The future of the environment in the Sahtu region may be influenced by a pair of Norman Wells sisters someday.
At universities in British Columbia and Alberta, siblings Naokah Bailes and Jasmine Bailes are engaged in environmental studies.
Naokah, 21, the elder sister by three years, started out by taking general business courses at the University of Alberta between 2018 and 2020.
She then pivoted to nature-based tourism management at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, B.C. She’s specializing in community and tourism with a minor in environmental and sustainability studies. She’s on pace to graduate in 2025.
“My goal coming out of high school was to continue guiding then get an education that can help me run my own tourism company in the NWT,” she said. “When I enrolled in nature-based tourism, I thought it was the perfect fit for my goals and I’m extremely happy with my decision so far.”
Naokah has worked with a variety of outfitters since she was 13, and she realized that there’s a lack of Sahtu Dene people in leadership roles in the tourism industry.
“I would like to change that, and create for opportunities for Dene residents to also become guides for hunting and canoeing outfitters,” she said. “I would like to be living in the Sahtu and I hope to spend as much time out on the land as possible. I would like to be welcoming tourists and giving them the full experience of the North, not just a canoe trip, hunting trip or hiking trip. It’s important to enrich visitors with our culture and connection to the land of Treaty 11. Our land is sacred and true pristine wilderness is hard to find — I want to help protect it. My dream job would have to be running a tourism business with my goals in mind, or working for the GNWT or Parks Canada in the tourism department.”
She has already landed a seasonal student position with Parks Canada as a new media assistant, which has her drafting social media posts, writing advertorials and creating web pages on the Parks Canada NWT website — work she can do remotely. She also continues to work on the Nıo Ńę P’ęnę́ project — also known as the Trails of the Mountain Caribou program, which is funded by the Canadian Mountain Network and led by the Sahtu Renewable Resource Board.
Meanwhile, Jasmine is in her freshman year at the University of Alberta. She’s in the bachelor of arts program with a major in environmental studies.
“Throughout high school, I really enjoyed my biology and physical geography classes. I decided to pursue that passion into university,” she said, adding that her career path is a bit unclear. “However, I do know that I want to work on the land in the Sahtu region in the future. This program I’m currently taking is a mix of business and biology, so I’m hoping it’ll set me up for taking on a huge role in the Sahtu’s environmental department… I would also like to do my part as preserving the land for future generations of the Sahtu people.”
During her summers in high school, Jasmine worked as a cook and cleaner at Gana River Outfitters.
“For the few moments in my day where I would be outside and get to enjoy the spectacular environment I was in, it urged me to learn more about it,” she said of her summer job. “I started working there when I was 13, and even now as I’m 18, I still go back every summer and fall in love with the mountains all over again.”
Naokah and Jasmine both attended Mackenzie Mountain School in Norman Wells up to Grade 7. Then they transferred to Shawnigan Lake High School on Vancouver Island, a private boarding school. Their parents reinforced the importance of getting a good education and the time spent at that high school “prepared me greatly for university,” said Naokah.
“It was a difficult decision at the time but the experience I had was worth it,” she added.
The transition to the Vancouver Island educational facility was not easy, Jasmine admitted.
“I achieved low grades at the beginning of my time there, but I learned to adjust from the small Northern community to something totally new,” she said. “The academic support I received there was phenomenal, and I graduated with a 91 average. I was determined to get to post-secondary, for myself and for my family. I never would have thought I would have made it this far, truly.”
She added that the educational experience in the south brought her and her sister closer together.
“I relied on her to show me around, make friends, and staying on top of everything,” Jasmine said. “I really don’t think I could have made it through it without her. With her support, I ended up loving Shawnigan and the community we had together.”