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All Hands On Deck

Ha-ma-yas News Training Waters

Partnering on Emergency Environmental Response with the Canadian Coast Guard

September 27, 2022, started out foggy and cool in Mamalilikulla First Nation territory. As the morning progressed, however, the fog gave way to glorious warm sunshine, sparkling on the turquoise waters and white beaches that grace Mamalilikulla’s islands and inlets. It was a picture-perfect day for Chief John Powell and the Mamalilikulla Guardians – Guardian Manager Andy Puglas, Chip Mountain, and Josiah Puglas – to join a Canadian Coast Guard crew and spend a day in Mamalilikulla waters, teambuilding and practising emergency environmental response techniques together.



Apart from being remarkably sunny and warm for so late in the season (and the delicious homemade seafood chowder served to everyone for lunch by Andy at the floathouse at ‘Mimkwamlis, Village Island) the day was memorable for other reasons. Among other things, agreed Chief Powell and Coast Guard Senior Response Officer Brian Masterman at the end of the day, the experience left little doubt in anyone’s mind that good communication and proactive coordination between the Nanwakolas member First Nations Guardians and the Coast Guard will help both partners be more effective in the vitally important work of responding to marine pollution in the First Nations’ territorial waters

“It’s really important for our Guardians to be part of any environmental response to pollution in our territory,” emphasizes Chief Powell. “At some point, they’re going to be at the site of an event before the Coast Guard and will have to know exactly what it is they need to do to secure the area, how to do that safely, and how to coordinate with the Coast Guard when they are working together on an oil spill or some other environmental disaster in our waters.”

A partnership between the Coast Guard and the First Nations is highly desirable, adds Katie Hughson, a Coast Guard Senior Advisor for Indigenous Relations and Partnerships. “Our crews can learn a great deal from the on-the-water experience of the Guardians, who are so knowledgeable about local waters. Guardians are also often the first people to attend a pollution event in their territories, so building their capacity as our partners to respond through training, sharing information, and access to equipment will not only help them respond competently in an emergency, but will help the Coast Guard crews respond more effectively and efficiently as well.”

Brian Masterman could not agree more. “We are all in the same boat here, figuratively and literally. We all want to work together – marine pollution is not just a Coast Guard matter, it’s a matter for all of us to deal with as a team. And as a team, we must be able to communicate well and on equal terms and understand each other, especially when things are happening fast, in rough conditions, which is more likely than not to be the case. That’s why getting to know each other and practising together like this, before something happens, is such a good idea.”

From planning to action

The work leading up to the booming practice began almost three years earlier. Since 2019, the Nanwakolas member First Nations have been developing Geographic Response Strategies (GRS) to prepare for responding to a marine pollution event in their territorial waters, primarily through the use of booming techniques to either contain or deflect a spill. The goal of these strategies is to protect areas within the territories with cultural, food gathering, conservation and economic significance from the impacts of marine spills and pollution, especially incidents involving oil or chemicals.

In 2021, the Guardians had the opportunity to test aspects of their respective strategies when they were invited to witness booming techniques in action by the Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), the Transport Canada-certified marine spill response organization for Canada’s West Coast. But the field exercise with the Coast Guard on September 26 took things to a whole new level, allowing the Mamalilikulla Guardians to practise the booming techniques themselves, working alongside the Coast Guard crew.

“It was an amazing day,” recalls Chip. “We were able to handle the equipment and the booms ourselves, and really experience what it is like to use them. It’s incredibly hard work and there is so much involved – I learned a lot,” he continues. “The Coast Guard crew were fantastic, teaching us what to do and supporting us as we tried it ourselves. That was phenomenal. After this experience,” he reflects, “I think our Nation and the Coast Guard will be able to play a really cooperative role together when something does happen in our territory.”

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Why that’s important

The day before heading out on the water, the Mamalilikulla and Coast Guard crews and Nanwakolas marine planner Barb Dinning gathered at the Coast Guard base in Port Hardy to meet each other, tour the facility, see the types of equipment that are used in marine response, and plan the next day’s activities.

After a welcome to the base by Brian and a round of introductions, the discussion amongst the group quickly focussed on good communication and coordination. At every level – whether out on the water dealing with an emergency, planning for event and crew management back at the base, or policy decision-making by Chief and Council or in Ottawa – the group agreed that both strategies are essential to building the capacity of the partners in responding effectively, appropriately, and safely to a pollution event.

Andy, a highly experienced fisherman and a tourism boat skipper before he joined the Guardians, said he was looking forward to being out on the water with the Coast Guard crew the next day. “I think communication is going to be so important,” he told the group. “When you are out on the water and something happens, you must be able to communicate quickly and clearly and work together. That’s why,” he added, “it’s good to be starting to work with the Coast Guard like this and get to know each other as a team and build that relationship now.”

Relationships and support

For Brian, building strong relationships and friendships between the crews is vital to supporting good communication and safety for everyone. “We are all the ones out on the front line when stuff is going down, so we have to work as a team, not just to take care of the response but of each other,” he said to the group.

To him, it’s a no-brainer that the Coast Guard provide opportunities to the Guardians to learn the skills they need and to practise them. It’s also a two-way street, he emphasizes; it’s equally important to him and his crew to absorb as much knowledge as they can from the Guardians about sensitive sites in their territories identified in their GRS – for example, ecologically sensitive bays or areas where food gathering is a priority for the Nations – and to work with them seamlessly to ensure that any response mitigates the risks to those sites.

