1) The status is healthy according to available data, 2) the trend is positive if known, 3) some data are available, and/or 4) actions to address or mitigate are well underway and are known to be effective. Actions should be taken to maintain positive status and/or trend.

Once strictly top-down, a more collaborative approach to conservation is beginning to emerge in B.C.’s coastal regions. Indigenous peoples are increasingly being recognized for their role in stewardship and the governance of conservation efforts on land and sea.

Author:Kim Sander Wright, Senior Marine Planning Specialist, David Suzuki Foundation and Global Strategy Advisor on Coastal, Marine and Island Environments for the ICCA Consortium

Reviewers: Nathan J. Bennett, PhD, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia

Georgia Lloyd-Smith, Staff Lawyer, West Coast Environmental Law

Banner Photo Credit: Kris Krug (Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

What’s happening?


Canadians are in the middle of a paradigm shift when it comes to how we oversee the management of our lands, water and resources. The change is one of governance – that is, who makes the decisions and how we decide what management actions to take. Since time immemorial, Indigenous people have governed what is now known as Canada using their own laws. Now, the Canadian government is beginning to recognize the importance of sharing governance authority with Indigenous people.


Setting of the historic Skedans Village, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. (Photo: Kim Wright)


Evidence of this governance shift can be found in an October 2016 statement from the Assistant Deputy Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) Philippe Morel. Speaking about DFO’s marine protection measures, he said, “… other measures may also include certain area-based species at risk critical habitat, and they may include some Indigenous and community conservation ” (emphasis added).

Indigenous and community conservation is a form of conservation in which peoples with collective rights and a historical and custodial relationship with a traditional territory are recognized as the primary decision-makers of where and how conservation should occur within those territories. There are a number of reasons why Fisheries and Oceans Canada may have made this statement.

Photo: Kim Wright

  1. In Canada, Indigenous peoples have constitutionally protected rights to their traditional territories that can include decision-making rights. These rights arise because Indigenous peoples have governed their territories since long before contact with Europeans. Indigenous peoples also have cultural, linguistic and spiritual connections to these territorial landscapes and seascapes. These relationships to the land and sea are built upon thousands of years of interdependence that has created responsibilities for taking care of the natural world. In modern times, one expression of this responsibility to the natural world is in self-identified areas by Indigenous peoples exercising the right and responsibility to collectively self-govern. Such areas of self-governance for conservation purposes are known as ICCAs, which stands for territories and areas conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities.
  2. When it comes to conservation measures, academics and practitioners around the world have increasingly recognized that a rights-based approach, which uses bottom-up processes and is locally governed, can be more effective at achieving long-term conservation outcomes than colonial forms of conservation. The use of local rules and customs for governance, monitoring and enforcement, along with local buy-in to the establishment and the outcomes contrasts with colonial conservation structures that use a top-down approach and often divert access and resources away from local populations. Those most familiar with the species and ecological processes, and who have had experience governing their territories for thousands of years, have the most at stake regarding the long-term impacts of their decisions. Taking responsibility for both the terrestrial and marine components of their territories, Indigenous peoples and local communities are often those who are best suited to govern.
  3. The Government of Canada is actively engaged in expanding marine protection in order to meet Canada’s Biodiversity Target 1 of 10 percent marine areas protected or conserved by 2020. The approaching deadline of 2020 has prompted the federal government to question what they can count as “protected areas.” (See also the Marine Protected Areas article in this theme.)

Internationally, four governance types for protected areas qualify to be counted against Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) targets: Governance by governments (applies to most existing Canadian terrestrial parks and marine protected areas [MPAs]), private governance (e.g., lands owned by the Nature Conservancy), shared governance (government/private or government/Indigenous), and Indigenous and local community governance. In a 2016 Federal report, one terrestrial protected area in the Northwest Territories is recognized as under “Indigenous and local community governance.” In addition, several areas have been declared by Indigenous governments as tribal parks (discussed below), but whether Indigenous governance of these areas is legally recognized by the Crown in Canada and whether they may be counted toward Canada’s biodiversity targets remains unclear. The federal government and many Indigenous governments recognize the lack of protected areas under Indigenous governance and see a potential opportunity.

Why is it important?


The history of the governance of biodiversity conservation and Indigenous peoples in Canada is a troubled one, but the situation is improving. Indigenous peoples have gone from being forcibly evicted from their lands to make way for protected areas to today’s co-governance agreements with provincial and federal governments. If the Canadian approach to conservation governance in the future were to be aligned with international standards, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it would include appropriate recognition of Indigenous governance of conserved areas in their territories.


United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples


UNDRIP on governance:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters, which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.”

UNDRIP on territories:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired; and, (2) Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.”

UNDRIP on conserved areas:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources. States shall establish and implement assistance programmes for indigenous peoples for such conservation and protection, without discrimination.”

What is the current status?


Currently, the federal government is working with 17 First Nations in central and northern B.C. and with the provincial government to craft a tripartite co-governance agreement that will support a jointly established network of MPAs in the Northern Shelf Bioregion. At the same time, the work of the Marine Protected Area Technical Team (MPATT), a joint initiative of Indigenous, federal and provincial governments, is under way to coordinate the network design process. The possibility for some First Nations’ governed areas within the MPA network does exist, and, if this occurs, these will be the first recognized Indigenous governed MPAs on our coast.


First Nations and Province complete marine plans, April 2015. (Photo: Province of British Columbia, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


The Evolution

The following selected milestones do not include all of the legal and political events that have influenced
the progression of the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada, but they do illustrate a summary of the evolution in governance of biodiversity in B.C. (Figure 1). Generally, the evolution consists of an increasing level of Indigenous involvement in governance – from consultation to co-management, and leading toward Indigenous governance. See the full article for a more detailed description of this evolution.

Figure 1. Selected Milestones in the evolution of Indigenous governance over territories in B.C. (see full article for references).


What can you do?


Individual and Organization Actions:

  • Become familiar with and implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action and UNDRIP in your own workplaces.
  • Know which Indigenous peoples’ territories your home or workplace is in, and comply with the land and resource use guidance documented in their land and marine use plans.
  • Learn about tribal parks or ICCAs in your region, and support Indigenous-led tourism and educational opportunities when available.
  • Contact your MLA and hold the B.C. government accountable to their commitment to UNDRIP and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.
  • Contact your MP and hold the federal government accountable to their commitment to UNDRIP and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.
  • Conservation organizations should use both socially responsible and ecologically effective policies and practices in the conservation of marine areas, as described in the Appeal for a Code of Conduct.
  • Before supporting government- or conservation organization-led actions concerning resource use or protected areas, confirm that the First Nations, whose territories will be impacted, support the action.


Government Actions and Policy:

  • Formally recognize Indigenous rights and title to their lands.
  • Recognize the land and marine use plans of B.C.’s Indigenous peoples through the establishment of implementation agreements when requested.
  • Establish mechanisms to recognize and support the creation of tribal parks or ICCAs as an “other effective area-based conservation measure” under the Convention on Biological Diversity.
  • Establish collaborative decision-making processes and co-management bodies.

Additional Content and References in Full Article

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