of intrinsic interconnectedness. Ǧviḷ̓ás (Heiltsuk law) endows Heiltsuk people with rights to access and use shellfish, herring, seaweed and other riches of the sea. Ǧviḷ̓ás also confers the responsibility of stewardship and maintenance of these resources. This relationship is one of reciprocity: a vigorous and enduring ecosystem is essential to Heiltsuk way of life: the Nation carries out Ǧviḷ̓ás with a focus on what can be gifted to future generations.

The fate of the Nathan E. Stewart coupled with delayed and negligent action to address the oil spill demonstrates the shortcomings of conservation and environmental management within the confines of a colonial system. The Heiltsulk understand sustainable management of their lands and water from intimate knowledge of place that spans thousands of years. Rather than set aside a protected area, this case would ensure the Heiltsuk’s jurisdiction over the local marine environment that would include the stewardship of a fishery for Indigenous food, culture and livelihood. 


Pipsell is a sacred and historical site for Secwepemc, a Nation whose unceded territories cover 80,000 hectares in south-central British Columbia. 

In 2017, Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation’s (SSN) denied consent to KHGM’s Ajax copper-gold mine to develop lands and resources at Pípsell (Jacko Lake). If approved, the mine would irreversibly destroy part of Pípsell. 

Councillor Viola Thomas, Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc, says her people’s connection to Pipsell “ is deeply rooted in one of our oral histories: the Trout Children Stseptékwll. The Trout Children Oral History is inseparably connected to the place of the proposed Ajax mine site. It encapsulates and expresses the human connection of Stk’emlúpsemc te Secwépemc, to Pípsell. It sustains Secwépemc law about Secwépemc conduct on the land and the reciprocal accountability to living beings on the land, social conduct across generations and within generations.”

Ecologically, the grasslands area of Pipsell provides habitat for species at risk such as the Sharp-Tailed Grouse, Burrowing Owl and American Badger.

In the Pipsell Declaration, the Secwepemc state that their vision is “to preserve and sustain Pipsell is for the long-term benefit of all Canadians, ensuring the future enjoyment of this special place serves to further reconciliation.” 

To ensure protection of the land, while also upholding their rights to hunt, fish and practice cultural and livelihood activities, Secwepemc are pursuing a Title case with the support of the RAVEN community. “The SSN has taken a historic step in self-determination through conducting its own independent assessment of the Ajax open pit project in accordance with SSN laws, traditions, customs and governance system. The SSN wants to preserve the use of the Pípsell area for all British Columbians and Canadians in accordance with Secwepemc law,” states Dr Ron Ignace, Chief of Skeetchestn band, Secwepemc Nation. .

Secwepemc management of their land would ensure a long lasting, thriving ecosystem with ecological protections guided by Indigenous values and practices, all the while furthering Indigenous sovereignty. 

A way forward: enduring protection, hand-in-hand with the revitalization of culture and livelihood

Environmentalism and Indigenous rights must go hand in hand. Those who have stewarded these lands for thousands of years hold the knowledge and relationships key to carrying forward the legacy of thriving ecosystems. As we see with Heiltsuk, Secwepemc, and Tsilhqot’in assertions of jurisdiction over ‘parklands’, Indigenous rights are inextricable from the notion of conservation. The growing understanding of these intersections, along with implementation of Indigenous management and conservation of the environment, are challenging the old notions of conservation that manifested as eco-colonialism. Supporters of robust, enduring protections for lands and waters should celebrate the leadership of Indigenous Nations, whose sovereignty claims are inextricably linked to the health and sustainability of the lands and waters they care for. 

RAVEN celebrates the evolution of conservation frameworks at the hands of visionary Indigenous leaders. We are honoured to be part of funding legal challenges that support the interweaving of lands, peoples, and water: for future generations.

This essay builds on the David Suzuki Foundation report, Tribal Parks and Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and the We Rise Together report (2018).

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