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Northwest Territories UNESCO reserve a model for sustainable living

Tsá Tué International Biosphere Reserve, which encompasses Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, is now recognized as an international model of how humans should live with nature.

The Dene people of Deline, a community of about 600 on the southwest shore of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, say the prophesies of their grandfathers are playing out with the official opening of the first Canadian UNESCO biosphere reserve above the 60th parallel.

Territorial politicians, representatives of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the heads of environmental groups will arrive in the remote village on Thursday to celebrate a place that is now recognized as an international model of how humans should live with nature.

The Tsá Tué International Biosphere Reserve received formal ratification from UNESCO in March. It encompasses Great Bear Lake – the eighth-largest lake in the world and a body of water so massive that it creates its own weather systems – and its surrounding watershed. The Tsá Tué is the largest biosphere reserve in North America and the first such project in the world to be led entirely by indigenous peoples.

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Great Bear Lake is the life source of the people of Deline and, according to the prophesies, it will be one of the last places on Earth where clean water will sustain humanity. Its importance to the global ecosystem has long been understood in Deline, said Walter Bezha, the lands and resources manager of the Deline Land Corp. and one of the people who fought for the UNESCO designation.

"All we're doing is bringing knowledge forward, especially knowledge of our grandfathers and our own history," Mr. Bezha said in an interview. "The ecology, the environment, land, water, wildlife is such a big part of our own history and certainly a big part of the visions of all of our grandfathers."

The people of Deline grow up learning the oral teachings of their local prophets, including a man named Louis Ayah, who lived between 1857 and 1940 and is sometimes referred to as the Nostradamus of the North. Mr. Ayah made more than 30 predictions about such things as the discovery of diamond mines in the Northwest Territories and, people say, of modern events such as the terrorist attack in New York City in September, 2001.

But his most important prophesies relate to the environment.

Morris Neyelle, a director on the Deline Land Corp. board, has studied the stories of the elders, including Mr. Ayah. "One of the things that he always said was that Deline would be the last place where people would come," Mr. Neyelle said. "Everything will dry up and Great Bear Lake will be the last place where we have water and fish."

Presumably, that prophesy is centuries from being fulfilled. But the people of Deline, which will become a self-governing community in September, say they intend to keep the region pristine in perpetuity – and the biosphere designation, which provides no real legal protection, is a demonstration of their commitment to sustainable development based on the teachings of their ancestors.

The lake, which is so clean that the people of Deline drink straight from it, is home to a wide variety of fish. And the surrounding land sustains important Arctic species, including woodland caribou, muskox, grizzly bears and peregrine falcons.

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Mr. Neyelle said the people also adhere to the vision of another man named Touye, who saw a huge beating heart at the centre of Great Bear Lake that was surrounded and protected by fish. "Through the powers that he had," Mr. Neyelle said, "he said this lake is more than water, it is a living thing."

Stan Boychuk, chair of UNESCO's Canadian Man and Biosphere Committee, said the biosphere designation will open greater opportunities for international studies into the importance of water protection. It will mean more research into traditional knowledge and how indigenous communities have been stewards of their environment, he said.

The designation will also allow the people of Great Slave Lake "to pass on that teaching into the scientific community and to create a greater understanding of the sacredness of water and the importance that water plays in all of our lives."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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