The Indigenous Leadership Initiative is pushing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to put reconciliation into action by committing $500 million over five years to create a national network of guardian programs.
The money would come on top of the $8.4 billion committed to Indigenous peoples over the next five years in the first budget delivered by the Liberal government.
While there is “no indication” the government will commit to the funding immediately, said Michael Mcleod, MP for the Northwest Territories, further investments are needed, particularly in the north.
He said previous dollars announced by his government focus on the on-reserve populations.
“We are having discussions on many fronts, on many issues, and this is part of it,” he said, adding that the Liberals needs to invest further funding into the 94 calls to action set out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Aboriginal Urban Strategy program. The guardian program could fall under that umbrella.
Mcleod joined representatives of the ILI in a news conference Oct. 3 in Ottawa announcing the desire to create a national Indigenous guardians network. The network would include the existing 30 guardian programs, which combine the strengths of their own systems of governance, cultures and knowledge with western science to protect and monitor the land and water.
“A national Indigenous guardians’ initiative would expand and unleash the full potential of this model in as many as 200 communities across Canada over the next five years,” said Miles Richardson, ILI senior advisor.
The first guardian program in Canada began in Richardson’s territory of Haida Gwaii in the 1970s.
“Today the Haida Gwaii watchmen play a critical role in protecting our Nation’s lands and waters according to our traditional and contemporary constitutional laws that our Nation has put in place,” said Richardson. “The Haida watchmen have had a profound impact on our community, socially, culturally and economically.”
The guardian program reconnects youth to the land and to Elders. It teaches them their language and who they are, said Dahti Tsetso, resource management coordinator with the Dehcho First Nation.
But right now, Dehcho K’ehodi Stewardship Program, which operates in Fort Simpson, is reliant on project funding from non-governmental agencies, she said.
“These programs are meaningful and they’re valuable and, in my opinion, it’s an answer to the question that the government is trying to answer on reconciliation: how do we do reconciliation with Indigenous communities, how do we right the wrongs we’ve done in the past?” said Tsetso.
Valérie Courtois, ILI director, said the $500 million budget proposed by her organization includes salary and training in both science and Elder traditional knowledge, for guardians, as well as equipment.
She said the money would flow with $26 million in the first year, $55 million in the second year, and $93 million in the third year. The bulk of the funding would come through in years four and five with $141 million and $183 million, respectively.
However, Courtois stressed that the budget was only a starting point for discussion.
“We’ve been doing this with the eye of partnership development. This is a real opportunity where we don’t want to say, ‘Look, this is what we need and it’s all or nothing.’ We’re saying, ‘This is an idea of how we want to work together, here’s what it’s going to cost to do it, but work with us in developing how that happens,’” said Courtois.
This is an Indigenous-driven initiative, said Stephen Kakfwi, ILI senior advisor.
“We cannot spend our whole lives just responding to initiatives from governments, from Indian Affairs. That’s what we’re trying to get away from,” he said.
Indigenous community leaders from across the country are meeting in Ottawa this week to discuss moving forward on the guardians program. ILI is asking for a government commitment to the program in its 2017 budget.
The Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution at its Special Chiefs Assembly in December 2015 to “fully support the concept of Indigenous guardian programs to support First Nations land management and oversight in their territories based on a cultural responsibility for the land.”