N.W.T. First Nations community gets UN award for work on new national park

NEW YORK — A remote community in Canada’s North has been awarded a major United Nations prize for decades of work to help create a new national park and vast protected area.

The Equator Prize recognizes innovative solutions to tackle biodiversity loss, climate change and economic resiliency. The Lutsel K’e Dene in the Northwest Territories are one of 10 winners worldwide, the first time in the prize’s 11-year history it has been given in Canada.

“It feels like all the time and energy that went into the creation has left a mark,” said Steve Nitah, who helped negotiate the deal that led to Thaidene Nene on the east arm of Great Slave Lake.

“It’s beneficial not only to Lutsel K’e, but as an example to the world that can be replicated.”

Thaidene Nene — Land of the Ancestors — protects 26,376 square kilometres of pristine waters and healthy forest. About 14,000 square kilometres is managed as a national park, with another 12,000 square kilometres under territorial legislation with similar protection.

Its boreal forest and tundra is threaded with lakes, rivers and waterfalls. The lake boasts spectacular cliffs and islands and some of the deepest freshwater in North America.

Wildlife in the area includes moose, muskox, wolves, bears, wolverines, caribou and many species of birds and fish.

The management deal, signed last summer, gave four local First Nations an unprecedented role in the park’s operation.

The deal took more than 50 years to work out. Overlapping land claims and concerns about mineral resources complicated the talks and about 8,000 square kilometres originally proposed for it were removed because of potentially valuable deposits.

What was eventually agreed to benefits everyone, Nitah said. He said local people are already working as guardians and industry now has clear and stable rules.

Park infrastructure is being developed to welcome visitors.

“That’s economic stimulus in hard-to-stimulate areas of the country,” said Nitah. “That’s the road to reconciliation.”

He said the deal is a model for future parks and protected areas.

The award comes with a $10,000 prize. It also comes with an invitation to join events associated with the UN General Assembly, the UN Nature Summit and the Global Climate Week in late September.

“This prize will give a platform to speak about the need for respectful relationships all around,” said Nitah.

“We have to honour our territories and our land and have a respectful relationship with them and treat them as a source of life. I think that’s a message that’s needed today.”

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