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Guardians In Training: Connected, Cultural, Caring and Commited

Ha-ma-yas Training

The Vancouver Island University Stewardship Technician Training Program (the STTP) offers First Nations students the skills and qualifications necessary to be land and water Guardians. The 2020-2021 program is being delivered within an expanded cultural framework, and with wrap-around support for the students. The positive results are already showing.

“This program is allowing the students to build their own pathways, and their own very personal and deep definition of what being a Guardian means to them.”- Angela Davidson, STTP Graduate 2018,Nanwakolas Student Support 2020/2021 STTP

“I am encouraged to be myself without any hesitation and feel appreciated. That is  a first for me in a learning experience. I am enjoying everything so far. This is surprising. I have never enjoyed education nearly this much in the past.”- Christina Speck-Green, , Ławitʼsis-Maʼa̱mtagila (Tlowitsis Nation), STTP student 2020/2021

“Everyone is here because they really want to be here, and to learn. It’s such a hard course, we really have to focus and to commit. We all want everyone to succeed and that really helps-people who are learning at a different pace, for example, everyone respects that and helps anyone who is struggling, if they can.”- Chip Mountain, Mamalilikulla First Nation, STTP student 2020/2021

“I think just knowing I was there, if they wanted me, helped the students relax and feel safe.”- Noelle Hanuse, Wellbeing Support, STTP 2020/2021

“They told us when we started that it would be very hard work, that we would have to choose to commit to this and that it will require 100% of our attention. Even though it’s tough, it’s going to be so worth it in the end.”- Candace Newman, K’omoks First Nation, STTP student

“Understanding who we are and embracing our culture is what gives us strength, and will give these students the strength to accomplish this.” Gloria Cole, Cultural Advisor, STTP 2020/2021

“Things come up. Things get in the way of finishing school. That’s life. But this way, the way the program is structured, there is less chance of that.”-Charlene Everson, Nanwakolas STTP Project Coordinator, STTP 2020/2021

“The Thunderbird came out during the first evening of our orientation session. We knew because of the weather: there was thunder, lightning, rain, snow, wind, waves, it was a mighty storm. We were amazed. It really symbolized the first day of coming together, where the Nanwakolas elders had sung their sacred songs. It really was impactful.”-Maureen Thomas (Sa lii pul wut), VIU STTP Coordinator, STTP 2020/2021

Around the middle of last December, Chip Mountain, a student in the 2020/2021 Stewardship Technician Training Program (STTP), was feeling just a little nervous. The next course in the schedule would involve learning swiftwater rescue techniques in an icy river on northern Vancouver Island, and Chip wasn’t feeling ready for it.

He wasn’t worried about the course itself: “I was really excited about learning how to rescue someone in that situation!” he says. But Chip was anxious about how cold it would get: “We were told to bring several layers of clothing to stay warm under our dry suits, and our own shoes and gloves, and I didn’t own anything like that.”  Before Chip enrolled in the STTP, he had previously worked in retail management. “I didn’t need those sorts of clothes in that line of work. I thought I was going to freeze!”

Fellow student Candace Newman, on the other hand, has spent the last six years working outdoors, and was fully equipped with warm clothing. She was no better off than Chip in the end, however: “My rented drysuit had several holes in it, and I got soaked!” It didn’t help that Candace got caught off guard the first day of the training, when she and another student fell while crossing the river. “It was raining hard, and the water was flowing really fast. He slipped, then I slipped, and over we both went. It was so cold!”

It was a good experience, she says: “It was perfect. It really helped to understand how that can happen in an instant, and what you need to do. We managed to save each other, fortunately, and get over to the other side by ourselves.”

Chip also survived the cold, and loves the skills he has gained. It’s a great feeling for someone who never thought he might one day become a qualified environmental steward for his First Nation. If he continues his studies, he might even become a Guardian with a university degree: another option he had never considered prior to enrolling in the STTP program.

A cohort of stewardship students

These students are part of a cohort of four women and twelve men, most of whom are from the Nanwakolas member First Nations, all participating in the third STTP administered by Vancouver Island University (VIU). Two students are from the Wei Wai Kai Nation, and the other two are from Quatsino and Kwakiutl First Nations. Ranging in age from their teens to fifty-year-olds, they are following in the footsteps of 26 graduates of the first two cohorts, who participated in the program between 2015 and 2018.

Candace, Chip and Christina Speck-Green, like many of the younger students, are eager to become professional Guardians and work for their respective First Nations. Other students are already working as environmental stewards, but are eager to build on their existing experience and knowledge with more hard skills and formal qualifications.

Christina was hired by Tlowitsis Nation to be a Junior Guardian summer student in 2020. “I was unsure of what I signed up for, but quickly learned about the wonderful opportunities within the Guardian program,” says Christina. Her goal in enrolling in the STTP is simple, and powerful. Having been brought up with old-style teachings from her grandparents, she says: “I want to help protect our remaining territory and to ensure our future has a thriving, healthy ecosystem to visit and protect.”

What is the STTP, exactly?

The STTP provides training in everything from environmental assessment to how to operate and repair small marine engines. Students learn hard skills such as data collection and inventory monitoring techniques, biological sampling, fish identification, archaeological inventory methodology and use of field equipment. They also acquire other skills that are essential to effective resource stewardship, including effective communication methods and management of safety protocols. Equally importantly, they learn about the relationship of Indigenous governance and cultural laws to their scientific work.

The objective of the program is not only to provide the necessary skills and knowledge to work as resource stewards in their respective territories, but to enable work opportunities following graduation in fields such as fisheries technicians, heritage surveyors and environmental monitors. By offering industry-recognized certificates and university credits that could be applied to further post-secondary studies, the program provides multiple opportunities to its participants when they graduate.

Loving every minute

Four weeks into the program, Candace, Chip and Christina all say they are loving every minute of it. “The work is intense,” reflects Candace. “It has been hard. At the same time, it’s only been a month, yet I feel so satisfied. I feel a lot more confident already. I feel like I have accomplished something real.”

“The orientation course was wonderful,” adds Christina. “In those two days we really got to know one another, share laughs and have fun.” For Christina, the camaraderie of the cohort has been a highlight: “Honestly, the best part so far is making friends. Being in a class full of “kwaks” has made me so happy. We all share similar humour and enjoy making things fun.”

“It’s a fantastic group of people,” enthuses Chip. “It’s hard work, and you end every week absolutely exhausted, but it is amazing.” Chip has had to work at his note-taking skills, which he says were poor. He understands now why it is vital to get that right: “It’s really important to have accurate notes in compliance monitoring, for example,” he explains. “You have to record all the little details because the information might be important later, if it gets used in court, for example.” He’s justifiably proud of his efforts: “I scored 4.5/5, so that’s pretty great!” he says with a satisfied smile.

The STTP organizers are thrilled. Despite the intensity and the hard work, every student has been attending classes daily so far, without fail. “On the first day of class, every single student showed up, on time. They have all showed up on time every day since,” remarks Maureen Thomas. “That’s fantastic, and it really shows their commitment to succeeding when we all know it isn’t easy for any of them.”

The STTP isn’t easy from any angle you look at it. As for the first two series of the STTP, the courses are challenging. In fact, two additional credit courses have been added this time around, including leadership and interpersonal communications. At the same time, most, if not all of the students have never previously undertaken post-secondary studies. Like many First Nations people, some of them have had negative experiences at high school and can lack confidence in their learning capabilities as a result. Yet day after day, for over a month, every student has been turning up enthusiastically to classes, and everyone is doing well so far. What’s the secret to this success?

It’s all about the students

Looking at what they learned from the first two cohorts of the STTP, including feedback from students in the program, VIU organizers and Nanwakolas staff structured the third cohort to minimize learning barriers and at the same time, to maximize logistical and cultural assistance to the students, to help them feel safe, supported and as free from stress as possible.

