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At COP15 in Montreal, there was a need for some quiet breathing space away from the bustle of the United Nations biodiversity conference. And outside on the land, with the ceremonial fire burning, the Indigenous Village in the Old Port beside the St. Lawrence River provided it, Valérie Courtois, director for the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI) from the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, said.

It’s a different feel from the sterile, professionalized atmosphere where people are rushed and shepherded to this meeting or that negotiation, Courtois added.

“So many people have come here and said, ‘Ah, this is the first time I’ve been able to breathe and relax while I’m here. That’s a real gift.’”

The buildings inside the Indigenous Village were culturally significant. The shaputuan, where panels were held, has a name that translates into “to walk through” and is the ancestral building where Innu have always held ceremonies.

David Flood and Valérie Courtois inside the matutushan, an Innu structure used as a sweat lodge. The matutushan was also used in the winter for its durability to hold the weight of heavy snowfalls. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer

On the weekend, panels and conversations asserted the essential role of Indigenous leadership in nature conservation in Canada and globally at the Indigenous Village. About 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity is on Indigenous lands, covering 20 to 25 per cent of the land on Earth, according to the UN.

David Flood, an Ontario adviser for ILI, says Indigenous knowledge systems have been reawakened and the work is “truly an effort of nationhood.”

For Courtois, the three days of Indigenous-led conversations and knowledge-sharing were a message: the work continues, no matter what governments and nation states decide.

“No matter what happens in those hallways, this village is proof that Indigenous Peoples on the ground are doing it.

The announcement of the new Indigenous Guardian Network was a highlight for Valérie Courtois, who organized the Indigenous Village. So was saving the village from a windstorm using her experience on the land. #COP15

“It’s up to the rest of the world to catch up to us,” Courtois said.

The Indigenous Village kicked off with an announcement by Courtois and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault on the creation of the Indigenous Guardian Network, including a $5.8-million kickstart investment from the federal government. The network will allow Indigenous guardian programs — which employ community members for land stewardship and conservation on a nation’s ancestral territories — to share knowledge, challenges and best practices.

Nations will control their respective programs and direct the Guardian Network council through a bottom-up approach. The council has met 12 times since forming and will continue to meet regularly, Courtois said.

“Other nations will help guide where the network is going to go… Now the real work begins,” Courtois said.

Meanwhile, key negotiations for COP15’s final agreement continue, including debates over Indigenous-specific language, including self-governance and free, prior and informed consent.

Free, prior and informed consent is essential in negotiations over the centrepiece target to protect 30 per cent of the world’s lands and waters by 2030, Lucía Ruiz Bustos, biodiversity and finance co-ordinator at WWF, said at a press conference on Monday. The 30x30 goal is still under negotiations and free, prior and informed consent isn’t guaranteed.

But it’s essential. Some Indigenous delegates from abroad fear conservation grounds can be used as land grabs for nation states. An example that comes up often in Canada is the historic removal of Indigenous people from portions of their ancestral lands that were turned into national parks.

With progress on reconciliation, it could be easy to take for granted that Indigenous rights and title are accepted practices in modern Canadian conservation, but we forget that’s not always the case for the rest of the world, James Snider, WWF-Canada VP of science, knowledge and innovation, said in an interview.

Still, Snider acknowledges global Indigenous rights and sovereignty “will be crucial to the success of these negotiations.”

Bustos told Canada’s National Observer that discussion about self-governance isn’t taking place yet but will likely play a role in later targets. It’s on the minds of many at COP15 as negotiators take a “whole of society approach” to solving collapsing biodiversity, Bustos said.

Panels were held inside the heated shaputuan at the Indigenous Village. Photo courtesy of Indigenous Leadership Initiative

Back at the village, both Courtois and Flood discussed an incident that serves as a metaphor for how Indigenous nations adapt and resist the colonial decisions made by nation states.

On Saturday night, strong winds off the St. Lawrence River unhinged the sides of the shaputuan, almost blowing away its walls. Long pieces of wood were used as weights to keep the structure intact — a common solution Courtois has used on the land.

“When you build a village like this, you never know how things are going to go,” she said.

“But I think it shows how adaptable and resilient we are as peoples.”

— With files from Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative