The federal government will spend up to $800-million over seven years on four Indigenous-led conservation initiatives, in a high-profile move to kick off a crucial international biodiversity summit.

The funding, announced Wednesday in Montreal, is meant to encourage other investors to help Canada meet its conservation targets and advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, who are seen as key partners in preserving ecosystems and wild places.

Ottawa has said it will protect 30 per cent of the country’s lands and waters by 2030. A recent report found one in five assessed native species in Canada is facing some sort of risk, and the country’s targets and follow-through will be in the spotlight at COP15, a United Nations biodiversity conference under way in Montreal.

The funding opens the door for long-term plans, said Lawrence Martin, marine program manager for the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents eight First Nations in Northern Ontario and has proposed a national marine conservation area – the Omushkego Conservation Project – along the western side of James Bay and southwestern Hudson Bay.

Unlike the boom-and-bust cycle of some resource extraction projects, a conservation area could provide longer term stability, he said.

“If we can take this opportunity we’ve been given and be able to manage it, it can be a ‘forever’ benefit for our people,” said Mr. Martin, who is a member of the Moose Cree First Nation.

The federal funding is meant to establish protected areas through Project Finance for Permanence, or PFP, which Ottawa describes as a model that brings together Indigenous organizations, different levels of government and the philanthropic community to work on shared conservation and diversity goals.

The model has been a feature of the Great Bear Rainforest, a 64,000-square-kilometre protected area on British Columbia’s north and central coast. In place since 2007, the partnership between governments, First Nations and donors has protected forests, helped pay for Indigenous stewardship and management programs, and created more than 1,200 jobs, according to Coastal First Nations, an umbrella group for the First Nations involved in the Great Bear Rainforest.

Now, the idea is to extend that model.

Ottawa’s announcement on Wednesday identified four areas for the conservation initiatives, which could protect up to one million square kilometres: all of the Northwest Territories; a B.C. marine area called the Great Bear Sea; a proposed marine area in Nunavut called Qikiqtani; and the Omushkego area in Northern Ontario.

All four areas are home to diverse species, including whooping cranes and polar bears in the NWT, and killer whales and kelp forests off the B.C. coast. The Nunavut marine area provides critical habitat for creatures including beluga whales and migrating birds. The proposed Omushkego protected area is home to more than 200 bird species and contains peatlands that are a globally significant carbon storage area, according to a government statement.

The next steps in the process will be talks with all parties to discuss how to implement the conservation models, including determining the process and timelines, the statement said.

The federal announcement reflects a shift in how Canada is approaching its conservation goals, said Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Council, one of 17 First Nations on the B.C. coast that back the Great Bear Sea initiative.

“When we started the terrestrial conservation model, the government was sort of the last one in,” said Mr. Smith, referring to the Great Bear Rainforest process.

“So this is a clear indicator that the government is looking for a path to achieve its goals, that also works for Indigenous communities,” said Mr. Smith, who is a member of the Tlowitsis First Nation.

The PFP model has the potential to create economic opportunities for local communities, through guardianship and other programs, and provide greater certainty to industries that may be operating, or plan to, in the areas, he said.

“For years, I’ve always heard industry tell me, ‘Just tell us the rules’ – and now we actually have the ability to build those rules and enforce them. Industry is looking for this, because they want a long-term solution as well. And this gives us the opportunity to create that together.”

The Indigenous protected-areas announcement is the second big commitment Ottawa has unveiled at COP15. On Tuesday, the government said it would put up $350-million to help developing countries advance conservation efforts.

In Montreal, Steven Guilbeault, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, told The Globe and Mail he hoped Canada would have further announcements to make during the biodiversity summit.

And he said Wednesday’s news shows how Canada plans to meet its conservation targets, referring to the federal government’s goal of protecting 30 per cent of the country’s land and waters by 2030.

“There is no path for Canada to get to 30 by 30 without Indigenous people being at the decision-making table on the conservation issue. Today’s announcement is the incarnation of our commitment to do that.”

The Globe and Mail, December 7, 2022