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Politics New national park celebrated as ‘reconciliation in progress’

The vast swath of land starts in the boreal forest, on the eastern end of Great Slave Lake, and stretches north to the southern Arctic tundra.

Pat Kane/Handout

A northern First Nation says the creation of a massive new national park is an example of the government charting a new path with Indigenous people.

On Wednesday, Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation and the federal and Northwest Territories governments signed agreements formally establishing the 14,000-square-kilometre Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve and the 12,000-square-kilometre Thaidene Nene territorial protected area. The vast swath of land starts in the boreal forest, on the eastern end of Great Slave Lake, and stretches north to the southern Arctic tundra.

The agreements bring to a close a decades-long push to create a national park in the area. Both parks will be managed and operated based on consensus with the Lutsel K’e having equal say with the federal and territorial governments, said Steven Nitah, the chief negotiator for the First Nation. Parks Canada said Ottawa is investing $80-million over 12 years in the national park.

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The government did not give a firm timeline for when formal park infrastructure will be installed but said people can start visiting the park, using the tourism offerings already in place. Sabrina Kim, a spokesperson for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, said management plans and new facilities will be developed “over the next few years.”

“It’s reconciliation in progress,” Mr. Nitah said. Pointing to the First Nation’s 1900 treaty with the British Crown, Mr. Nitah said the new park embodies the intention of the treaties where the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation are a “true partner in the creation, governance, management and operations of Thaidene Nene.”

The agreements also include the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, the Deninu K’ue First Nation and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.

Ms. McKenna said Parks Canada has moved “very, very far” from its legacy of expropriating lands to now co-managing parks and protected areas.

Thaidene Nene, meaning Land of the Ancestors, is a sacred place for the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation and is also culturally significant for the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, according to Parks Canada.

Ottawa first tried to establish the park in the 1960s, but members of the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation at the time did not support it. The First Nation went back to Parks Canada in the early 2000s to restart talks in an effort to protect the land and wildlife after a resource boom in the 1990s.

Ms. McKenna said co-governance agreements like the ones signed Wednesday are critical, not just to reconciliation, but also to her government’s goal of protecting 17 per cent of land and inland water by 2020.

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As part of the deal, Mr. Nitah said the park’s visitor centre and operational staff will be based in Lutsel K’e, which is expected to create at least 18 jobs, eight of which will be full time. Chief Darryl Marlowe said he hopes the park will “turn things around in a positive way” for the community of 300. Currently, he said Lutsel K’e struggle with housing and few job opportunities.

The national park portion of the land will be closed to resource development, but infrastructure corridors will be permitted in the territorial protected area.

A similar announcement for the Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve was made by the former Conservative government, also just weeks before an election call, in 2015. Parks Canada then held two years of consultations on those proposed boundaries before the final park map was revealed on Wednesday.

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