Dehcho AAROM: Indigenous-led Monitoring and Stewardship


Mike fishing

There was a time in the Northwest Territories (NWT) when most of the environmental monitoring was carried out by government and academic organizations. For example, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) measured fish, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) measured the environment, and NWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) monitored the animals. Over the years, this situation has shifted towards having Indigenous governments decide what is monitored, who carries it out, and how the environment is managed.

This story is about a program referred to as Dehcho AAROM (Aboriginal Aquatic Resource and Oceans Management), which through its mission of “More Aboriginal control of fish and water resources under the Dehcho First Nation’s ‘One House’ system of governance…” created a regionally administered, community-based monitoring program in the Dehcho. This story will hopefully share with you opportunities and ideas that can assist in building a program that is best suited for your area and concerns.

The Dehcho is a region in the southwestern area of the Northwest Territories, starting in the Great Slave Lake and following the mighty Mackenzie River (Dehcho) past Wrigley (Pedzehkie). This land is home to Dene who speak Dene Zhatie and currently there are 9 communities in which Dehcho AAROM is present. The program was created using funds from two Indigenous-focussed programs through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans – the Aboriginal Aquatics Resources Oceans Management Program and the Aboriginal Fishery Strategy program. Both programs are proposal based and applicable to regions that do not have a land claim with the Government of Canada or are in negotiations for one. When combined, these funding sources can provide a dependable source of core funding. This core funding is essential for the success of any community-based monitoring program as it provides resources for Guardian wages, equipment like fuel, oil, and groceries, capital assets like boats and skidoos, as well as training and gatherings to ensure constant input from the communities and presentation of any data or projects. The core funding can then be supplemented with smaller proposals such as Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada’s (CIRNAC) Indigenous Community-Based Climate Monitoring (ICBCM) Program for specific projects. Dehcho AAROM relies on several additional funding agreements with the territorial government, federal government, universities and NGOs for specific projects that include research projects, workshops and gatherings, youth/culture/ecology camps, and training initiatives.

Once core funding was secured, Dehcho AAROM hired a Program Coordinator/Biologist and a Technician who would handle equipment, training, and hands-on assistance with each community Guardian program. Time was then spent travelling to each community to see what concerns they had with the water and how they wanted to monitor it. After community engagement, it was determined they wanted to have people (Guardians) on the ground (Water) monitoring activities (e.g., wildlife sightings, recreational fishing, tourists, etc.) and water quality. Even though the water in the Dehcho is very clean, people are still hesitant to drink it and worry about effects from pollution and upriver development.

After consultation with the Dehcho communities, it was determined that funds would be spent to equip each First Nation with an 18 foot aluminium Lund fishing boat with a 60 HP outboard motor and hire two seasonally permanent employees that would become the Dehcho Guardians. As funding was available, these Guardians would also receive a standardized regiment of training courses that included a 5-week BEAHR Environmental Monitoring Course, Small Vessel Operator Proficiency (SVOP) and Marine Emergency Duties (MED) A3 boat certificates, wilderness first aid, radio operators’ certificate, and a bear awareness course. Not only would these courses qualify them to work as Dehcho Guardians on the water, but they also had the credentials to carry out monitoring for oil and gas work and any other research initiatives in the area, thereby providing a continuous form of communication back to each First Nation.

In addition to training and equipment, objectives needed to be set out for the Guardians based on their community concerns and issues. Each community is different, but the heart of the program is the River Patrol. Each day, Guardians travel a set route on their local watershed and surveys are made for them to fill out each trip. The main surveys record the number of birds, wildlife, and any activity occurring, such as recreational fishing, barges, and tourists as well as water quality of tributaries along the Mackenzie River or Lakes within the traditional area. The collected data is then analyzed and made into a presentation for each community every year, while being stored in the Dehcho AAROM office. A database was created to archive all of this information. The case study of Sambaa K’e and its development of the Dehcho Guardians program shows the steps needed and what opportunities are possible with this type of initiative.


