A Teetl'it Gwich'in woman in Yukon, who has dedicated much of her life toward protecting and teaching others about the Peel River watershed, has been named the recipient of the 2021 Canadian River Heritage Award.
Bobbi Rose Koe was recognized for preserving and promoting Teetl'it Gwich'in traditional ties to the watershed.
Koe was given the award also for her "tireless and exemplary work as an organizer, community member, and advocate for youth engagement in river conservation and connection," it says in a news release issued Tuesday.
Koe told CBC News she's proud to have been able to "do the work that my people have always been doing and being able to speak for the land and the water and our way of life."
"This award is … a huge thing," she said. "But I wouldn't have been able to accept it without recognizing my people as well because they were a big part of why I got the award."
Koe was born in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., and now lives on the land and home of the Kwanlin Dün and Ta'an Kwäch'än territory in Whitehorse. She began her formal leadership training at 15 years old when she joined the 2007 Students on Ice Arctic Expedition.
While on a youth leadership trip on the Peel River in 2015 at age 26, Koe teamed up with other participants to create the Youth of the Peel.
In 2020, Koe won an alumni inspiration award from the Students on Ice Foundation.
More recently, in May 2021, Koe launched her own outfitting company called Dinjii Zhuh, where she guides Gwich'in youth on river trips to teach cultural connections and foster river advocates, a long-time dream of hers.
"Ever since I stepped foot into the Peel watershed, I just knew that I wanted to go back into the Peel watershed every year, whether it was through youth programming, or like river guide training," Koe said.
She said as a child being raised by her grandparents, she got to see first-hand how her family treated the environment when they would go out onto the land.
"When I really got to see and learn and understand the way the land, the animals and the ecosystem and everything around it, including what we do as Indigenous people on land and the way that we complement each other, soon I realized that this is much bigger than ourselves," she said.
"I think learning as much as we can when we can, it became like a big thing for me. And that's just what I did, and that's brought me to where I am."
When it comes to her dedication to the Peel River watershed, she said it's a responsibility. Over the years, Koe said she's seen it change at a rapid rate over a short period of time.
"We really have to speak up and take that responsibility and speak for the land," she said. "Because it's asking for help."
The award was presented at a joint Canadian Heritage Rivers and Canadian Canoe Museum event in Whitehorse on Monday.
In a news release from the organizations, Koe is described as "a shining example of what can be achieved to preserve and protect rivers and watersheds through collaboration and advocacy."
There are 40 rivers that are part of the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, totalling over 10,000 kilometres across the country.
The award was first presented in 1994 as the Bill Mason National River Conservation Award. The Canadian Heritage Rivers System, established in 1984, is Canada's national river conservation program.