Beyond Conservation: A Toolkit for Respectful Collaboration with Indigenous Peoples



Practical Steps and Resources


Why this toolkit is needed

In recent years, the commitment and action to advance reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada has grown. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report with 94 Calls to Action. These Calls to Action cover areas such as child welfare, education, language and culture, health, social and economic outcomes, and justice. They constitute an attempt to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation. The work of reconciliation and decolonization of relationships will take generations. This toolkit is intended to encourage and facilitate that work in the field of stewardship and conservation.

Photo by Torngat Secretariat

Acknowledging history: About this toolkit

Reconciliation involves an ongoing process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships and a commitment to decolonize ourselves and our institutions.

To understand our responsibility to act, it is important to know what we mean by reconciliation and decolonization. While reconciliation involves both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, it is primarily the responsibility of non-Indigenous Canadians, as the group that perpetrated the wrongs. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) defines reconciliation as “an ongoing process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships. A critical part of this process involves repairing damaged trust by making apologies, providing individual and collective reparations, and following through with concrete actions that demonstrate real societal change.”

Decolonization, on the other hand, refers to challenging and changing the supremacy and privilege of western thought, ideologies, systems, and ways of doing things. This work seeks to centre Indigenous values, worldviews, and ways of knowing and doing. Decolonization requires concerted efforts to address systemic and institutional colonialism in all sectors of Canadian society, including conservation and environmental governance. This involves respecting and elevating Indigenous worldviews, knowledge, and legal and governance systems. Reconciling relationships can lay the groundwork for decolonization to happen.

Ethical space calls for relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups to acknowledge the history and ongoing impacts of colonialism, and to ground relationships in respect for the sovereignty and rights of Indigenous Peoples. In an ethical space, all parties commit to equally respecting multiple ways of knowing, worldviews, and legal and governance frameworks, without privileging one system over the other. (See the toolkit section on Working Respectfully with Indigenous Peoples and Their Knowledge Systems for more information.)

The TRC calls on federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as the framework for reconciliation. This Declaration marked the first time in the UN that Indigenous rights holders from around the world played a central role in creating a new human rights instrument. The process behind the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples began as far back as 1923, when Chief Deskaheh of the Iroquois League traveled from Canada to Geneva to represent the sovereignty of Six Iroquois Nations at the League of Nations. He worked to obtain international recognition of the Six Nations as a sovereign nation, but was turned away and not allowed to address the League of Nations. Indigenous Peoples from around the world continued to advocate relentlessly for their rights, and after decades of sustained efforts, the UN General Assembly voted to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on September 13, 2007. The Declaration clearly defines Indigenous Peoples’ rights to self-determination and to maintain and strengthen their institutions, cultures, and traditions.

On June 16, 2021, the Canadian House of Commons passed Bill C-15, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which seeks to bring Canadian law and policy into alignment with the UNDRIP. The Act requires the development of an action plan for implementing the UNDRIP in Canada, and this action plan will “promote mutual respect and understanding, as well as good relations, including through human rights education.” (Department of Justice, 2021)

Photo by Ezra Soiferman

Acknowledging the colonial history of conservation

The field of conservation has its own legacy of colonialism that requires acknowledgement and redress. When the field of conservation was established over 100 years ago, western thinking understood the environment as separate from humans (and largely still does). In colonial attempts to “protect” pristine environments, many Indigenous Peoples around the world and in Canada were expelled from their territories in order to establish parks and protected areas . Efforts to protect species at risk have repeatedly removed First Nations, Inuit, and Métis rights to hunt or fish, jeopardizing their livelihoods, their food security, and their culture. This has happened time and again, including  in 2021, when the Province of Manitoba instituted a ban on moose hunting that the Manitoba Métis Federation says fails to protect Indigenous harvesting rights and violates Section 35 of the Constitution Act. The tension and conflict between conservationists and Indigenous Peoples continue, as seen in other high profile cases such as the seal hunt, whale hunting, and even caribou hunting. In conservation research as well, there is a history of mistreatment of Indigenous communities. The National Inuit Strategy on Research explains that,

“For far too long, researchers have enjoyed great privilege as they have passed through our communities and homeland, using public or academic funding to answer their own questions about our environment, wildlife, and people. Many of these same researchers then ignore Inuit in creating the outcomes of their work for the advancement of their careers, their research institutions, or their governments. This type of exploitative relationship must end.” (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, 2018)

Sadly, the same can be said of many conservation research relationships with First Nations and Métis communities as well.

Indigneous-led stewardship: A path forward

Collaboration can take many forms, and here we would like to distinguish between Indigenous-led and Indigenous-involved conservation and stewardship work. Indigenous-led projects are those that Indigenous Peoples design and implement. They centre around Indigenous self-determination and Indigenous priorities. Indigenous Peoples can lead projects in close collaboration with non-Indigenous partners. Indigenous-involved projects are those where Indigenous Peoples are consulted and might contribute to a project, but are not necessarily involved in decision-making. (See “Situate your initiative: ‘Indigenous-led’, ‘Co-led’ or ‘Indigenous-involved’?” for more detail.)

