This is the ninth in 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.
Raised in Winnipeg, MB, Steve Ellis first came to Łutsël K’é as a Masters student in 1999. He was supposed to only be in the community for a few months, conducting research about environmental assessment, but as he tells it, “I made myself somewhat useful, so I ended up sticking around.” Steve, who is Chinese/Scottish, was hired on to the Wildlife, Lands, and Environment Department, eventually becoming the manager. Joined in Łutsël K’é by his partner, Tracey, in 2000, the couple and the three children that followed called the community home until 2013, when they moved to Yellowknife (the family keeps a home in Łutsël K’é, so they can go back whenever they want).
Steve describes his time in Łutsël K’é as a second childhood. Though he had done lots of canoeing and hiking before moving to the community, he had not lived off the land in the way Łutsël K’é Dene do. Thankfully, the Boucher and Catholique families took young Steve under their wings and “showed him the ropes.” “I am who I am today,” he explains, “because of those two childhoods: The childhood I had with my actual parents and the second childhood I had with the community.”
Living in Łutsël K’é, Steve came to know and love many places in Thaidene Nëné. Two places deserve special mention. A massive lake that straddles the tree line, Ɂedacho Kúe (Artillery Lake) is rich with important cultural and historic sites. “It is a spectacular area with deep history. You can feel the presence of generations of people,” Steve notes. Steve also has fond memories of travelling on Tędhul Dezé (Snowdrift River) with Tracey and their eldest son Hawke when he was still in diapers. A meandering river with lovely sandbars, the Snowdrift, in Steve’s estimation, is “the perfect family float.”
Steve has been involved with Thaidene Nëné since the early 2000s in variety of different capacities. In the wake of the diamond staking rush, the community was exploring conservation as a solution to its concerns about mining encroachment. As the manager of Wildlife, Lands, and Environment, it was Steve’s responsibility to coordinate and facilitate those initial conversations with the elders and the community. As things became more formalized, Steve became “the” Thaidene Nëné person for LKDFN. In 2010, he was named to the negotiating team, working alongside Steven Nitah and Larry Innes to ensure the establishment agreements reflected and respected Łutsël K’é’s vision for and responsibilities within Thaidene Nëné. Following the signing ceremony in 2019, Steve transitioned to the role of advisor to the First Nation on implementation.
Continuity is important between negotiations and implementation. The intimate knowledge that negotiators have of the agreements is invaluable in providing guidance to the parties as they seek to fulfill the letter and the spirit of the agreements. Łutsël K’é is unique among the three parties in that it is the only one to have a negotiator on its implementation team.
So what does Steve’s position look like day-to-day? First and foremost, he is responsible for protecting the agreements and ensuring they are being followed. In his words, “I play an important role in educating the parties. Unfortunately, sometimes that also means reminding the parties what they agreed to.” Steve has a number of other roles as well. He does external relations work with the other parties. He is supporting the development of the governance approach. He also advises the Thaidene Nëné manager on big picture things like strategic planning, budgeting, and annual workplans. Lastly, he is responsible for overseeing funding and managing relationships with funders.
Steve has been involved with the process long enough that he can shed some light on the why and how of LKDFN’s success in realizing their goal to protect Thaidene Nëné. Statistically, Steve notes, Łutsël K’é is like most other northern communities: it struggles with things like poverty, substance abuse, overcrowding. For many communities, there is no clear pathway out of this situation. Łutsël K’é is fortunate to be located in a place that is beautiful and accessible, but more importantly a place that Parks Canada has had an interest in for a half-century. Furthermore, while there may be divisions within the community, by and large, Łutsël K’é Dene share a commitment to protecting their land, maintaining their authority over their land, and ensuring the continuation of culture and lifestyle as land-based people. According to Steve, “This consistency of vision has allowed Łutsël K’é to achieve its goals as a community.”
If you’re familiar at all with the strategic plan that the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation developed this past year for Thaidene Nëné, you will know that the first goal is: Łutsël K’é leading. And the community is doing just that. They are the only one of the three parties with staff on the ground, staff who, in spite of the newness of the Indigenous Protected Area and the pandemic, have been busy establishing systems and delivering programming. Steve notes that the impact of this leadership is palpable in the community: “You can see it in the ownership the community has of the Thaidene Nëné office. You can see it in relationship to Frontier Lodge. You can see it in the activity in the community in relation to Thaidene Nëné.” The community’s leadership has import beyond the boundaries of Thaidene Nëné. To borrow from Steve, “Through Thaidene Nëné, Łutsël K’é is re-setting the power dynamics with crown governments.”
When Steve looks to the future, he sees Łutsël K’é continuing to lead the management and operations of Thaidene Nëné in partnership with Parks Canada and the GNWT. He sees local people involved and engaged in a meaningful way and securing liveliehoods through Thaidene Nëné. He sees young people who can imagine a future for themselves in the community because of the opportunities afforded by Thaidene Nëné. He sees Łutsël K’é as a place that people want to move back to as opposed to a place they want or have to move away from.
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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.