This is part of a series of profiles about the staff, leaders, and community members who are hard at work implementing Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation's vision for the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area. You can read the other profiles here.
Larry Innes’s journey to the Northwest Territories began in Ghana. Born and raised in Cardston, Alberta, and educated in Ontario, by the early 1990s, Larry was living in the West African country and working with humanitarian NGOs. It was in Africa where Larry came to see his country differently through the eyes of friends and colleagues: “There was a strong anti-colonial movement there at the time. People told me things I knew about Canadian history and society, but that I hadn’t really understood from a critical perspective, like the treatment of Indigenous peoples and that fact that apartheid was modelled on Canada’s Indian Act.”
Returning to Canada, Larry immersed himself in Indigenous history and struggle. He became particularly interested in land claims, which led him to do a Masters in Environmental Studies at York University. Larry explains, “I was trying to critically understand the land claims process that required people to map their stories, that enframed Indigenous perspectives in lines on a map.” Larry conducted his graduate research with the Innu Nation in Labrador, marking the beginning of a professional relationship that continues today. After completing law school at the University of Victoria, Larry returned to Labrador, where his work with the Innu Nation focused on Indigenous lands and resource management strategies.
Larry’s introduction to the NWT came through the Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI). As a relatively new organization in the early part of the new millennium, CBI was unique in bringing together Indigenous peoples, NGOs, and industry to recognize their shared interest in protecting the boreal forest: “CBI was trying to find a balanced approach, with a shared vision of protecting at least half of the boreal and using best management or stewardship practices on the reminder, all in a way that would advance Indigenous rights.” The Innu Nation with Larry as their legal counsel was at the table, as was Herb Norwegian, a key architect of the Dehcho Land Use Plan. Eventually, Larry would become the Executive Director of CBI, a position he held from 2005 until 2011.
It was during Larry’s time with CBI that he got to know people in Łutsël K’é. The community, with “the Steves” at the helm, was already looking at options for protecting their territory. Larry came on board to help Łutsël K’é identify different models and resources that could help advance their cause. In 2010, when Łutsël K’é formally entered into negotiations for Thaidene Nëné, Larry joined the table as LKDFN’s legal counsel, and his visits to the NWT became more frequent. Eventually, it just “made sense” for him to be here full time, and he relocated to Yellowknife, where he is now the partner responsible for the northern office of Olthuis Kleer Townshend (OKT), a nationally prominent Indigenous rights law firm.
While Łutsël K’é was committed to protecting their ancestral territory, they were equally concerned with having an agreement that would protect their rights as Łutsël K’é Dene. As the lawyer on the negotiating team, Larry took on many of the drafting responsibilities. More than putting words to paper, Larry’s task was to “make the words clear so that community members could see what they wanted translated into language that was legally enforceable.” It was also Larry’s job to push back against the government, and to create space for creative solutions.
Larry, having worked both as a negotiator and as legal counsel at land rights negotiation tables since the early 1990s, notes that every negotiation has a similar rhythm. “Parties bring their interests to the table and then try to fashion an agreement that works,” he explained. What was different about the Thaidene Nëné negotiations, Larry says, was that while the community mandate was clear, the direction given to government officials was less so and thus more open to creative interpretation. In the end, Łutsël K’é’s vision was able to prevail, something that, in Larry’s words, “doesn’t happen in conventional land claim negotiations, where governments have very firm lines.”
Less than two years into implementation, Larry’s hopes for the Indigenous protected area are already being realized. “I had hoped that Thaidene Nëné would provide inspiration to other communities wishing to protect their land and way of life.” And this is exactly what is happening. Larry is involved with several Indigenous conservation initiatives in the North that are able “to draw on the example of Thaidene Nëné and make it their own.” Larry also sees the impact that Łutsël K’é’s work is having beyond the North. He says, “I’ve stayed very close to the evolution of the discussion on how conservation functions at scale, but in particular how conservation can become anti-colonial. Thaidene Nëné is situated at the forefront of that conversation. It is a global model for conservation.”
The transformative power of Thaidene Nëné is evident in Łutsël K’é as well, visible in the work of the Thaidene Nëné Department, the Ni Hat’ni Dene Guardians, and in the community more broadly. “LKDFN members are seeing new futures and new possibilities that don’t require them to be anything other than who they are,” Larry observes. “This is such a change from the past, when white people said now you have to ‘do this or be that’. Łutsël K’é Dene get to be who they are and decide how they will manage their protected area.”
Though Larry has been working with Łutsël K’é for more than a decade, he feels like he has only “begun to scratch the surface of what Thaidene Nëné has to offer.” When asked about special places in the Land of the Ancestors, he makes note of Ts’ąkuı Theda (Our Lady of the Falls, Ɂedacho Kúe (Artillery Lake), and the village site at Kaché (Fort Reliance). Upon further reflection, though, he says, “It’s less a particular place than the impression of the entirety, the vastness. You can fit whole countries into Thaidene Nëné.”
For Larry, the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area is truly reflective of Łutsël K’é’s vision. “I had the good fortune to spend time with the elders in the early years and their vision was clear,” Larry recalls. “Protect the land, protect the Łutsël K’é Dene way of life, and ensure that future generations are able to use the land the way the ancestors did.” Now, when Larry visits Thaidene Nëné, he sees “the land as it was, and as it will always be.”
We are the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation. Our vision for Thaidene Nëné is:
Nuwe néné, nuwe ch'anıé yunedhé xa (Our land, our culture for the future).
We’re working with our partners to permanently protect Thaidene Nëné—part of our
huge and bountiful homeland around and beyond the East Arm of Tu Nedhé.