Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation elder Lorraine Netro has been awarded the 2021 Glen Davis Conservation Leadership Prize.
The prize — awarded by WWF-Canada and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) — was awarded to Netro for her more than two decades of work advocating for the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd, which migrate between Alaska and the Yukon, and holds cultural significance for the First Nation.
The prize has been a five-year joint project between CPAWS and WWF-Canada, awarded each year since 2017 in honour of Davis’ contributions to conservation.
“Lorraine is a respected Vuntut Gwitchin elder who has been working tirelessly for more than 20 years to protect the Arctic Refuge and the Porcupine caribou herd,” said Sandra Schwartz, CPAWS national executive director, in a statement.
“In that time, she has travelled across North America and visited Washington D.C. dozens of times to speak about the importance of the Porcupine caribou herd for the lives of Gwich’in people.
“Her first speaking tour in the U.S. was part of the Caribou Commons campaign, which Glen Davis helped fund, so it is a fitting tribute to his legacy that Lorraine is this year’s award recipient. She has never been paid for her conservation work, but has done it for the good of her community.”
Davis was a philanthropist who contributed significantly to conservation efforts. The award was established in honour of his contributions with 2021 marking the final year of the five-year prize program.
“I am truly humbled and honored by this special recognition to receive the Glen Davis award,” Netro said. “Glen Davis’ honorable conservation legacy in Canada and beyond is truly memorable and significant. Mahsi cho to all who made this happen.”
In a May 15 interview, Netro stressed that the award was not about her as an individual, but rather all of those who have been involved in advocating for the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, whether that was being on the front lines of demonstrations calling for protection or sending thoughts and prayers.
As she stated: “As a Gwitchin, it is our belief that we do not accept honorable recognition for ourselves. I will accept this award on behalf of my family, community, our nation, for all those who came before me and those who will come after me, and those who walk with us to protect our Sacred Lands, the animals and waters.
“Being stewards of our lands has been taught to us from generation to generation, it is our responsibility to our children, grandchildren and all future generations. More so today with threats to our sacred places and traditional way of life, the challenges of climate change and living in pandemic. Our voice, our work is not done until we have permanent protection for our sacred places.”
Netro said it was in 1999, after returning to the Yukon following years of working Outside, that she became involved in the efforts to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, though it was something she had been thinking about for years.
“I always was interested in the advocacy work for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” she said, noting it was at that point she was able to devote time to the work.
Her efforts currently see her on the boards of both the Gwich’in Steering Committee and Alaska Wilderness League as well serving as a member of the Assembly of First Nations’ advisory committee on climate action and the environment.
“It’s my responsibility as a grandmother to do whatever I can and whatever it takes to effect change,” she said.
She noted there’s been many challenges over the years to protect the refuge from oil and gas drilling as the issue has continued to come up through various government administrations.
She said many were pleased in February to see the statement released by current U.S. president Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recognizing the importance of the refuge and agreeing to “work together to help safeguard the Porcupine caribou herd calving grounds that are invaluable to the Gwich’in and Inuvialuit peoples’ culture and subsistence.”
The statement has given the Gwitchin community a renewed hope for the protection of the refuge.
“We always have hope, but now we’re more hopeful,” she said.
Netro has also served her community in political roles in the past, including as deputy chief for her First Nation and two terms as an NDP MLA for the Vuntut Gwitchin riding.
Contact Stephanie Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org