Saving Mother Earth, Indigenous Guardians Leading the Way

The Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program began in the summer of 2018 as a means of funding environmental initiatives for Indigenous peoples. The program was brought to fruition by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and helps organizations protect and preserve the environment and important ecosystems on Indigenous lands.

Marilyne Lavoie, spokesperson for ECCC, says funding is allocated on an individual level. Each each Indigenous group works with ECCC to co-develop a personalized plan determining the governance and priorities of their program. Lavoie says this strengthens the role Indigenous people have in conservation of their own lands and helps develop better partnerships.

“By working together with Indigenous peoples, other governments, and all Canadians, we will strengthen networks of protected and conserved areas, the cornerstone of biodiversity, and support reconciliation and the sustainability of local communities,” Lavoie says. “The insights and contributions of Indigenous peoples are essential to understanding and protecting our ecosystems.”

Twenty-eight programs received funding as part of the pilot program in all but three of Canada’s provinces and territories.

An aerial shot of Walpole Island First Nation. Photo courtesy of Walpole Island First Nation.


Walpole Island First Nation (Bkejwanong) in Ontario first received funding in 2019 for its Natural Heritage Program, particularly the Bkejwanong Eco-Keepers youth program. Clint Jacobs, of the Walpole Island First Nation, says they’re also submitting a proposal to extend the funding into a multi-year project.

The current funding helped to purchase, protect, and restore natural habitats on Walpole Island. Jacobs says it protects, maps, and asses various at-risk species, develops education and outreach programs, and advised university research projects, among many other initiatives.

Walpole Island has one of the country’s most biologically diverse ecosystems, Jacob says. It includes large wetlands, tallgrass prairies, oak savannas, and large forested areas.

The Bkejwanong Eco-Keepers monitor local wildlife, participate in habitat restoration projects, maintenance of trails, and environmental education.

Jacobs says youth can work in the summer, providing them with many opportunities such as CPR and canoeing certification, survival skills, and flora and fauna surveying and monitoring.

“They also roll up their sleeves to carry out fieldwork to help doncut reptile inventories, species at risk surveys and monitoring, freshwater mussel monitoring, and removal of invasive plant species,” Jacobs says. “They connect with knowledge holders to learn about our history, traditional teachings, medicine plants, and roles in Anishnaabeg culture. These activities empower the youth to be positive role models and give back to the community.”

Jonathan Bruno (Athabasca Chipewyan Community Based Monitoring) sampling water at Firebag River.
Jonathan Bruno (Athabasca Chipewyan Community Based Monitoring) sampling water at Firebag River. Photo by Bruce Maclean.


The Community Based Monitoring (CBM) program is an initiative run by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta.

The two first nations invest in both traditional knowledge and scientific monitoring. They monitor water quality and quantity, climate changes during winter, and tracking of wild foods.

The Mikisew Cree First Nation has four guardians (environmental technicians) and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has one full-time staff member with more members assisting as needed.

Bruce Maclean, environmental consultant with the CBM program, says the guardians received funding in fall of 2018. The guardians trek out weekly to monitor the water and lands and work alongside the government, universities, and foundations.

“We are leaders in protecting the Peace Athabasca Delta, the traditional territory of the Mikisew Cree (also known as Wood Buffalo National Park) which is also designated as a UNESCO site,” Maclean says.

He says the funding made it possible to hire students, engage with elders, collect more data and increase storage collection. He stresses this funding helped to eliminates barriers to their success due to the remoteness of the community.

Pimachiowin Aki. Photo by Hidehiro Otake.


The Pimachiowin Aki is Canada’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site that was chosen for the Indigenous Guardians program for both its cultural and natural attributes. The land became a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its wild and varied landscape including lakes, rivers, wetlands, and boreal forest.

It encompasses the traditional lands of four Anishanaabeg communities: the Bloodvein River, Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi, and Poplar River First Nations. These nations work together with provincial governments to form the Pimachiowin Aki Corporation, which employs Land Guardians who help to conserve, monitor, and protect the lands and waters in Ji-ganawendamang Gidakiiminaan, or “keeping the land”.

Executive Director Alison Haugh says as a World Heritage site, they are required to fulfill obligations to observe, record, and report on the state of conservation. She says it’s created stable and meaningful employment for First Nations.

“We’re working to contribute to the world’s understanding of nature, culture, and connections in protected areas,” Haugh says.

She says the funding was integral to keeping the guardians working in year round. In its previous iteration, the First Nations had to lay them off due to lack of money. It also enabled them to bring in technology for the guardians, such as cameras with built-in GPS, social media channels, and a new site.

The very important Maskwi birch tree, which provided shelter, fabric, and fibres for everything from wigwams to canoes for the Mi’kmaw people. Photo courtesy of UINR.


The Guardian Program and Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources (UINR) work to encourage Mi’kmaq participation in natural resources management and in providing employment. They are represented by the five Mi’kmaq communities of Unama’ki–Eskasoni, Wagmatcook, and We’koqma’q, Membertou, and Potlotek.

This includes their forestry division, which creates employment for Mi’kmaq people and strengthens local industry relationships. They also partner with graduate students to follow movements of aquatic species.

Moose have additionally proved to be an important resource for the Mi’kmaq peoples, including a spiritual significance. In response, UINR developed a Moose Management Plan. The Mi’kmaq Grand Council and Unama’ki Council of Elders work together to maintain a long-term plan for moose management that follows Mi’kmaq treaty rights.

Funding from the pilot program helps the parks guardian program, as well as UINR, to maintain traditional ways in combination with science in its research and natural resource management.