Guardians of the Land: Ashley Menicoche Leads Protection of Edéhzhíe For Future Generations
“We are all guardians. We do all play a role,” says Ashley Menicoche, a mother of two from Fort Simpson. She is the Edéhzhíe Regional Coordinator and also works with the Dehcho First Nations. She worked with the government of the Northwest Territories for over six years, beginning as a personal care aide, then as coordinator of long term care. When that chapter of her life came to a close, she took time for herself until she saw the posting for her current roles. Starting new roles during the pandemic was hard but she has the opportunity to work with elders to learn their traditional knowledge. The guardianship she speaks of is about caring for the land.
The Edéhzhíe protected area is an Indigenous land conservation area just under 15,000 square feet which was established on May 9 as a National Wildlife Indigenous Protected Area. As a young Dene woman in the role, she faces challenges managing such a big area. It was designated for protection to preserve the five big fish lakes and because the watershed flows out of it into the Mackenzie River. “We all know water is life right now,” she offers.
As part of caring for the land, 205 wildlife cameras and automatic recording units are monitoring the health of the wildlife and migratory birds, and for invasive species. With a team of guardians on the ground paired with community coordinators, she’s kept in the loop about non section 35 treaty rights holders who are in the protected areas and she’s supported by an administrative team member and the Nation.
Without a formal biodiversity background, Menicoche is guided by the education that came from being raised in the bush by a traditional father and her spouse is very traditional and active on the land. She also gets to work in partnership with the Canadian Wildlife Service and what she loves the most is how the work is Indigenous-led.
Menicoche learned about this work through the Dehcho Assembly and when she heard about the guardianship program, she wanted to learn more. Working with the government of the Northwest Territories, she was working shifts and burning out. She set an intention that she wanted to be doing work in the protected area within five years and she achieved that goal. After a year of mentorship from the person leaving her role who went on to become a Deputy Minister, the responsibility became hers.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing, there were times Menicoche felt like she didn’t have what it takes to do the jobs or that she was missing skills but the elders encouraged her to carry on. Their feedback was important to her and she loves doing a job where every day is different. An annual work plan feeds her work and helps her forecast but it is still community led and the whole “engine” of conservation has a lot of moving parts. She gets to travel and learn more about her family’s history in the process.
"We protect it for a reason, for my grandkid’s grandkids, for them to be able to go up there and harvest for their family to carry out their Dene traditional way of life," she shares. She wants to see her son teach his own son the importance of hunting, respecting the land, making an offering, taking only what you need, not overharvesting or overfishing. The protection of the land keeps it safe from mining or drilling. “It's for us to keep and save and to have her pristine forever,” she continues.
Her organization has benefited from mapmaking training, the collaboration of elders in sharing what they know of the land and old trails and the use of GPS to provide geographical guidance to first responders in an emergency. It’s easy to get lost in the area so GPS is important for the safety of the guardians. Wilderness First Aid is another skill they learned along with bear awareness.
“The line of work that we do, it means something to us at the end of the day in each community,” she asserts. Given the importance of the work, the training to create more safety around it is crucial so everyone makes it home to their families. The Guardians themselves serve as first responders and help keep people in the protected area safe.
The pandemic added extra challenges to the work, requiring them to rip apart their work plan and start from scratch, moving their meetings to zoom and teaching the elders how to use laptops. With careful planning and monitoring, essential training was able to take place. Guardians took on the responsibility of delivering food and cleaning supplies to their home communities.
There was a lot of worry not just about covid but also addictions and the risk of impacts on the team but they ultimately came together stronger and Menicoche developed a stronger relationship with the Guardians and their families. “I love each and every one of every one of them. They are the backbone to this program and to the protected area,” she smiles.
If she could give a message to her younger self it would be to be kind to herself, not to move too fast and to live in the moment. She would encourage herself to seek out mentorship and really listen while slowing down. More online training would be something else she would recommend and not to take things too personally.
A few years ago, Menicoche was struggling with addiction and was able to build back her relationship with her family. She would want her younger self to be more understanding of people with addictions. Along the way, she’s learned a lot of life lessons. “Always ask for some help. When you're faced with a million challenges, take a deep breath and remember who you are and where you come from. We have a really big strong family at the end of the day,” she offers.
She relies on the support of her family as she’s being pulled from a hundred different directions or travelling and she’s grateful to her parents for sharing the stories of her elders. She has a lot of big goals and a strong team walking alongside her as she achieves them. It’s work that can’t be done in isolation and that’s why she shares the message, “We are all guardians. We do all play a role.” It’s a message she’s passing onto her kids so the land can be protected for generations to come.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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