The Seal River is pristine and untouched by development with waters clean enough to drink. Now, the remote watershed is one step closer to becoming one of Canada’s first Indigenous-led conservation areas.

Nestled in northern Manitoba, the territory is home to 22 species at risk, 200,000 caribou, and a third of the world’s belugas. It is home to thick boreal forest, wetlands and tundra, and stores around 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 70 years of Canada’s vehicle emissions.

Used by Dene, Cree and Inuit, the remote region about the size of Nova Scotia is now set to become one of Canada’s first Indigenous-protected and conserved areas. On Thursday, an agreement on this initiative was signed between the Seal River Watershed Alliance and governments in Ottawa and Winnipeg.

Two polar bears embrace in the Seal River watershed. Photo submitted

The memorandum of understanding kick-starts a feasibility study to determine what an Indigenous-protected and conserved area could look like. The agreement also proposes a pause on mineral exploration and staking in the area.

It’s been a long time coming for the Seal River watershed. The alliance, composed of the four First Nations surrounding the area, including the Sayisi Dene First Nation, Northlands Denesuline First Nation, Barren Lands First Nation, and O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, was formally incorporated in 2020.

Meanwhile, Winnipeg, Ottawa and the alliance committed to a feasibility study about a year ago.

“We've been talking about this for so long and waiting so patiently, so for this to be happening on Thursday, we’re elated,” Stephanie Thorassie, executive director of the Seal River Watershed, said. “It's putting action to reconciliation.”

Formalizing the deal over this past year was a long and winding road of negotiations with Winnipeg, Thorassie said. The former Conservative government moved slowly on conservation, only expanding the protected area by 400 square kilometres, according to an analysis by the Narwhal and the Winnipeg Free Press.

The Progressive Conservative Party was also non-committal about protecting 30 per cent of the province’s land and waters, a target set by Ottawa federally and considered the national standard.

Currently, the province protects 11 per cent of its lands and waters. If protected, the Seal River Watershed would increase that total to 19 per cent. #30x30 #climate #biodiversity #Manitoba

When negotiating with the former Manitoba government, Thorassie said the alliance received pushback over mining exploration withdrawal.

Negotiations were also marked by broken communication between staffers and ministers, and between the government and their working group, Thorassie said.

That changed when the NDP government won a majority last October, ushering in Canada’s first premier from a First Nation. The new government under Premier Wab Kinew promised change on the reconciliation and climate files and committed to protect 30 per cent of the province.

Currently, the province protects 11 per cent of its lands and waters. If protected, the Seal River watershed would increase that total to 19 per cent.

The protection agreement has been a long time coming for Lianne Anderson, a land guardian for the Seal River Watershed Alliance and member of O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation. Anderson spends most of her days communicating the work of the alliance and couples western science and ancestral knowledge to monitor changes on the land. But she is also from a lineage of land and resource users and understands their importance.

She collaborates with the land users from the four nations that surround the watershed to gain what she calls a bird's-eye view of the territory. Lately, there have been major concerns about wildfires following the historic 2023 season. There is now fear among elders and land users that low precipitation and snow will lead to another catastrophic fire season.

Map of the Seal River watershed. Screenshot from the Seal River Watershed website

It’s all part of the regular communication and monitoring role that the 16 formal guardians have within the watershed. Thorassie hopes their numbers will expand as the Indigenous Protected Area formalizes.

It’s still unclear whether Winnipeg will seek to open the Seal River to mining stakes, but Thorassie says she hopes that the protection order remains in place, pointing to the other 600,000 square kilometres that could remain open for the province’s critical minerals strategy.

As for other sources of revenue, Anderson and Thorassie spoke about sustainable ecotourism in northern Manitoba, where visitors flock to see the rich biodiversity of polar bears and belugas, as well as the northern lights.

Thorassie is looking to enlist community members and give an Indigenous historical understanding of the region.

Part of that history includes first contact, the histories of battles fought on the coast of Hudson’s Bay and in the 1950s, forced deportation, which killed a third of the Sayisi Dene First Nation, Thorassie’s home community.

Anderson’s nation was also relocated because of a hydro dam.

Anderson hopes the guardians and land users of the four nations will be seen by future generations as those who worked to provide the means to paddle on the river and “when they get thirsty, to take their cup and drink from that same water.”

“That’s the hope ultimately,” she explained.

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

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Yaaaaaayyyyy!!!! This is wonderful to read about, so hopeful and SO what we need now.
It also shows the importance of paying attention to politics, because they translate into THIS kind of real improvement.
Also makes me think that Wab Kinew would be the perfect candidate for federal NDP leader; he has major "bona fides."
Well done everyone!