Kaska now included in Nahanni expansion

The Kaska Nation was almost excluded from plans to expand the Nahanni National Park Reserve over their traditional land in the Northwest Territories.

The Kaska Nation was almost excluded from plans to expand the Nahanni National Park Reserve over their traditional land in the Northwest Territories.

It was only an 11th-hour decision to have the Kaska included in negotiations, said Norman Sterriah, a councillor and traditional knowledge co-ordinator for the Ross River Dena Council.

“We’ve been assured our interests will be protected,” he said.

The council has now been included in some meetings, but they are upset about being overlooked when Prime Minister Stephen Harper supported the expansion with the borders drawn up in August 2007.

The Kaska are supportive of a park as long as they remain involved, said Sterriah.

Parks Canada has a duty to consult with the Kaska Nation, said Norm Barichello, a former Yukon government staffer who provides technical help for the Kaska.

But details of the Kaska’s stake haven’t been hashed out yet.

They are currently working on a contribution agreement, which would decide what kind of payment Parks Canada would make to use the Kaska’s territory.

“It’s a bit of a problem since the lines have been drawn on the map,” said Barichello. “The Ross River Dena Council have been approached late in the day.”

“So it’s not an ideal world like if you had the Kaska involved in the initial discussion.

“I’m not really sure how those borders were drawn except that they encompass the whole Nahanni watershed.”

The Kaska feel they have a right to be involved in how land is managed, especially when it comes to spiritual sites.

“Some of the areas are cultural, like sacred areas that we’re not prepared to identify,” said Sterriah. “These areas have to be managed with some kind of confidentiality agreement with the government.”

The Kaska will do a traditional knowledge exercise this year, said Sterriah.

“We need to establish a traditional knowledge protocol, deciding who’s going to have this information and who’s going to use it,” said Sterriah.

“These are the instructions from our elders and the traditional land stewards,” he said.

The Kaska have heritage trails throughout the region, he said.

It comes down to managing natural interests too.

“We want areas like (mineral licks) kept clean and we don’t want those types of interests disturbed at all,” said Sterriah. “We have a few caribou fences in that area and we don’t want them to be torn down.”

The Kaska also want to avoid the problems First Nations had with Kluane National Park, where there was confusion over whether First Nations would be allowed to hunt and fish, said Barichello.

“The Kaska also want to see their ethics applied, for example with catch-and-release fishing,” he said. “Most people (in the Kaska) don’t want to see catch and release, it’s akin to clubbing baby seals on the head, it’s just not seen as particularly ethical.”

“As a First Nation person myself, we do have these traditional laws that guide us in how these things should be done,” said Sterriah. “Not just for how we deal with ourselves, but with the land also.”

“It’s incumbent upon us to share this information not just with the next generation, but with others too.”

The Kaska are not certain whether minerals or fossil fuels lie under the ground, he said.

“We haven’t identified those areas (as having resource extraction potential,)” said Sterriah.

“I’m not sure the folks at NWT have really involved the Kaska in terms of resource potential,” said Barichello.

“What the Kaska interests are is that with any kind activity they expect to see benefits out of that to help them out,” he said. “For parks, they want to see opportunities—for park wardens or running tourism (operations.)”

The Dechenla wilderness resort, a naturalist lodge along the North Canol Road, sits in the area slated for park expansion. It’s co-owned by the Kaska and Barichello, and houses scientists conducting research in the region.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s head office in Ottawa didn’t even know the Kaska’s traditional territory extended into the Northwest Territories.

“We have not worked with the Kaska on the Nahanni traditional park reserve,” said Ellen Adelberg, the society’s director of communications and marketing in Ottawa.

“I don’t believe (the Kaska traditional territory) crosses into the watershed,” she said.

The society has spearheaded the expansion plan for decades.

“Protecting the entire South Nahanni watershed has been one of CPAWS’ most important goals for many years, starting in the 1970s,” said Adelberg.

The advice of scientists has been that, without protecting the whole watershed, the ecosystem could be harmed by encroaching resource extraction, said Adelberg.

“For the last five years, we’ve been very actively advocating for the watershed to be protected,” she said.

Harper’s 2007 announcement was a commitment to withdraw the land from industrial development, with the exceptions of the proposed Prairie Creek Mine and the Cantung mine.

The Cantung site only has between two and seven years left before it’s depleted, the conservation society’s website says.

The Kaska nation has refused to consolidate its identity into provincially and territorially delineated land masses, according to an order from an elders meeting held in 1987, said Sterriah.

That can be confusing for far-away government bodies, which probably only saw the Dhecho and Sahtu First Nations in NWT as the First Nations entitled to the land.

“They’re starting to notice and listen to us,” said Sterriah.

The Kaska claim 624,000 square kilometres of traditional territory, covering 25 per cent of the land in the Yukon and 10 per cent of BC.

They are represented by Indian Act bands like the Ross River Dena Council, which act as land wardens for the regions around them.

Different families were assigned to act as land stewards by elders, said Sterriah.

“And there were people up in the Northwest Territories (who were traditional land stewards.)”

Parks Canada would not return calls all week.

Contact James Munson at jamesm@yukon-news.com.