The NWT On The Land Collaborative is a collective of partners from government, industry, philanthropy, and beyond, working together to support land-based programs and projects in the NWT. Each of these partner organizations has a representative that participates in quarterly meetings and annual funding decisions. This is the fifth in a series of profiles of the people and organizations that make the Collaborative possible. You can read the other profiles here.
In 2014, Steve Ellis, the recently appointed Northern Lead for Tides Canada, found himself with a bit of money for an on the land camp in the Dehcho. He quickly realized the money wouldn't go very far. At the same time, he was aware that his was not the only organization supporting land-based programs in the NWT, so Steve arranged a meeting with Debbie Delancey, Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services. At the time, her department was piloting land-based programs for wellness purposes. The gist of that meeting, to borrow from Steve, was: "I have some money, you have some money, there are other organizations supporting on the land programs. Maybe we should look at figuring out some way of pooling our resources and making our money work better for us and for the people doing this work on the ground." Debbie agreed.
In the weeks that followed, Steve and Debbie reached out to Erin Kelly of Environment and Natural Resources, Kyla Kakfwi-Scott of Health and Social Services, and Rebecca Plotner of Dominion Diamond. The group envisioned a system in which a wide range of organizations could pool their resources, attract additional funding, reduce the administrative burden of people delivering land-based programs, and, most importantly, “empower Northerners to set priorities for how the pooled money should work.” Steve’s employer, Tides Canada, is a philanthropic organization that connects donors and doers to in the pursuit of “a healthy environment, social equity, and economic prosperity for all Canadians.” In recent years, they have put more of their energy into nurturing collaborative funds for just these reasons.
A gathering of government, industry, NGOs, and philanthropic organizations later that year to learn more about collaborative funding models from those with experience in Manitoba, British Columbia, and Australia brought the idea one step closer to reality. In the fall of 2015, the NWT On The Land Collaborative was officially launched. In its first year, the Collaborative distributed $480,000 to 35 projects across the territory.
At the outset, Steve’s self-described role was that of “catalyst or instigator, depending on your point of view.” He not only initiated the conversation with Debbie, but he and Tides Canada were integral to organizing the November 2014 gathering. As the Collaborative has developed a momentum of its own, Steve has been able to focus more on the responsibilities of a funding partner—securing funds from his organization and participating in the annual review and approval of applications—though he continues to play an important role attracting philanthropic foundations to the Collaborative and he does other administrative work besides. Tides Canada hosts some of the dollars that are part of the Collaborative’s funding pot. They also provide web space and communications support.
Steve grew up in Winnipeg. It was while completing a Masters in Environmental Studies at Waterloo that he came north for the first time, to Łutsel K’e, a Denesoline community on the East Arm of Tu Nedhe (Great Slave Lake). Though he didn’t know it at the time, he and his wife Tracey would spend the better part of 15 years living in the community and raising a family. During that time, Steve worked for the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation and other First Nations in the NWT and BC. Amongst other things, he delivered land-based programs: “I’ve been around long enough to have seen young people fifteen years later who have gone through these types of programs and who attribute change in their lives to these types of programs, so I am definitely a believer in these types of programs.”
In 2013, Steve, Tracey, and their three kids moved to Yellowknife and Steve joined Tides Canada. Tides Canada, like Steve, sees on the land programs as vital to ensuring community wellbeing in the North: “Colonialism and trauma is largely responsible for the social issues in many Northern communities. Recovery from the harms of colonialism is about reclaiming what has been lost. On the land programs are great at rebuilding those relationships with community, culture, and the land.”
For all of his experience with land-based programs, Steve too has benefitted from his involvement with the Collaborative: “We support a wide range of projects from the classic ‘community moves entire families out into the bush for a long time’ to urban disadvantaged youth spending an afternoon eating traditional food over a fire in a campground. We’re not in a position to judge what is more impactful. It’s depends on where people are and what their circumstances are. One thing I’ve learned through my participation in the Collaborative is that what an on the land program can be can be very, very different, but the outcomes are generally the same.”
There is no doubt that the Collaborative had a successful first year. Funders, community advisors, and grant recipients have all been happy with the process. The only complaint is that the need far exceeds the current budget, so Steve’s goal over the coming months is to engage new donors and to encourage existing partners to devote more of their resources to the fund: “Most of the donors are still in the ‘let’s see where this goes’ mindset and I think it will be that way for a few years, but we would like to get to the point where people are comfortable enough with the collaborative approach that larger and larger amounts of the resources they have allocated for on the land programming can be run through the Collaborative.”
Steve’s larger ambition is to make the Collaborative indispensable to land-based programming in the NWT. “We’ve wanted to be a one-stop shop and we are a one-stop shop, but I think becoming THE one-stop would be great.” In other words, the Collaborative would become the place to go for learning about innovative programs, best practices, and accessing tools to help with program delivery, as well as funding and resources. Steve also sees potential for the Collaborative to serve as a model for similar initiatives in the other territories.
Steve, like other members of the Collaborative, enjoys spending time on the land himself. His Instagram feed of late has documented a hiking trip with Tracey and the kids to Utah and regular trips out to the family’s fish net on Yellowknife bay. Come summer, you are most likely to find the Ellis-Williams clan cruising around Tu Nedhe in a motor boat, with a requisite stop in Łutsel K’e, Steve’s first home in the North and one of the many places he has seen firsthand the value of land-based programming.
The NWT On The Land Collaborative depends on partners like Tides Canada to support land-based initiatives in the NWT. If your organization is interested in becoming a partner, please contact Steve Ellis (firstname.lastname@example.org).