children in baseball caps looking at tree branches
Exploring the Outdoors Children from the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation in the Northwest Territories enjoy a day exploring outdoors in their traditional territory. © Pat Kane

Conserving at Scale

Working in the North

Tracey Williams works in the Northwest Territories to support Indigenous authority.

Tracey Williams is Nature United's Northwest Territories Conservation lead. She and her husband were drawn to the region by the incredible landscape but stayed on for the people, living for almost twelve years in the Denesoline Dene Chipewyan community of Lutsel K’e.

Tracey has worked on large land planning initiatives in places sacred to Indigenous communities, including within the Thelon and Mackenzie watersheds. She has also worked extensively with NWT First Nations on resource management, self-governance, and food security issues. With a background in community conservation, and a penchant for outdoor living, Tracey brings a valuable perspective to our mission.

What drew you to Nature United?

Ten years ago, I worked with Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation in negotiating their land claims. The Nature Conservancy (Nature United's global affiliate), was invited there by the Dene, and I witnessed firsthand their collaborative approach to conservation. I saw how the organization builds long-term relationships, and works to advance toward self-governance. Understanding how to provide support for community-driven conservation is critical to lasting success. 

I was also excited by Nature United’s support for establishing Thaidene Nene — a protected area of over 6.5 million acres of forest and tundra in the NWT. The vision of Thaidene Nene is one of governance by traditional knowledge‚ teachings passed from generation to generation. The community will set its own agenda to meet their needs for economic opportunities, access to clean water, and sustainable food sources, and will meet these needs by creating and enforcing their own laws.  

a large sign in front of a wooden building
Dene Nation Lustel K'e © Pat Kane

What are some of the unique challenges to working in Canada's North? 

We have a tiny population to govern across a landscape that is three times the size of California. The NWT has nine Indigenous languages and 11 official languages in total., and most of the communities are not connected by road — all of which contributes to a higher cost of living. 

Also, the government of the Northwest Territories was formed in 1967 — not that long ago! Mining economies are what led to the need for governance, however there are many processes and policies still to form. My work supports Indigenous authority and self-governance in stewardship of their traditional lands – a central tenet of Nature United’s approach to lasting conservation and sustainable livelihoods.     

"This is the road to the future: aligning economic drivers and conservation initiatives at a local level."

Tracey Williams Northwest Territories Conservation lead

What are you most excited about? 

Every day, I see people directly confronting the greatest threats to their environment. They are safeguarding ecological processes that define human well-being in search of a higher quality of life. This is the road to the future: aligning economic drivers and conservation initiatives at a local level. 

The boreal forest has some of the largest carbon-storing capacities of any forest in the world. There’s an abundance of fresh water, and an incredible wealth of natural resources. And I’m excited by the opportunity to merge traditional, cultural, and Canadian values to conserve this rich expanse. Supporting Indigenous peoples — champions of this holistic approach — can have an incredibly positive impact on people’s lives here and across Canada.

a bird skirting above calm, blue water with hills in the distance.
Calm Waters A lake in the Lustel K'e territory of NWT, Canada. © Pat Kane

What's your favorite thing about living in the NWT?

It’s a great privilege to live among the beauty and relatively undisturbed nature of this area. Great Slave Lake (Tu Nedhe) has few direct sources of pollution, and its mid-basin pH is near-perfect for human drinking water. Where else in the world is there a city of 20,000 people next to a lake like this? 

I enjoy the land and its people immensely. The NWT’s rivers run through the oldest rock on the planet – 4-billion-year-old gneiss – and are the stuff of legend for the white-water canoeist in me. I’m a student of traditional hide-tanning alongside friends here, and I like to harvest spruce tips, blueberries, cranberries, and morels. My family and I spend weekends at a remote camp in winter months. In the winter, we enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. It’s an active lifestyle up north, and it allows me to raise my children as part of the landscape.  

Who inspires you?

My earliest inspiration was my great aunt Kay, who founded the Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve, in Niles, Michigan. She was a self-taught botanist dedicated to the study of ferns, and was said to have planted 50,000 of them in her life! 

Today, Elders of the Lustel K’e Dene First Nation have a profound impact on me. They embody a deep love of their land, and despite personal hardships and sacrifice, they’ve always been willing to share their knowledge and wisdom. Their generosity has given me everlasting perspective on resilience, courage, and grace, and I thank them.