First of all, instead of the courses being stretched out in part-time segments over two years like the previous programs, this time the STTP is being run full-time – from 8.30 to 4.30, Monday to Friday – over just five months. Graduation in April 2021 is a goal that feels within reach right from the start. Financial support is also being provided so that the students don’t have to juggle work and studying, but can instead commit 100% of their time to the courses.

In addition, it was recognized that increasing in-class support for the students would be vital. VIU’s Maureen Thomas is well aware of the challenges that Indigenous students can face. It’s a hard fact, she notes, that Indigenous students face learning challenges most non-Indigenous students never experience, including the traumatic impacts of colonization – the legacies of the residential school system among them – and ongoing systemic racism. Some of them have been disconnected from their own culture and family history. The mainstream schooling system takes none of this into account, and can set up Indigenous students to fail.

Maureen and her team at VIU have been proactive in ensuring all the students and instructors have the supplies they need, for example, and are on hand to help problem-solve any unforeseen issues that may arise. Nanwakolas STTP training coordinator Charlene Everson takes care of administration and logistics, including ensuring out-of-town students have accommodation during the week and that no-one has a problem getting to classes in Campbell River and to field training sites. Angela Davidson, a previous graduate of the STTP program, sits in on all the classes as student support.

Gloria Cole is participating as a cultural adviser, with experience teaching previous cohorts. Last but not least, Noelle Hanuse provides counselling and other wellness support as needed and wanted by the students. In addition, instructors for all the courses participated in a trauma-informed cultural safety workshop prior to the start of the program, helping them to gain some understanding of the students and their backgrounds.

All of the staff involved believe that this level of support in the STTP is already making a real difference to the students, and will help ensure they have the same opportunity to succeed as anyone else in tertiary education. “They have every intention on our success,” observes Christina of the support crew. “They have made my personal learning experience safe.” So far, the results are speaking for themselves.


The Bakwam Accord, and a cultural approach

During orientation, the students worked together to develop a set of shared values, which they named the Bakwam Accord. Entitled “’Namwayut – We Are All One,” the Accord is introduced to each new instructor in the program, and its contents reviewed with them.

The Accord emphasizes the importance of maya’xala (respect) for all living things and for each other, inside and out of the classroom. Amongst other things, it lays out the ways the students wish to be treated, and their expectations of how they will treat each other – with kindness, for example. It also describes their expectations of themselves: to work hard, to be fearless, and to lift each other up in their efforts to succeed. “We all contributed to it,” says Chip. “It was really a neat exercise. I think it helps the instructors understand us better when they read it and what we need and want from them.”

For Christina, the Bakwam Accord laid out a very important value for her as a student: “Having a safe learning space is so important. In the past, I could have learned so much more if I had this. I withheld my questions or comments out of fear of judgment and criticism. With our support system and general appreciation for one another I have been able to express ideas, ask questions, and even help others.”

The Bakwam Accord fits neatly with the cultural approach taken to the program, says Gloria, who spent the third week of the program with the students: “I came in as an instructor, to teach and for us all to learn about who we are, and the cultural aspects of being Indigenous people. Our culture, our language, our values, are all so important,” she adds. “They go hand in hand with connection to the land, and protection of it.”

This vital aspect of the program is integral to every course, and the approach the students take to learning. “It’s so important,” says Charlene, “because it reflects who we are as Indigenous people. Our way is to learn together, be supported by each other because of our shared values and history. Our laws tell us that we are all one, and we belong to the land, the places of our origin stories. Knowing and understanding that is so important. It’s how the learning is delivered to the students, through that cultural understanding and those values.”

Gloria set the students two tasks, researching and designing vests with their family crests – she hopes they will wear them upon graduation – and presenting a story board about their family and culture to the rest of the class. “The idea was for them to share who they are with everyone, as Indigenous people, with pictures, or symbols, whatever felt right to them.”

