4 Manitoba First Nations lead partnership with federal, provincial governments to protect Seal River watershed

Four First Nations in Manitoba are leading a new partnership with the provincial and federal governments in an attempt to preserve one of the largest ecologically intact watersheds on the planet.

The two levels of government are supporting the Seal River Watershed Alliance in assessing the feasibility of establishing an Indigenous protected area in northwestern Manitoba, they announced at the UN biodiversity conference in Montreal, known as COP15.

“The health of our lands and the health of our people are intertwined,” Stephanie Thorassie, executive director of the Seal River Watershed Alliance, said during the news conference.

“Protecting the watershed means protecting the spirit of our people.”

An Indigenous protected area preserves the biodiversity in a designated area while also allowing cultural and sustainable use by humans. Indigenous governments hold the power to make decisions to manage lands and waters in such a protected area.

The Seal River Watershed spans over 50,000 square kilometres in northwestern Manitoba, an area of untouched wilderness roughly the size of Nova Scotia that contains 22 known at-risk species, including polar bears, orcas and wolverines.

The Sayisi Dene First Nation, Northlands Denesuline First Nation, Barren Lands First Nation and O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation formed the Seal River Watershed Alliance with a shared goal of protecting their respective ancestral lands.

Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said Ottawa will support the protected area financially but did not provide a dollar figure.

“What we’re all saying here is that we want to make this a reality,” Guilbeault said.

The initial study would also examine the feasibility of creating a national park in the watershed area, a news release said Wednesday.

Canada cannot achieve the goals we set for ourselves without the help of Indigenous people.– Stephen Guilbeault, minister of environment and climate change

The Seal River watershed is one of the richest carbon sinks in the world, absorbing carbon dioxide through trees, soils, mosses and phytoplankton, the news release said.

Canada has pledged to protect 30 per cent of its land and 30 per cent of its oceans by 2030. By the end of 2021, about 14 per cent of each were protected, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

The federal government has said that Indigenous-led proposals like the one from the Seal River Watershed are critical for Canada to meet its conservation goals.

The watershed would add another half a percentage of protected area to Canada’s goal.

“Canada cannot achieve the goals we set for ourselves without the help of Indigenous people,” Guilbeault said.

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