Wilderness Politics, State Conservation, and Northern Land Claims

Donjek Valley, Kluane National Park and Reserve, Yukon Territory, photo: Kevin Teague

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George Simpson McTavish/Library and Archives Canada/C-022942
George Simpson McTavish/Library and Archives Canada/C-022942

Intimate and powerful connections between place, identity, and politics have profoundly influenced the twentieth-century history of northern Canada. Often, conflicting visions of the northern environment and competing attachments to it run along a north-south axis, pitting local, mostly rural, people with distinctive connections to the land against ‘outsiders’ from distant urban centres or state agencies, who possess their own unique relationships with arctic and subarctic regions. Such tensions figure prominently, yet play out in distinctive ways, in virtually all of the chapters in our collection, whether they address mining, fisheries, exploration, scientific practice, or a range of other topics. Perhaps nowhere are they more important to consider, however, than in studies of northern conservation and wildlife management.

In the decades following the Second World War, federal officials in Ottawa developed large-scale plans to establish a chain of national parks across the Canadian north. Concerned about the impact of increasing human settlement and economic development in the region, and determined to create new recreational opportunities for urban southern Canadians, these officials modeled their efforts on the exclusionary practices used to create Yellowstone, Banff, and other large North American wilderness parks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition, they were influenced by theoretical developments in the field of ecology and social prejudices against northern hunters that served to justify the bureaucratic and legal impositions of scientific wildlife management.

Yet federal efforts to create new environmental regimes in the north were met with determined opposition from indigenous peoples. Northern aboriginal communities maintained deep ties to the lands designated as nature preserves by distant officials, and depended on access to local wildlife to meet their nutritional needs, sustain their subsistence economies, and ensure the survival of their cultures. In many ways, they experienced the establishment of conservation areas as an extension of earlier incursions by explorers, missionaries, and military personnel. Thus, drawing on historical experiences and the resources provided by an emerging land claims movement in the 1960s and 1970s, indigenous peoples resisted the efforts of park planners and their political masters, eventually forcing them to adopt more inclusive conservation practices.

My contribution to this collection examines a pattern of conflict and compromise that typified conservation politics in many parts of the circumpolar north during the final third of the twentieth century. It situates local struggles over land and wildlife within the context of global environmentalism and the expansion of transnational indigenous activism. Following the completion of the Alaska Highway in 1944, Athapaskan peoples in the southwest Yukon struggled for decades with government conservationists over the creation of Kluane National Park on their traditional homelands. Meanwhile, Inuvialuit leaders in the neighbouring Northwest Territories drew support from an international network of scientists and environmental activists to influence the management of a vast wilderness reserve intended to protect the iconic Porcupine caribou herd. Indigenous leaders adopted an array of political strategies in these cases, but concentrated much of their energy on formal land claim negotiations. By the mid-1990s, both groups had signed Final Agreements with the Canadian government that dramatically influenced how conservation was practiced in the north.

Employing insights from political ecology and cultural anthropology, my research explores how northern indigenous leaders developed a powerful critique of state conservation by drawing on local ecological knowledge, making links between ‘social’ and ‘environmental’ issues, and reinterpreting concepts from Western wildlife science. In addition, it highlights how competing cultural understandings of the northern environment have sometimes been transformed through political struggle. Finally, by drawing connections between two distinctive environmental conflicts and wider legal and scientific debates about indigenous peoples, it challenges popular conceptions of the Canadian north as a distant and isolated hinterland. The region, it turns out, is not – and perhaps never has been – as remote as many of us imagine.

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Brad Martin

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