Nanaimo Vancouver Island

What are Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas?

An Interview with Eli Enns, co-founder of the IISAAK OLAM Foundation.
Julie Chadwick March 10, 2022
Photo: Philip McLachlan/The Discourse

In 2016, a brain trust of Indigenous experts and Knowledge Holders were pulled together to assist with the federal government’s aim to add to Canada’s protected and conserved areas across the country. The goal, sometimes referred to as “25 by 25,” is to conserve 25 per cent of Canada’s land and 25 per cent of its oceans by 2025, moving to 30 per cent by 2030.

One of the co-chairs of the Indigenous Circle of Experts (ICE) was Eli Enns, an internationally recognized expert in biocultural heritage conservation (which refers to Indigenous knowledge and practices related to nature) and Indigenous economic development.

From the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation on his father’s side, and of Dutch Mennonite heritage on his mother’s, Enns was known for his work as a co-founder of the Ha’uukmin Tribal Park in what is commonly known as Clayoquot Sound, and brought that background to his work with ICE.

What emerged from their consultations was an innovative vision for protecting lands and waters via the establishment of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs), where as defined in their final report and recommendations, “Indigenous governments have the primary role in protecting and conserving ecosystems through Indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems.”

There are 52 Indigenous communities that have received funding towards the establishment or planning of IPCAs, and many more in the works, says Enns. With $2.3 billion in Canada’s 2021 federal budget earmarked for nature conservation over five years, the federal government announced $166 million of that was slated for future IPCAs.

Eli Enns has worked to ensure IPCAs are driven by Indigenous governments. Photo by Megan Edelman Photography

One of the crucial things to understand about the process of bringing IPCAs to life, says Enns, was the commitment to ensuring it was an Indigenous-led initiative.

“The ICE committee was like, 50 per cent Indigenous knowledge holders, subject matter experts, and 50 per cent government bureaucrats that work in protected areas across provinces and territories and federal government agencies. So it was quite, I think, a novel working group.

“And every recommendation that came out of the We Rise Together report was vetted through that governmental, [Métis] and First Nations perspective,” says Enns. “The hardest conversation we had through that whole committee process was around the [term] ‘Indigenous-led’. Those three little letters, ‘l-e-d’ — the government members of the committee wanted to take that out. And we had to fight hard through a very emotionally rich process to keep those three little letters in there.”

It is the insistence on this powerful point that makes IPCAs a game-changer and potentially more successful than other similar initiatives, says Enns.

“We certainly did not kowtow to the government’s perspective on things. And what we’ve been very repetitive about is that you’ve got to choose your own adventure with this. You know, First Nation, Métis and Inuit Governments, they’re the ones that have to self determine this, they have to take the driver’s seat. You don’t don’t apply to have an IPCA created, you have to declare it, like in 1984,” he says, referring to the declaration of the Wah-nah-juss Hilth-hoois (Meares Island) Tribal Park, spearheaded by his uncle Moses Martin (Tla-o-qui-aht’s elected chief at the time).

“Moses Martin and our Nation, we didn’t make a proposal to B.C. to create a Tribal Park. We declared that, based on Nuu-chah-nulth law. With hishuk’ish tsawalk, you know, like everything is one, and everything is interconnected,” he says. 

“The reason why IPCAs are going to be so consequential is because it brings more sophistication to the idea of reconciliation,” says Enns.

“In the report of the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] they say reconciliation between the Crown and Indigenous peoples can never happen until there is reconciliation with the land. So an IPCA is a land-based model of reconciliation where it can role model what healthy relationships look like — between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, between civil society and the private sector, and between human beings and the rest of creation.”

How this relates to the preservation and protection of watersheds, forests and lands like those privatized within the E&N Land Grant is that this approach was not “designed from a colonial, disconnected mindset of humanity separate from nature,” says Enns.

“We have the opportunity now, in places like the Nanaimo River and in other places where we’ve got private landowners, we can say, ‘Look, if we bring the best of western science and the best of Indigenous knowledge systems together in ethical space, in the true spirit and practice of peace and friendship — the true spirit of reconciliation — we’re going to create a more resilient future for all our children and grandchildren to come.’”