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Growing A Powerful Group Of Guardians

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Their numbers may be small, but the twenty land and water Guardians of the six Nanwakolas Nations are achieving outstanding things together in the vast expanse of their territories. Imagine what they could do if there were 100 more of them.

“It’s important,” emphasizes Nanwakolas Council President Dallas Smith, “to understand that the jurisdiction of the Nanwakolas member First Nations encompasses marine and territorial governance, resource management, and protection in our territories. The Guardian’s boots on the ground within the Nations’ territories play a vital part in exercising that jurisdiction in a powerful and effective way.”

Those territories collectively encompass about eight million acres on northern Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland  south-central coast of the Great Bear Rainforest. “Within the territories,” Dallas continues, “we approach everything we do from an entire ecosystem perspective- we don’t separate management of trees from fish or wildlife or marine habitat, for example. These things are integrally connected, and can’t be effectively managed in isolation of each other.”

“So you can understand why we need a dedicated workforce in place to monitor, protect and manage these ecosystems. But there are currently only twenty Guardians working in the Nanwakolas member First Nations’ territories. Ideally, there would be one hundred. The Guardians,” he adds, “also need and deserve the best tools to do their job, whether that’s state of the art technology, good equipment, or ongoing training in the key skills they need to operate effectively.”

A vast responsibility

It’s almost impossible to visualize what eight million acres really looks like: more than 32,000 square kilometres, it is an expanse that is larger in area than 122 countries around the world. It’s almost equally difficult to contemplate that just twenty Indigenous men and women, the Guardians serving the Nanwakolas member First Nations, currently undertake the crucial work of protecting this immensely ecologically important part of the world.

As members of their Nations, they carry with them not only thousands of years of ancestral scientific knowledge and experience but the latest and greatest in contemporary technology and training. “It is our job at Nanwakolas, through the Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network and working with our various partners, to support them,” says Dallas. “We help build their capacity through initiatives like standardized training programs, monitoring and data collection, acquiring recognized compliance and enforcement powers, and above all, finding secure long-term funding to ensure that all the Nanwakolas Nations can expand their stewardship abilities.”

Gathering together

One of the important initiatives that Nanwakolas supports is an annual gathering of those twenty Guardians, enabling them to come together to share their experiences and stories, build strong networks across their territories, and update their skills. This year, after a two-year hiatus, all of the Guardians gathered together again for five days at the Cape Mudge reserve on Quadra Island.

Joining them were guest Guardians from Manitoba, experts from the Hakai Institute, a grizzly bear biologist from the University of Victoria, Provincial Natural Resource Officers, representatives of the Canadian Coast Guard, and technicians from BC Institute of Technology. The week was packed with activities, including specialized training in grizzly bear remote camera use, archeology survey methods, marine search and rescue, dockside booming for oil spills, hypothermia treatment, compliance monitoring and enforcement networking.

The use of technology by Guardians is becoming key for monitoring such a large territory. Drones, for example, are a highly effective and detailed way to monitor large areas, if you need to conduct a kelp survey, get an aerial view of an archeological site like a clam garden, or identify the location of a spill. The high-resolution images created from the drones are important pieces of information that can be used in decision making by the Nations. High level sensors can map not only forests but kelp and shellfish beds in shallow waters, measuring growth or decline over time.

The Guardians are increasingly deploying technology of this kind to protect and manage their territories, and are sharing their expertise and experience with their colleagues from other Nations. “It’s so important for the Guardians to have all of these skills at their fingertips,” emphasizes Dallas, who attended this years Gathering. “They are all graduates of the Stewardship Technician Training Program, (STTP) which is run in partnership with Vancouver Island University (VIU), but the importance of these annual gatherings is huge,” remarks Dallas. “It ensures that the Guardians keep up with the latest information and technical capability, and update their professional qualifications, as well as connecting with each other in person and building on the relationships between the different Nations.”

The Guardians always leave the annual Gatherings full of energy and enthusiasm for what the coming season will bring. “They also come away from them feeling well-equipped to keep doing their job professionally,” he observes, “whether it’s being ambassadors for their Nation within their territory, monitoring industrial activity, conducting research and collecting data, protecting archeological sites and educating the public, involvement in marine rescues, or working with partners to deal quickly and efficiently to mitigate harm from any oil spills in the territory, for example.”

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More would be-well, a whole lot more

Imagine a gathering of one hundred Guardians, not just twenty-dozens of highly skilled and knowledgeable Indigenous people networking and learning, working seamlessly with their counterparts in the provincial and federal governments, and fanning out across their territories every year, summer and winter, to take care of the coast and all of its precious ecosystems.

It’s a picture that Dallas and the Nanwakolas team are determined to see become reality through an ambitious and powerful fundraising drive to establish a permanent $35 million endowment that would enable the Nations to fund their Guardian programs independently without having to rely on variable annual grants and contracts. With a permanent endowment, the Nations could employ many more Guardians full time, without fear that next year access to grant/contract dollars are drying up. Stable funding would allow the Nations to plan, focus on key priorities, and achieve lasting results. It would also enable the Nations to provide their Guardians with a living wage, include the professional training that is required, and ensure the latest technology and equipment is utilized to gather data within their territories.

“Right across the territories there is a growing and urgent need to expand Guardian capacity,” explains Dallas. “We need many more Guardians actively engaged in monitoring forestry harvesting, hunting, protection of cultural sites, gathering data on key species, rehabilitation of damaged habitat, assessing resource development proposals, and ensuring compliance with land use plans and regulations.  We need Guardian capacity to respond to crises like the sinking of barges and tugs carrying oil and other toxic pollutants. And of course, we are seeing the terrible impacts of climate change like forest fires and floods, which the Guardians also monitor and are early responders to.”

Despite these huge responsibilities, the current funding for Guardian programs is unpredictable. Each of the Nations contributes its own revenue to the program, but their resources are limited. Other revenue is directed to the programs through the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements and Marine Plan Partnership with the provincial government, and the Oceans Protection Plan with the government of Canada, and annual grants from various sources. “Everything combined, it is nowhere near enough,” says Dallas, “and hence the drive to establish a permanent endowment fund.”

An exciting vision of success, partnership and cooperation

“This kind of funding would enable the Nations to offer more of their young people to take the STTP through VIU, and present them with full time, secure employment in their home communities when they graduate,” says Dallas. “That post-secondary program is excellent, and so well-tailored to what the students need, it is delivered in-community and we have enjoyed a 100% graduation rate to date. It’s amazing. I can’t emphasize enough the significance of that for our people.” An endowment would also ensure sufficient revenue to pay for capital infrastructure needs, specialized equipment, communication technology, and the increasingly sophisticated software and hardware required for data collection, management and analysis.

“This is an initiative that will serve to benefit everyone on the Coast,” observes Dallas. “Our Guardians are so well-placed to work with provincial and federal officials in environmental management and protection. They are already working in partnership initiatives with the Canadian Coast Guard, with BC Parks, and other agencies. As Premier Hogan noted when the Province launched the Declaration Act and Action Plan, ‘By working together in partnership, we are creating more opportunities, better jobs and stronger environmental protections.’ I think our Guardian programs epitomize that spirit of cooperation, working together to achieve shared goals, and ultimately a brighter future for our Indigenous Nations and people”