Bobbi Rose Koe with her father

Bobbi Rose Koe receives the 2021 Canadian River Heritage Award

It’s not many people who receive lifetime achievement awards while still in their 30s. But Bobbi Rose Koe, a young Teetl’it Gwich’in woman and recipient of the 2021 Canadian River Heritage Award, is an exceptional person. Her accomplishment marks a number of firsts in the award’s history—the first Indigenous woman to receive the award, and the first northern recipient.

The Canadian River Heritage Award is a partnership between the Canadian Heritage Rivers System and the Canadian Canoe Museum. The award is presented every two years and recognizes “the invaluable efforts of an individual Canadian to celebrate, protect and conserve river heritage for future generations.”

In announcing her as the 2021 recipient, the award partners highlighted Koe’s “dedication to the preservation and promotion of Teetl’it Gwich’in traditional ties to the Peel River Watershed, and for her tireless and exemplary work as an organizer, community member and advocate for youth engagement in river conservation and connection.”

Canadian Heritage Rivers board chair, Mike Etches, is very pleased that Koe received the award, noting the substantial role she played during the Peel River Land Use planning process.

“She started back when the Peel was still in the Supreme Court, becoming an advocate for the protection of the Peel and also the sharing of the culture,” Etches said. “So she’s a very sharing and caring person when it comes to her culture, and a great spokesperson for making those connections. And I would say she’s not a shy person—her advocacy was to the point and poignant and I think key, in many ways, to getting the Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan finally signed off and the management planning started.”

“She’s a force of nature,” he concluded. “She will not be denied.”

While Koe is well-known for her work to protect the Peel River Watershed and the people and animals for whom it is home, she denies that speaking up in public comes easily for her.

“My grandfathers, they pushed me into public speaking because they’re the ones that brought me out on the land and traveled with me and saw me grow in that way, and that’s why they’re like, ‘You have to get up because you have a voice and you have to speak for our friends who are living out on the land, who can’t speak.’”

Koe was only 16 or 17 the first time her grandfathers urged her to speak at a meeting about the Peel River Watershed. At first she objected, saying she was too shy.

“And they never said nothing,” she said of her grandfathers. “They just gave me the look.”

Since her youth, Koe has made an impression on those around her. James Raffan, director of external relations at the Canadian Canoe Museum, first met Koe when she was a teenager participating in the Students on Ice, a youth program that provides on-the-land educational opportunities in the Arctic.

“She just had this kind of poise and commitment to learn that was very impressive, and I’ve kept in touch with her,” Rattan said.

“She’s really made a commitment to be an advocate for her people … to remember and to explore who and what being Gwich’in is all about,” he continued. “And she’s done that in the most-engaging way through partnerships with other youth. You know, she created the Youth of the Peel, which became the Western Arctic Youth Collective.”

Raffan’s comments point to the journey Koe has taken, providing opportunities for young Indigenous people to experience life on the land and water. She recently started a guiding business, Dinjii Zhuh Adventures, to reach that goal.

“When we want to do something, we have to do it,” she said. “And I don’t think we’re going to wait for anybody to bring our people back into the Peel, and that’s where Youth of the Peel was created and I did do a few trips with them and then I came to realize, you know, that I want to be a river guide and I can do this, like it’s in my blood. My grandparents and my great-grandparents before them did it, and I just really fell in love with it.”

Koe believes that experiencing beautiful places like the Peel Watershed can be life-changing. She also has great hope in the youth and what they can accomplish.

“I’m really excited about the efforts of young people making their way back to the land or other cultural and traditional activities. I’m just proud, every day,” Koe said of her work, with youth, through her business and through the Western Arctic Youth Collective.

“We’re changing the world.”

And by receiving the Canadian Heritage Rivers Award, Koe sees herself as an example for others.

“I hope that young Indigenous youth see this award as an example that we can do anything that we put our minds and hearts to.”

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