That was anything but easy for some of the students. The tragedy and history of the past and what had happened to their families triggered tears and heartache. Noelle and Gloria were both on hand to provide comfort, and consistent with the Bakwam Accord, other students wrapped themselves around their colleagues as well. “There were many emotions expressed,” recalls Noelle. “But to be heard was the most important thing. They all did the most beautiful presentations in the end. Being able to share and be heard – that removes so many barriers to being able to move forward, and feel valued and confident they can do this work despite everything.”

Chip Mountain, for example, grew up with next to no cultural involvement with his First Nation. “I did find it difficult,” he reflects. “I have had such a lack of connection.” Chip was relieved to discover that he wasn’t the only one, however. He also came away from the experience with a better understanding of himself, and determined to find out more. “I could see what I had missed out on, but now I am really getting into finding out as much as I can so I can pass that on to my kids. It’s really good.”

“Big sister” Angela: having support from someone who’s been there, done that

“Having Angela there with us has been awesome,” says Chip. “She’s so helpful, and knowing she has been through it all as well, makes her one of us, one of the team.”

Angela understands the importance of having someone like her playing the role of “big sister:” “When I did the course, [former Nanwakolas staff] Greg [Johnson] was there, being a big brother to us, making sure we had everything we needed, and helping us when we were struggling. The difference is that Greg was not just doing my job but also Charlene’s job on top of his regular work, so couldn’t always be there. I get to do just this, full time, every day.”

It also make a difference that Angela knows exactly how the students feel. “I had a hard time, too. The science was really heavy. I didn’t think of myself as a good classroom learner and had to work through all of that as well, so they know that, and it helps them feel comfortable with me being there. They know I’m safe and all about helping them succeed.”

Angela is blown away by how connected the cohort of students has been since the first day of class, despite not everyone having met before, and the barriers of physical distancing and masking to observe Covid-19 safety protocols. “One of the things the class does every day is check in with each other at the beginning, and before they head home. They share how they are feeling, and things about their lives. It is amazing, and I think it is a big part of what keeps everyone coming back each day, on time, doing their homework and being ready to work together in the next class. That, and they really have taken on board that respect includes respecting the instructors, and the organizations that have contributed to their being there, either with scholarship money, or equipment. They have a responsibility to live up to that, so that means showing up and doing the work, and taking care of each other.”


There is a real sense that no-one succeeds unless everyone succeeds, but that everyone learns in a different way and has different challenges. That’s a key aspect of both the Bakwam Accord and the way the classes are structured. “The classes are customized to these students,” observes Angela. “The instructors are really open to different learning styles, and understand that culturally, everyone learns differently, so there is a real focus on the individuals.”

Dreaming of the future

“This training,” says Maureen, “will improve every aspect of the students’ lives: financial, interpersonal, employment, self-esteem, their family connections, everything.”

Christina intends to go back and keep working for her Nation after she graduates, protecting the territory to the best of her ability. Candace is looking forward to working in the outdoors again, as a fully qualified environmental steward: “At graduation, I think I will feel confident to work in the field as a Guardian. I hope people see me as a professional, that there is confidence in us as stewards of the land.”

Chip has already decided he would like to consider carrying on his post-graduate education: “I have already told Maureen if I keep doing well, I would like to do a bachelor’s degree, maybe in science.” In the meantime, he’s also looking forward to the rest of the course: “I know it is going to get even more intense but so far it is all so great, I just love all of it, and I am excited for what is coming next.”

Charlene is looking at what the future holds for the students as protectors of their territories: “This program is such an important part of the First Nations becoming self-governing communities, taking charge, steering the course of direction for the lands and waters. This gives these students, as members of their Nations, the power to know what to do to protect them. It’s wonderful.”

Gloria is thrilled about the success of the program so far. She’s happy about what the program can offer both these students, and others who might be thinking about stewardship careers: “I would say to our people with a passion to be in the outdoors, who might struggle with classroom learning in the mainstream education system, then this program is for you,” says Gloria. “It is so grounded in the culture. It will help them continue their journey in life.”

Stay Tuned- More to come in April 2021