“Indigenous peoples comprise only 5% of the world’s population but protect approximately 85% of the world’s biodiversity through stewardship of Indigenous-managed lands.” (Hoffman et al, 2021)

It has been demonstrated in Canada that lands stewarded by Indigenous Peoples who were allowed to maintain their traditional ways support higher levels of vertebrate biodiversity than other protected areas, and that they support more threatened vertebrate species than existing protected areas (Schuster et al 2019). Here are some examples:

Photo by Melanie Mullin

“Anishinaabeg have sustainably harvested manoomin (northern wild rice) for hundreds of years. Wild rice seeds are sown in water of a certain depth, then tended to by the individual or family who planted them. Stewarding wild rice stands often involves tasks such as removing competing vegetation like water lilies. In turn, wild rice stands support the biodiversity of the boreal forest. For example, the stands are an important habitat for millions of migratory and resident birds.” (Pawlowska-Mainville, 2020)

On the west coast, Indigenous Peoples developed the practice of clam gardening and “clam gardens today are 150–300% more productive than beaches without gardens. Indigenous people enhanced clam habitat by clearing away large rocks, by removing predators, and by tilling the sediment. These practices, coupled with the building of the terraces, created highly productive clam habitat that sustained communities for generations.” “Cultural restrictions on harvesting size, timing, and location were also essential aspects of traditional clam management systems.” (Clam Gardens , n.d.)

Another example of Indigenous stewardship is the practice of cultural burns. Indigenous Peoples throughout history have conducted these burns to reduce the risk of wildfire and to “promote the growth of medicinal and food plants, such as mushrooms, berries, and wild onions, and maintain the landscape for all species.” (Boutsalis, 2020)

Thus, in the conservation field, there is a unique opportunity to change our ways, and advance the cause of reconciliation. Non-Indigenous people in particular have a responsibility to collaborate rather than exploit, to respect and honour rather than ignore and dismiss. Sustainable conservation must actively involve the people and organizations that are connected to natural systems. Indigenous Peoples and their communities, cultures, and knowledge are strongly tied to the lands that they have stewarded since time immemorial, but many of these ties have been damaged through colonialism. Strengthening or restoring Indigenous Peoples’ relationships to the land, supporting their communities, and upholding their rights will benefit not only Indigenous Peoples, but through them, also the plants, animals, and environments they steward. This is a goal shared by non-Indigenous conservationists and therefore creates an opportunity for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to collaborate on conservation projects in a spirit of reconciliation.

There are a number of examples that involve this kind of positive shift towards true collaborative work between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people on conservation and stewardship initiatives. The Indigenous Circle of Experts (ICE) was convened to bring attention to Indigenous Peoples’ worldviews, rights, and knowledge in the federal government’s biodiversity conservation planning. ICE produced a report with 28 recommendations for creating and expanding Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) in the spirit of reconciliation, as well as revitalizing relationships between the Crown and Indigenous governments for existing protected areas.

Indigenous Guardians programs are another excellent illustration of Indigenous leadership and ownership of conservation and stewardship work. These programs train and put in place Guardians to manage protected areas, restore animals and plants, test water quality and monitor development on Indigenous lands. With more than 110 Guardians programs operating across the country, a network has been established that represents a fundamental shift in how Indigenous Nations and Canada work together. “Rather than having the Crown government design and deliver a program to Indigenous Peoples, this network is Indigenous-led and encourages Indigenous and Crown representatives to collaborate as partners.” (Indigenous Leadership Initiative, n.d.)

Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework

In December 2022, Canada was among nearly 200 countries to adopt the Kunming-Montréal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). Unique and groundbreaking, many of this framework’s 23 targets highlight the importance of respecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights and enhancing Indigenous Peoples’ roles in safeguarding nature and halting and reversing biodiversity loss. The same month, the federal government announced $800 million in funding over seven years for large Indigenous-led conservation projects covering almost 1 million square kilometres of land. There will be many opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to build collaborative relationships in support of biodiversity conservation.

Photo by Ryan Dickie

The caribou connection: About the NBCKC and IKC

Boreal caribou are of significant spiritual, cultural, and practical value to many Indigenous communities that reside within the current and former range of the species. However, existing and ongoing development and resource extraction across the boreal caribou range threatens to destroy the habitat on which they depend. There is an urgent need for all parties concerned with and responsible for boreal caribou to cooperate in stewarding and conserving the species.

Reconciliation in the conservation and recovery of caribou is a founding principle and practice of the National Boreal Caribou Knowledge Consortium (NBCKC) and its Indigenous Knowledge Circle (IKC).

