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.
“I’m a guy from Łutsël K’é,” Steven Nitah says, a smile in his voice, when asked to introduce himself. And while the statement is certainly true, he is much more than that. Steven has served as member of the NWT’s Legislative Assembly, as the community negotiator for Łutsël K’é at the Akaitcho main table, as chief of the First Nation, and as the chief negotiator for the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area. More recently, Steven has been an advocate for Indigenous-led conservation as a member of the Indigenous Circle of Experts (ICE) for the Pathway to Canada Target 1 and as one of four Indigenous leads with the Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership.
Steven Nitah was born in his traditional territory and raised on the land by his grandparents, Abel and Mary Louise Nitah, and his great grandparents on his grandmother’s side, John and Marie Tassi. His family lived at Fort Reliance so he knows intimately the area along Pike’s Portage to Ɂedacho Kúe (Artillery Lake) and the north and south shores of McLeod Bay. “There are many other special places in Thaidene Nëné, but those are the areas that I grew up in. That’s home.” It was particularly as the family travelled by boat that Steven came to understand his responsibilities as Łutsël K’é Dene. “When you’re travelling, you’re listening to the stories of the elders,” he explains. “You’re listening to your grandparents talk about your responsibility to your territory, to ensure that the land is there for future generations, but also that our way of life can continue long into the future.”
Steven’s direct involvement with Thaidene Nëné began while he was a community negotiator. “I was part of the team that worked with Canada to have an area withdrawn as an area of interest for a national park,” he says. “This was part of the broader land withdrawal for the Akaticho Process.” Later, as chief, Steven played a pivotal role in developing the framework agreement for Thaidene Nëné, an agreement that bears his signature and that of then Enrivonment Miniser Jim Prentice. When his term as chief was coming to an end, the LKDFN Council appointed Steven chief negotiator for the proposed protected area. “The elders didn’t want me to be the chief any more,” he says, with his characteristic chuckle. “They wanted me on the negotiating table.”
Imagining and then working to achieve the community’s vision for Thaidene Nëné was a long and arduous process. Negotiations were stalled more than once by delays, the most significant of which was caused by devolution. “The federal government,” Steven explains, “was in the midst of transferring a variety of responsibilities to the territorial government. They didn’t want anything to further muddy the waters.” The negotiating team and the community waited for more than a year to get things back on track. There was also a six-month hiatus around 2012 when Parks Canada was gutted by the Harper government. “Budget cuts, early retirements, staff layoff, all of that stalled negotiations,” Steven says.
The negotiation process became more complicated in 2015, when the Government of the Northwest Territories came to the table. “Those were hard, imaginative negotiations,” Steven recalls. The GNWT had a mandate to reduce Thaidene Nëné to 7000 km2, which, as Steven notes, was “very close to the size originally laid out by Parks Canada in the 1970s.” Thankfully, the negotiating team with Steve at the helm was able to convince the GNWT of the value of economic opportunities beyond resource extraction. “Tourism was a burgeoning economy in the NWT at that time, so that helped,” Steven adds. In the end, Thaidene Nëné was only reduced by 7000km2 through negotiations.
In spite of delays and obstacles, the negotiating team was successful in their efforts. In August 2019, the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation designated Thaidene Nëné an Indigenous protected area (IPA) using their own Dene laws. Portions of the IPA are designated a national park reserve by Parks Canada and a territorial protected area and wildlife conservation area by the Government of the Northwest Territories. At final count, the protected area measures 26,376 km2.
The creation of Thaidene Nëné is a testament to the determination and unity of vision of the community of Łutsël K’é and the skill of the LKDFN negotiators, but it is also a reflection of the spirit of collaboration between the parties that emerged as negotiations progressed. “Agreements like this don't come without active and willing participation by all the parties,” Steven says. “The negotiating teams for Parks Canada and the GNWT were willing to go that extra mile to do something different, to create a legal contractual agreement that recognizes Indigenous authority and jurisdiction.”
“Through this many decades long process, there were a number of very interesting moments and very proud moments,” Steven notes. One such moment came in the early stages of negotiating when the Conservatives were in power. Recognizing the biases of the government under Stephen Harper’s leadership, the negotiating team put forward an economic argument for the proposed protected area. “We considered conservation to be important not just for the sake of the land, but also in terms of the economic impacts for Łutsël K’é,” he explains. The negotiating team was also successful in making the case for a lump sum payment, which the community would match through fundraising to enable Łutsël K’é to fulfill its obligations within Thaidene Nëné. This pooled funding became the Thaidene Nëné Trust, the first of its kind in Canada.
The negotiating team very clearly took their marching orders from the community. “Our mandate, which we received from the elders,” Steven says, “was to implement the spirit and intent of the treaties.” To that end, the team sought “shared responsibility, shared authority, and shared jurisdiction,” a goal they repeated again and again to the other parties. Their persistence paid off; Łutsël K’é is not an advisor to, but an equal partner in the management and operations of Thaidene Nëné.
The work of the negotiators and the community to protect the land of their ancestors reaches beyond the borders of Thaidene Nëné. It has already benefitted and will continue to benefit other communities in the NWT through the Protected Areas Act that was passed into law in July 2019. Not only was Łutsël K’é an active participant in the advisory committee that guided the drafting of that legislation, but their work at the negotiating table also shaped the letter and the spirit of that law. Łutsël K’é and Thaidene Nëné are also an example nationally. As Steven notes, “In an era where yesterday’s wrongs are starting to be recognized at multiple levels, Thaidene Nëné represents an opportunity to define the treaty relationship that Indigenous nations across the country have with Canada.” He adds, “There is finally an opportunity to implement the sprit and intent of the treaties both within conservation areas and beyond them.”
Steven’s efforts to protect Thaidene Nëné were inspired by the elders’ mandate, but he also worked with his three children in mind. Looking to the future, Steven says, “I hope that the land continues feeding us. I hope we can continue to be Dene. I hope we can continue to keep the language alive, that we can tell the stories of the land in the language, in Dënesųłı̨né.” Steven also hopes that the economic projections the negotiating team and their advisors made become reality. “I hope Thaidene Nëné spells prosperity for our people.”
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.