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Stoney Nakoda First Nations hopes for park-guardian role in Banff

A woman looks over Moraine Lake in Banff National Park in Alberta in 2014. Stoney Nakoda First Nation wrote to the federal government in December to propose that they become the park’s Indigenous Guardians. Ottawa has yet to respond.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

First Nations who claim title to land in and around Banff, Alta., are planning to boost their efforts to become Indigenous Guardians of Canada's oldest national park, encouraged by new money in the federal budget.

Indigenous Guardians act as "eyes on the ground" in the traditional territories of their ancestors, protecting species at risk and preserving culturally significant locations. They patrol to prevent illegal hunting, educate hikers and campers, keep track of wildlife populations and gather information that can be used during negotiations with governments and resource companies.

The Stoney Nakoda First Nations of southwestern Alberta, who launched a legal action in 2003 to claim title as well as Indigenous and treaty rights to Banff National Park and the surrounding area, wrote to the federal government in December to propose that they become the park's Indigenous Guardians. Ottawa has yet to respond.

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"We've been trying to speak with the government on getting something going," Chief Darcy Dixon said this week in a telephone interview.

"There's funding available, and some of it is for the Indigenous Guardians program that we think we should be part of," Chief Dixon said. "We have been in Banff for thousands of years. We were the first people there and we continue to acknowledge that through the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation."

The relationship between Parks Canada and Stoney Nakoda people is good, both at the formal and informal levels. But the First Nations would like to have more say in the operation of the park and want to benefit economically from the tourists who visit their homeland.

"They're looking for jobs and economic development," said lawyer Douglas Rae. "Simple things like backcountry trips might require a Stoney Nakoda guide, or a briefing session from one of the elders, as a paying proposition."

The federal budget released on Feb. 27 promised an additional $1.3-billion over five years for conservation measures, and the Stoney Nakoda were heartened to hear Environment Minister Catherine McKenna say some of that money would be used to create more teams of Indigenous Guardians.

"There is a real opportunity to reimagine how we protect areas, but it is also a critical part of reconciliation," Ms. McKenna said in an interview with The Globe and Mail, in which she praised the work of the Haida Gwaii Watchmen, who protect Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve on Canada's West Coast.

"Indigenous peoples care greatly about the land, the water, the air," Ms. McKenna said, "and they really want to be a partner in how we can be creative in working with them to manage new protected areas."

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When The Globe asked Ms. McKenna's office last week whether the government was prepared to put Indigenous Guardians in Banff National Park, her department replied with a lengthy account of the work it has done with Indigenous people but provided no real response to the Stoney Nakoda proposition.

The band, which encompasses three First Nations, signed a memorandum of understanding with Parks Canada officials in 2010 that spelled out the ways band members could become partners in the management of the park. But that agreement was never fully put into effect and has since become outdated.

"This is something that we need to bring back to the table to change," Chief Dixon said. "We are trying to work together to promote awareness, understanding and respect for the history and culture of the park and our sacred places in and around Banff National Park."

It was Stoney Nakoda people who first led explorers to discover the famous Banff hot springs. They also showed surveyors for the Canadian National Railway the way through the mountains to the coast.

They have a long-standing historical claim to the eastern slopes of the Rockies west of Calgary, and the area that is now Banff National Park was their hunting ground until the government banned that activity to preserve the animals for the enjoyment of tourists.

Chief Dixon says his people know the original names of all the key landmarks and waterways in and around Banff and would like to see those old names restored for some sites.

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"We need to be identifying how we can come together to share our knowledge – and hopefully to get Parks Canada and the government to acknowledge that," he said. "They speak of reconciliation, and this would be part of it."

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