The governments of Canada and Manitoba, in collaboration with four First Nations in the northern part of the province, are starting a process to create a protected area called the Seal River Watershed.
“The four First Nations of the Seal River Watershed are offering a gift to the world,” said Stephanie Thorassie, executive director of the Seal River Watershed Alliance and member of the Sayisi Dene First Nation.
“The gift of sustaining one of the largest intact watersheds left on the planet.”
The watershed is located about 1,000 km north of Winnipeg and covers about 50,000 sq km.
Her nation, along with the Northlands Dene First Nation, the Barren Lands First Nation and the O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, are collaborating with Canada and Manitoba to undertake a “feasibility study” for the Seal River Watershed, which is the size off Nova Scotia, to become an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) – and potentially a national park.
The designation would protect the area from industrial use or development.
Feasibility studies are used to determine the boundaries and priorities of proposed protected areas.
The provincial and federal governments will incorporate western scientific data into the study, but Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said Indigenous knowledge will be at the forefront.
“What we’re trying to do with them, with the government of Manitoba, is what exactly an Indigenous protected area would look like, what would be the boundaries, how do Indigenous nations see this happening,” said Guilbeault.
Thorassie said the region has been safeguarded by First Nations for generations, and this collaboration marks government recognition of these efforts.
“It’s official that we’re starting this work to protect a space that’s so important to our cultures, our communities, our future, a space to be authentically ourselves,” said Thorassie.
“This data that we carry, this ancient Indigenous knowledge that we carry is older than the universities out there and the sciences out there, and we really think that now is the time to give it that credit.”
The Seal River Watershed in northern Manitoba is home to many at-risk species, such as wolverines, grizzly bears and polar bears.
Guilbeault said making the Seal River watershed an IPCA “would add half a per cent point of protected area towards Canada’s goal of 30 per cent [protected lands and waters] by 2030.”
No timeline has been set for the completion of the feasibility study, but Thorassie said the Dene and Cree will continue to protect the Seal River Watershed regardless.
“I really do think that we’re starting to make change, we’re starting, I have hope because I know that the next generations that follow us, the generations that we are striving to save this space for are going to be the ones that make the biggest change,” said Thorassie.