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An Indigenous storyteller and an ex-logger’s quest to protect an ancient landscape

Written by on September 14, 2021

A new film puts the spotlight on the Muskwa-Kechika, one of the largest wild landscapes left on earth.

CBC News · Posted: Sep 11, 2021 10:00 AM PT | Last Updated: September 12

The Muskwa-Kechika wilderness at Gata-gh’a (Mayfield Lake). (Photo by Eastcherry Media)

It’s one of the largest wild landscapes in the world, and two friends — a Dene-Kwagul storyteller and a logger-turned-conservationist — want to ensure it remains that way. 

The Muskwa-Kechika is a 16 million-acre wilderness in northeast British Columbia. It was stewarded by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years, and today it is one of the largest remaining tracts of wild land in North America.

“It’s six and a half per cent of the province … and it’s still in its pristine state. And by far the largest chunk of wilderness in the Rocky Mountains at this point,” said Wayne Sawchuk, a former logger-turned-conservationist and wilderness guide. 

But that area is increasingly of interest to resource developers looking for metals like lead and zinc, as well as oil and gas.

“People are thinking about those resources,” said Sawchuk. “There’s always a glint in the eye.”

Ryan Dickie canoes on Mayfield Lake. (Photo by Eastcherry Media)

Sawchuk and Ryan Dickie, a Dene-Kwagul photographer and filmmaker from Fort Nelson, explore the region by horseback together in the new documentary, In the Land of Dreamers.

Dreamers, Dickie says, were found all over Dene territory — in northeastern B.C., northwestern Alberta and the Yukon and Northwest Territories.  

“In today’s context, you can relate it to prophet. People that were able to make prophecies,” Dickie said.

“They were enlightened folks that I believe were still connected to the land around them, they were able to find connection with the Creator that would relay prophecies through them and they were to relay that to the people.”

Wayne Sawchuk has spent much of his life working to protect the Muskwa-Kechika. (Photo by Eastcherry Media)

The dreamers prophesied that the Dene people would need a place to go back to as life would get really difficult for them, Dickie said. 

They placed markers along the eastern slopes of the Muskwa-Kechika as a way of delineating the space. 

“These [are] really remote areas in the Muskwa-Kechika … you always kind of look for signs that the Dene people, my people, were there. And you still see it even to this day,” said Dickie. 

Sawchuck and Dickie hope the film — in which they look for these markers — shows people the magnificence of this ancient wild area, and that more people will want to lend their voice in championing it. 

Dickie says this protection isn’t just for our lifetimes, but a much longer period of time.

“As Dene people, when we look at places within our territories that are sacred, we don’t have a mindset of within my lifetime. … It’s multigenerational,” he said.

“[It’s] so my son can experience the same place that I get to, and get to utilize the land the same way I get to and so on.”

From Yasuh