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A Conversation with Shackleton Medal Winner, Valérie Courtois

Meet Valérie Courtois is the executive director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI), a network of Indigenous leaders across the country that is particularly interested in advancing Indigenous-led stewardship and conservation. She is the recipient of the 2024 Shackleton Medal for the Protection of the Polar Regions. Shackleton is a British outdoor apparel company named for the polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton. Martin Brooks, CEO of Shackleton said, “This year’s shortlist was exceptionally strong. Yet in the meeting at the Royal Geographical Society in London our judges were unanimous. Valerie Courtois has shown a level of leadership, courage, and determination worthy of the Boss himself.” Celebrated for her climate action in the Canadian Arctic, Courtois has garnered international acclaim for integrating Indigenous knowledge with modern conservation practices. Her leadership also earned her a place on Time Magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential Climate Leaders. Valérie Courtois spoke to Bluedot from her home in Goose Bay, Labrador.


Darcy Rhyno/Bluedot: Tell me about winning the Shackleton Award.

Valérie Courtois: It was a great honor. I’m the first non-European to receive the award and the first Indigenous person. My work is oriented more nationally and on Indigenous land conservation and stewardship, so it was a surprise. I spend time on the Students on Ice expeditions, a ship-based education program in polar regions. Since 2017, I've visited more polar regions. Even in that short time, it's striking to see the pace and scale of change, and that's where having more Guardians on the ground is really important. 

DR: You’re talking about the Indigenous Guardians program. Your website describes this program as the “eyes and ears” of traditional territories where “Guardians gather knowledge, data, and research that help Nations determine what happens within their territories and under what conditions— an essential element of Nationhood.” Can you describe it further and explain ILI’s relationship?

VC: Each Guardian program is unique to their nation. Their job is to represent their nation's interests and to feed into the decision making processes. ILI uses our political and social capital to elbow space for that leadership, but also ensure there are funds to help support that work. Essentially we’re the giant-est cheerleaders of the [Guardian] movement, but we don't define their programs. The same is true of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. They're established under Indigenous laws first. After that, there may be reciprocity like a national park. 

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DR: How do Guardians benefit from the program?

VC: Becoming a Guardian transforms individuals from hopelessness to purpose. When there are strong Guardian programs, there are less of us incarcerated or dependent on social programs. It can reduce violence against women and increase the retention of languages and knowledge. 

DR: Can you offer an example of how Guardians work?

VC: The Voisey's Bay Nickel Mine in northern Labrador is served by an icebreaker. Guardians monitor that shipping lane, build bridges across it, so that people can travel and are not unduly affected. It's such a great career. When I was younger, if I could have been a Guardian, I would have. 

DR: But when you were younger, you went to forestry school. Why forestry? 

VC: My family has quite an academic history, both on my father's Innu side and my mother's Quebecois side. My mom was a lawyer. My godmother is the first woman in Quebec to have a PhD in robotics. I was always going to go to university.  I wanted to be in a field related to the environment, but programs like Environmental Sciences were relatively new and I was not clear on what career pathways were possible with such a degree. Forestry didn’t initially come to mind, but after a visit by the Université de Moncton to my high school in Embrun, Ontario, I read more about the program they offered. I applied to three universities, was accepted in all of them, and ended up choosing forestry at l’Université de Moncton where I did a five-year forestry sciences program.

DR: Do you have experience on the land as well? 

VC: Since I was young, I wanted to work in the environment, on the land. My father is a land user and hunter. He’s an RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] officer, so I grew up across the country. When we were living in Fredericton, my grandfather and uncle came to hunt deer and other animals. I remember my basement being transformed into a butchery and just processing those animals. We grew up with that kind of ethic and practice. Every summer we’d go back to the rez and spend time with family in Quebec. My aunt still lives in the family home in Mashteuiatsh. The ILI office is across the street. 

I know the richness, values, and immense potential that exists within Indigenous nations and their peoples. If you think about caribou, their lifecycle is 70 to 90 years. Western science doesn't follow the whole cycle, but my nation has 10,000 years of depending on that animal to survive. Surely we have some contributions to manage our relationship with caribou and its home.

DR: Why did you move to Labrador? 

VC: To be truly immersed in the language. In my home community in Quebec, about 20 percent of the population speaks Innuaimun. But here in Labrador, 99 percent of Innu know Innuaimun. Working as forestry director and then director of the environment office, our meetings were in Innuaimun. Also, I had specialized in ecosystem-based forestry, and Labrador was one of the first places where that was applied at scale.

DR: By the way, I’m noticing your tattoos. Are they related to your work?

VC: All my tattoos are about land stories. This is caribou swimming in the George River in what we call Caribou House. It's the sacred site of our large caribou hunts as a nation. This one is in honor of the Innu story about how the white-crowned sparrow brought the light and spring after stealing it from the South. 

DR: What issues do you want to address through your work? 

VC: I know the richness, values, and immense potential that exists within Indigenous nations and their peoples. If you think about caribou, their lifecycle is 70 to 90 years. Western science doesn't follow the whole cycle, but my nation has 10,000 years of depending on that animal to survive. Surely we have some contributions to manage our relationship with caribou and its home. That's one example of ways that the empowerment of Indigenous nations is important. We are emerging from a dark period. It's important for youth to have hope. In the Students on Ice program, young people are hungry for experience and learning. Climate anxiety and the things we’re all feeling will drive change. We have challenging times ahead. It's better to not be passive about just letting the future happen, but making it what we want it to be.

Our main effort is to strengthen nationhood because environmentalism and caring for land and dealing with climate change are results of the rootedness of indigeneity.

DR: How is ILI’s approach to conservation revolutionary? 

VC: We are a modern expression of indigeneity, a national non-profit corporation. What's innovative is that our focus isn't just on environmental measurements. Our main effort is to strengthen nationhood because environmentalism and caring for land and dealing with climate change are results of the rootedness of indigeneity. It may mean uncomfortable realities. There are instances where nations are going to decide, yes, that mine is what we need right now. That should be okay. We have a far lower standard of living than the average Canadian, and we need to participate in modern economies, but in ways that align with our values. 

DR: Tying nationhood to environmental goals might seem threatening to some.VC: It could. The folks who currently have power have benefited from a genocidal effort to obtain that power. This isn't just a gift from the sky. It's justice to recognize that and be okay with relinquishing it. Indigenous peoples approach this responsibility with our ethics, values, and laws — humility, sharing — so leadership by indigenous peoples will look different than leadership by colonialists. And I’ve never heard our leaders say, look, we’re taking over and you gotta go back home. On the contrary. Let us in and we can do better together.

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Darcy Rhyno
Darcy Rhyno
Darcy Rhyno has penned hundreds of articles on everything from white water rafting in Costa Rica to the wild horses of Sable island. He's published two collections of short stories, two novels, stage and radio plays, and two non-fiction books, including his most recent, Not Like the Stars At All, a memoir about life in the former Czechoslovakia.
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