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Chief of the wolf clan Yvonne Lattie in Old Hazelton, B.C. on March 1, 2012.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A group of Gitxsan hereditary chiefs has declared part of the upper Skeena watershed as an Indigenous Protected Area, saying it is off-limits to unauthorized activity and subject to Gitxsan law.

The declaration, announced Aug. 7 in Hazelton, B.C., says the 170,000-hectare protected area includes the ancestral territories of the Wilps Gwininitxw, one of about 60 house groups that make up the Gitxsan, and makes up the “last and only remaining large section of the Skeena watershed that is without roads or other development and unmarred by Industrial extraction.”

The declaration reflects long-standing concerns among First Nations over industrial development in their traditional territories and growing momentum for Indigenous conservation areas.

In an Aug. 8 statement, the house group said it was “unilaterally declaring their territories protected” in the absence of “meaningful Provincial or Federal government action to protect the Skeena watershed from industrial development.”

The Gitxsan declaration was made independently based on Gitxsan law, says hereditary chief Gwininitxw, whose English name is Yvonne Lattie.

“We’ve been here for more than 10,000 years – the Canadian government has only been here for what, 150? So our law is the one we live by,” Ms. Lattie said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

Indigenous-led conservation areas are sometimes recognized by the federal government as Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, or IPCAs. As defined by Ottawa, IPCAs are initiatives that place parcels of land under Indigenous governance and represent a long-term commitment to conservation.

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If IPCAs meet certain conservation criteria, they may qualify for federal funds and count toward federal conservation goals. Since Ottawa adopted the concept in 2018, three IPCAs have been created, all in the Northwest Territories, according to Environment Canada.

This recent Gitxsan declaration did not create an IPCA. However, in an Aug. 9 letter to the Prime Minister, Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach, who attended the announcement, said he hoped the government would find ways to work with Ms. Lattie to recognize this declaration as an IPCA.

“Your government must act more urgently if it is to reach its 2025 land protection target,” Mr. Bachrach said in the letter.

“Gwininitxw has tried to engage your government on the formal designation of her territory, including making applications to current programs. It is disappointing that to date these efforts have not been acknowledged,” he added.

The 2021 federal budget included $340-million over five years for Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship initiatives, including more than $166-million for IPCAs.

Environment and Climate Change Canada does not designate or declare IPCAs and not every Indigenous group that sets an area aside for conservation area wants to designate it as an IPCA, ministry press secretary Kaitlin Power said Thursday in an e-mail.

Ottawa has set a target of conserving 25 per cent of Canada’s land and 25 per cent of its oceans by 2025. At the end of 2021, Canada had conserved 13.5 per cent of its terrestrial area and 13.9 per cent of its marine territory.

Wilps Gwininitxw said in a statement that the protected territories are upstream from two proposed gas pipelines that would affect salmon-bearing rivers and streams: the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project and the Westcoast Connector Gas Transmission Project.

The Prince Rupert project, owned by TC Energy, was to ship natural gas from northeastern B.C. to an LNG facility near Prince Rupert, but has been on hold since 2017 when a major company backed out of the LNG project. The Westcoast Connector project is owned by Enbridge, which says on its website it is “actively developing” the project. Neither pipeline has started construction.

In a statement Thursday, the B.C. Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation said the province has an existing relationship with Gitxsan leadership through treaty discussions and watershed-based agreements and would welcome the opportunity to work with Wilps Gwininitxw to support land stewardship goals.

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