The NBCKC was established in 2018 as part of the federal government’s action plan for boreal caribou. The Consortium is coordinated by a Secretariat within Environment and Climate Change Canada, and is composed of federal, provincial, and territorial governments; academic researchers; industry associations; First Nations, Métis, and Inuit governments, nations, and organizations; ENGO representatives, and consultants. The Consortium’s mandate is to provide a forum for collaboration in support of boreal caribou conservation and recovery by bringing together the expertise and experiences of its members to:

  • assess the state of knowledge;

  • generate and share knowledge;

  • consider knowledge of boreal caribou gained through both western scientific approaches and Indigenous science and knowledge;

  • identify knowledge gaps as well as priority areas for collaboration;

  • collaborate and share lessons learned to address logistical and operational issues in order to efficiently resolve knowledge gaps; and,

  • provide knowledge to inform decision-making.

The Indigenous Knowledge Circle (IKC) is a sister group of the NBCKC. It is composed of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit rights holders and their advocates from across the range of boreal caribou. The IKC’s mandate is to advocate for and provide the NBCKC with guidance and feedback on their relationship with Indigenous peoples and Indigenous Knowledge Systems. This is accomplished by:

  • advocating for the respectful use of Indigenous Knowledge;

  • supporting the transition towards Indigenous-led management to support the recovery of caribou and their habitat; and

  • providing opportunities for learning about what is working and not working in Indigenous contexts

Photo by Ryan Wilkes

Members of both the NBCKC and IKC have the common goal of recovering and protecting boreal caribou. They also recognize that Indigenous Peoples and their ways of knowing have often been misused or missing completely from caribou conservation projects. The importance of Indigenous leadership and involvement in caribou recovery have been part of conversations since the inception of these groups. In 2020, members of the NBCKC and IKC collectively identified five critical shifts that need to be made in the field of caribou conservation. One of these is a shift to a Two-Eyed Seeing approach. Specifically, the NBCKC and IKC call for the transition to a state where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people share decision-making capacity in the development of collaborative conservation solutions for boreal caribou based on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge.

While there is a strong desire to move towards working with multiple ways of knowing and partnering between non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities on caribou conservation, there is a lack of clear guidance on how to do this well. The IKC initiated this toolkit project to help those involved in caribou recovery and management overcome the barriers to reconciliation and collaborate effectively across cultures. As work on the toolkit progressed, members of the IKC came to realize that the guidance and tools being collected and developed apply not only to caribou conservation, but to collaborative stewardship projects more broadly. There is a genuine desire that the principles, considerations, and tools provided here will enable fulsome reconciliation, restore broken relationships, and create the best possible outcomes for peoples, lands, and animals.

This toolkit does not include methodologies for implementing caribou-related conservation projects (e.g. how to monitor caribou, how to restore caribou habitat, how to manage caribou populations). These kinds of tools are available through other sources, including the Boreal Caribou Monitoring Toolkit and the Boreal Caribou Ecological Model, both produced by the NBCKC.

References and Useful Resources

Antoine, A., Mason, R., Mason, R., Palahicky, S., & Rodriguez de France, C. (2018). Indigenization, Decolonization, and Reconciliation.

Boutsalis, K. (2020, September 20). The art of fire: Reviving the Indigenous craft of cultural burning. The Narwhal.

CBC News. (2021, October 9). Manitoba Métis Federation taking province to court over “unconstitutional” moose-hunting ban.

Clam Garden Network. (n.d.). Intro to Clam Gardens. Clam Garden Network. Retrieved October 28, 2022, from

Clam Garden Network. (n.d.). Stewardship. Clam Garden Network. Retrieved October 28, 2022, from

Department of Justice, Legislative Services Branch. (2021, June 21). Consolidated federal laws of Canada, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

Hamilton, G. (2017, August 25). The shady past of Parks Canada: Forced out, Indigenous people are forging a comeback. National Post.

Hoffman, K. M., Davis, E. L., Wickham, S. B., Schang, K., Johnson, A., Larking, T., Lauriault, P. N., Quynh Le, N., Swerdfager, E., & Trant, A. J. (2021). Conservation of Earth’s biodiversity is embedded in Indigenous fire stewardship. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(32), e2105073118.

Indigenous Peoples’ Centre for Documentation, Research and Information. (n.d.). Historical process at the United Nations—DOCIP. Historical Process at the United Nations. Retrieved September 6, 2022, from

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. (2018). National Inuit Strategy on Research.

Pawlowska-Mainville, A. (2020). Environmental Stewardship in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Schuster, R., Germain, R. R., Bennett, J. R., Reo, N. J., & Arcese, P. (2019). Vertebrate biodiversity on indigenous-managed lands in Australia, Brazil, and Canada equals that in protected areas. Environmental Science & Policy, 101, 1–6.

Smith, D. B. (2013). Deskaheh | The Canadian Encyclopedia. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 6, 2022, from