Residents of Lutsel K'e will be recognized by the United Nations' Equator Prize for creating the protected area of Thaidene Nene, an accomplishment that Chief Darryl Marlowe says is a benefit to his people and a symbol to the rest of Canada.
"All of this work is from past elders, past leaders and our community and everybody that contributed, leading up to this award," Marlowe said. "Finally getting global recognition means a lot for people here in Lutsel K’e. It is showing what reconciliation can look like with the Crown governments and we are showing that it is possible that the government is willing to work with First Nations. We are proving it to the rest of the country."
The prize comes with $10,000 and the community hasn't yet decided what to do with the money, Marlowe said. He said the biggest perk of the award was getting recognized for carrying out the mandate of the community's elders.
"It was especially a big deal because of the elders who had been involved because it was their mandate that we were fortunate enough to carry out," he said. "It has been a long time in the making to create Thaidene Nene in particular -- you know, the heart of our traditional territory which we rely on for harvesting, gathering medicines and other connections."
Steven Nitah, chief negotiator in creating the 14,305-square-km national park reserve in the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, said this week that he's quite proud of the accomplishment.
"It is quite a prestigious recognition from the world community," he said of the United Nations award.
News of the award was a welcome development for residents of Lutsel K'e. As with many small Dene communities throughout the NWT, much of 2020 has been worrisome because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the threat it has presented. Although the chief public health officer and territorial officials have said that the NWT is not out of the woods yet and that the threat of the virus still lingers, the NWT is in the process of easing public health restrictions.
Marlowe said he's proud of how his community has responded to date, after his staff put strict measures in place to protect residents in March.
"I just have to commend my staff for the perfect job they did for us to ensure our safety and well being here," he said. "Right off the bat and around March 21 we put our own measures in place even before the GNWT had their own measures in place. We restricted travel for non-essential and non-members weren't allowed in the community."
Asking residents to keep close to home is harder than it may seem, he explained, because people in Lutsel K'e travel widely on the land.
"It is quite hard to tell your members that they can't go trapping but we did educate them and got the message out that this is real and very dangerous to expose yourself, especially as there were five cases in Yellowknife.
"We are a vulnerable community. If the virus came in it would spread like wildfire and I would hate to see something like that happen while I was leader."
There is no road connection to the community, making regulating comings and goings a little easier.
"Yes, for sure we have more control and we do work with the RCMP and Air Tindi," Marlowe said. "We have more control over what is coming in and out of the community when it's just the airline (for access)."
Marlowe said like other community leaders throughout the NWT, he wanted to combat the bootlegging of alcohol during the Covid-19 pandemic. He was in support of the Dene Nation motion to the GNWT in April asking for restricted sales. His own community's restriction measures included the threat to confiscate snowmobiles if people were caught selling liquor illegally.
Fortunately, there was no need to execute that punishment, he said, because the leadership was open with members who were involved with bootlegging about the seriousness of spreading the coronavirus due to alcohol consumption and partying.
"I'm very grateful that our community is safe right now and there has been next to no drinking at all right now," the chief said.
As June 21 approaches, Marlowe said regular festivities for National Indigenous Peoples Day are not likely to happen, although he and his council are considering options to still recognize the holiday. He said it's important members maintain vigilance against the pandemic, including maintaining physical distancing, hand washing and other health and safety measures.
Typically the community has a traditional cookout and fish fry with moose meat and members gather at the community hall for a celebration with Dene games, canoe races, handgames and drum dancing.
Still, there are a lot of things to celebrate, particularly this year and Marlowe is encouraging members to celebrate who they are with their families.
"We want members to get out on the land and celebrate out there, reflect on our history and who we are as people," he said. "It's always good to do that, especially if you're with your family, within your family, and your close family unit. Talk to your kids because that history is important."