Of all the things Canada imports from Australia, the most valuable might turn out to be an idea.
A delegation of Australian Indigenous Rangers arrived in Vancouver on the weekend for a tour that will take them to Yellowknife and Winnipeg before ending in Ottawa in a week.
The group, organized by the Pew Environment Group, is here to talk to native leaders, politicians and the public about a remarkable program that engages native people in environmental management. The Indigenous Rangers project could prove to be a model for how Canada can involve first nations in the management of land for the benefit of all Canadians.
And in British Columbia, where first nations are in conflict with government and industry province-wide over resource issues, it could pave the way to greater dialogue and understanding.
Put simply, native communities that feel they have control over the land on which their culture depends are more likely to be open to forming partnerships with government and industry than groups that fear they are about to have a mine or a pipeline shoved down their throats.
Under the Indigenous Rangers program, some 700 aboriginal people in Australia are working for the federal government to help manage 1.5-million-square kilometres of wilderness.
The program began decades ago, but, starting in 2007, government really pushed its growth, going from 100 rangers to 680 this year, with a target of 730 by 2015.
"The expansion of the Indigenous Rangers network is one of the most important environmental achievements of this government," Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke said in a statement Thursday. "I have spent a great deal of time with these rangers, and I am personally and passionately committed to the work they do."
The government spends about $70-million a year on the program, which pays Indigenous Rangers around the country to patrol vast, remote areas where they protect cultural sites, manage fire regimes, control feral animals or other invasive species and monitor pollution, among other things.
They are like park rangers in Canada – but without the park. And they play an important social role, because they bring steady employment and a sense of empowerment to many small native communities that are crippled by poverty and feel overwhelmed by environmental threats posed from outside.
Daniel Oades, a ranger who is part of the delegation to Canada, said the program is so popular in Australia that native communities are lining up to get involved.
"The ranger program is fully subscribed. If your community wants to get a program, there is a period of waiting time. ... It's definitely in high demand in aboriginal communities," he said. "I think underpinning it is that it's a cultural obligation [for native communities] to look after their lands. ... It's just a modern extension of what aboriginal people used to do, but they've got a uniform now and they get paid and there is a lot of well-being attached to it."
Patrick O'Leary, a spokesman for the Pew Environment Group, said the Rangers provide valuable environmental services in wild areas that the government might otherwise neglect because of the remoteness of the land.
"These Rangers are working on problems of national environmental significance that are of immense public benefit to the whole country. For example, fire management is a major issue. It is really important in this outback landscape to have carefully managed fire, and, of course, the whole biodiversity of the landscape has been adapted to traditional, aboriginal fire burning over 50,000 years or more. And what's happening now is that local knowledge is being combined with the latest science that we have about fire and biodiversity," he said.
In Canada, this could be used to: manage the boreal forest and protect endangered woodland caribou; manage the Great Bear Rainforest and resolve conflicts over hunting; oversee the protection of water resources in the booming oil-and-gas sector; and to give native communities a sense of control over the land they have lived on for thousands of years.
"We are coming to Canada because we know there are a lot of similarities," Mr. O'Leary said. "We think we've got a successful story to tell about local aboriginal knowledge combining with science for best-practice land management."
Let's hope someone here is listening.