Once the Dehcho Guardians program had the equipment and employees to carry out monitoring programs, there was a need to create collaborations with outside organizations to increase funding opportunities and capacity. Two examples of positive collaborations formed with Dehcho AAROM included a research initiative with a professor from the University of Waterloo and another with the Government of Northwest Territories’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Through previous Dehcho Guardians work on fish monitoring, it was determined that some lakes had fish with elevated mercury levels, concerning many communities that rely on fish for food. Community members wanted to know what caused these differences and Dehcho AAROM began to investigate how to approach this task. Through conversations with other people in fisheries research, Dehcho AAROM was put into contact with a researcher named Dr. Heidi Swanson who worked at the University of Waterloo and had extensive experience working in northern Indigenous communities. When forming these types of partnerships with researchers, it is important to make sure they have the same goals as the First Nation and are eager to work with Guardians, that is, not just bringing in outside university students. Once a partnership was formed with Dr. Swanson and the University, Dehcho AAROM was approached to use the Guardians for other projects and receive funding from other sources. Dehcho AAROM put in proposals with the NWT Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program and the Government of Canada’s Northern Contaminants Program. Funding from these programs went towards developing a research initiative looking at mercury in fish, wages for Guardians, and travel. Each year, Dr. Swanson would come up and work with Guardians exclusively in several communities to collect data from chosen lakes. This work led to world renowned research, peer reviewed journal papers, and information that would be useful to decision-makers. Even more importantly, this work led to more funding opportunities.

Another example of a partnership that both elevated the status of the Dehcho AAROM/Guardian program and increased capacity through training and funding, is with the GNWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Water Division. Dehcho AAROM requested assistance in monitoring the Mackenzie River and other local watersheds for water quality and contamination from upriver developments. Under the GNWT’s Water Stewardship Strategy and because Guardians had the training, funding was provided to Dehcho AAROM to carry out community-based water quality monitoring in the Dehcho region, the only organization to do so at the time. GNWT ENR would provide training and equipment to Guardians to properly deploy instruments and collect data on water quality and contaminants. This data would then be entered into an open-source site called the Mackenzie DataStream which is available to all communities at any time. Through this partnership, the Dehcho Guardians also received funding for travel which is essential when dealing with multiple communities as constant engagement and communication is key to success.

Data Management

Once a program has core funding, supplemental funding, and partnerships, it is time to start increasing capacity in other ways. All Guardian programs collect data and observations and the big issue is storage and accessibility of this information for decision-making. Dehcho AAROM and the Guardian program were approached by an NGO to receive funding that would go towards developing an online database that would allow each community to access their data. A contract was setup with an outside IT specialist (RedCloud Technologies) that had experience working with First Nations and, after continuous engagement, it was decided that the specialist would create a cloud-based database with sufficient security and password access for each separate community. Now each First Nation can access any of their information collected by Guardians at any time. Once this database was setup, it was then possible to make further advancements add other components. Additions included the ability to enter observations and data into tablets and have the entered information automatically uploaded to the database. For more information, refer to the case study below.

Opportunities and Benefits

The previous work occurred over a period of almost 15 years, however once the Dehcho Guardian program gained capacity, further opportunities were available. One of these included the Indigenous Community-Based Climate Monitoring (ICBCM) Program under CIRNAC. Dehcho AAROM and the Dehcho Guardians program was approved for 3 years of funding that further increases capacity. Funds were used towards three objectives that include the following: 1) Develop a Regional Climate Change Monitoring Plan, 2) Develop climate change-based educational content for youth ecology camps, and 3) Purchase weather stations and monitor lake temperature and permafrost run-off.

Developing a successful community-based monitoring program is a long process but the benefits are worth it. These include many socio-economic benefits, maintaining culture and language, having people on the land, and being the eyes and ears – the stewards – of the land.

Below are a number of resources that may be helpful in developing a community-based monitoring initiative, including some case studies and videos on data management and equipment, water quality monitoring, and permafrost run-off monitoring.

Helpful Tip

Good Practices in the Field from the Dehcho AAROM Guardians

  • Always account for the weather when planning
  • Always carry extras of everything
  • Don’t leave equipment in too late; it will not survive the winter
  • Don’t forget the chain on your instrument buoys
  • Always ship samples with freezer packs and always carry freezer packs
  • Include youth in everything
  • Always have pencils and Sharpies
  • Carry extra batteries
  • Safety first – proper clothing, life jackets, training, and experience
  • Always fill in field sheets at the sample location and record everything
  • All boat operators should have MED A3 and SVOP training
  • Researchers can make good partners and can analyze data