“That’s really important,” observed Barb Dinning. “There are places where the Nations absolutely don’t want people to go or to anchor out. There’ll be reasons why it’s sensitive there. For instance, they might be archaeological sites that could be seriously damaged, or clam gardens where people like Andy harvest clams regularly. These places are identified in the Nations’ Geographic Response Strategies, and it’s important that the Coast Guard know about them and avoid them whenever possible.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Brian. “We want to learn from you,” he repeated to the Guardians. “We can show you safe ways to use the equipment, and how we go about deciding where we deploy booms and so on, but you are the ones who can tell us about what is in your response strategy and how we can work consistently with that, and about things like weather and tide conditions in your area that you probably know much better than we do. We definitely see this as a win-win scenario going forward together this way.”

Getting their hands dirty

Chip Mountain, who graduated as one of the top three students in his cohort taking the Vancouver Island University Stewardship Technician Training Program in early 2021, has enthusiastically embraced his job as a Mamalilikulla Guardian. It’s a role he describes as important to support his Chief and Council making well-informed decisions about the territory:

“Our communication with them on what we are seeing first hand out in the territory every day helps them make important decisions for our Nation,” he says. “That’s why increasing our capacity to understand what needs to be done when there is an environmental emergency matters so much, and learning how to do it ourselves.”

For Chip, and for Josiah, who is only three months into the job, getting the chance to go out on the water was a huge opportunity in that regard. “I’m just learning everything right now,” said Josiah. “This is another chance to learn something new that I am really looking forward to as well. The more we can learn to do things ourselves, I think that’s got to be better for everyone.”

After a tour of ‘Mimkwamlis, during which Chief Powell explained the history of the island and its people to everyone, the crew set out to Freshwater Bay for an afternoon of booming practice. Booming requires more than just placing the booms in the water (which makes it sound easy – at 90 kilograms per section, that’s a lot harder than it sounds) but also securing the ends of the booms to an onshore point like a tree or large rock, and anchoring sections of the boom in the water to hold it in place in high winds or strong currents.

The Guardians took turns deploying and hauling in the booms, and observing the anchoring process. It was exhausting, but exhilarating, said Chip at the end of the day: “That was outstanding. There is simply no substitute for doing it yourself. That was amazing!” Josiah was too tired to do anything except lean against a sun-warmed pile of booms he had helped haul back onto the boat, but he too was beaming with satisfaction.

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For Andy, observing the way the Coast Guard team communicated was impressive: “It was easy to see the crew really knew what each other was doing, and trusted each other. It was really good to see that. That’s the kind of working relationship we need to have as partners working together in a crew with the Coast Guard, knowing how to communicate the same way and trust each other.”


More is more

Nanwakolas coordinates environmental response training with the member First Nations, says Barb. “For several years in a row now, we’ve managed to send Guardian crews for various environmental response training programs, and the search and rescue training out in Bamfield. We also get the Guardians to take ICS or Incident Command System training. We continue to look for other types of training opportunities. Also, ultimately, our goal is to have some level of response equipment for each Nation in their territory that the Guardians are trained to use, staged at appropriate locations, so they can be first responders. It’s really difficult, however,” she adds, “to maintain good work for the Guardians year round at the moment. Training opportunities that come up in the winter months are perfect for folks to stay engaged and active.”

The Coast Guard, says Brian, supports that fully. There’s a good reason for that: “We are just a small team here in Port Hardy. If we know we have a consistent group of fully trained partners ready to join in managing a pollution-related event, that is highly valuable. If there’s a big event, it will require all hands on deck. Knowing the Guardians are on board to work with us, that they know what to do, and having access to the invaluable information they can provide in different locations – it just makes sense to support building strong capacity in the Guardians through training and opportunities to practice together and work together.”

Capacity and consistency

“Consistency,” says Katie Hughson, “is really important. Having people who are able to stay in their positions for longer than a year just makes sense. There is a lot of training, and if you don’t get to practice that training and in five years there’s an incident but you haven’t had that opportunity to practice, you forget things. I think ensuring that capacity within the Guardians, that they are able to work full time and practice their training so they can maintain their skills, is so vital.”

Nanwakolas President Dallas Smith couldn’t agree more. “It is our job at Nanwakolas to support the Guardians,” explains Dallas. “We help build their capacity through initiatives like the standardized training programs Barb mentioned, and if we can, finding secure long-term funding to ensure that all the Nanwakolas Nations can expand their stewardship abilities.”

Right across the territories there is a growing and urgent need, not just to support the existing Guardians, but to expand Guardian capacity, a point Dallas made in “Needed Urgently: More Trained First Nations Guardians” in September 2022. Right now, the work of monitoring resource use and activity in the Nanwakolas member First Nations’ territories, gathering environmental data, helping to protect public safety, and supporting the decisions of the First Nations’ leadership is being done by just twenty Guardians – all in an area considerably larger than many small countries.

“We need many more Guardians actively engaged in the response to marine environmental crises,” he concludes. “Having training programs in place to support that exponential increase in capacity will serve to benefit everyone on the coast,” he pointed out. “Our Guardians are so well-placed to work with agencies like the Coast Guard in environmental management and protection. It’s very encouraging that the Coast Guard supports that too, and we really appreciate that. We’re all looking forward to working more in partnership with the Coast Guard in the future.”

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Many thanks to Coast Guard crew Brian Masterman, Jesse Bueckert, Patrick Lucas, Kevin McPherson, Kade Pilton, Dane Hopkins, Michelle Hunt, Katie Hughson and Jason Langer, who all made it a great, safe day for everyone.

Learn more about the marine work of the Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network here, and the environmental response mandate of the Canadian Coast Guard here.