The federal government will ask Indigenous people to take on the job of protecting vast regions of Canadian wilderness after this week's budget promised "historic" investments in nature conservation.
Environmentalists, who praise Ottawa's decision to spend more than a billion dollars to meet the country's international biodiversity targets, say the Inuit, the Métis and the First Nations are eager to accept the official role of stewards of the land.
It is one, they say, that falls naturally to first peoples whose traditional territory encompasses most of the remaining undeveloped area of Canada, and who have both the traditional knowledge required to do the work and a personal stake in ensuring that the conservation projects are a success.
"They want to do it in a way that respects their culture, their history and their connection with the land, allowing them, for example, to harvest [natural resources]," Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said Wednesday in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "That's extremely important to them. And co-management is extremely important to them."
Finance Minister Bill Morneau has allocated $1.3-billion over five years to be used to protect species at risk and to implement broad recovery plans. That will pay for the expansion of national wildlife areas and migratory bird sanctuaries, as well as the management of protected areas and national parks.
The investment includes a $500-million Nature Fund that Ottawa says will pair with matching funds from provinces, corporations and not-for-profit organizations to buy private lands, to support provincial and territorial conservation efforts, and to build the capacity of Indigenous people to conserve lands and species.
Under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, Canada has pledged to protect at least 17 per cent of its land and inland waters by 2020. The money in the budget should pay for what is needed to meet that commitment. But the Liberal government says it is also an investment to address reconciliation with Canada's Indigenous people.
Ms. McKenna pointed out that the federal government has already negotiated a number of conservation agreements with Indigenous people and said there are many models that the Inuit and the First Nations have adopted to play key roles in those efforts.
In 2015, the Thaidene Nene national-park reserve was proposed in a 14,000-square-kilometre swath of boreal forest and tundra on the eastern end of Great Slave Lake. It is co-managed by the Dene who are sharing their cultural heritage with visitors while protecting a vast area of the country's northern wilderness.
The 9,700-square-kilometre Torngat Mountains National Park in Labrador is being co-managed by Inuit, the staff is Inuit and the Inuit are protecting the endangered caribou herds.
And, in Gwaii Haanas National Marine Park Reserve on Canada's west coast, young Haida people who are part of an Indigenous Guardians Program are protecting the region but also introducing people to their culture and their connection with the land.
Some of the money promised by Ottawa could be used to train more Indigenous Guardians in other parts of the country, Ms. McKenna said. "Indigenous peoples are already engaged when it comes to species at risk," she said. "Indigenous peoples are living on the land and they can help."
Valerie Courtois, the director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, a collective of Indigenous leaders who are working to strengthen Indigenous nationhood, said the $1.3-billion commitment is "historic" and is exactly what the members of her group hoped to see in the budget.
In the past 20 years, Ms. Courtois said, the most creative, boldest and biggest proposals in terms of conservation and land use in Canada have come from Indigenous people.
Indigenous people across Canada "want to hold the pen on what happens to our lands," Ms. Courtois said, "because we have a responsibility to those lands and we have a right, as described in [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] to think about determining our future as a people and the way to do that, from an Indigenous perspective, is lands."