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Needed Urgently: More Trained First Nations Guardians

Ha-ma-yas Lands News Training Waters

The need for more energetic, eager, and dedicated First Nations’ youth to become land and water Guardians has never been more pressing. 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.

“It’s important,” emphasized Nanwakolas Council President Dallas Smith in July 2022, “to understand that the jurisdiction of the Nanwakolas member First Nations encompasses marine and territorial governance, resource management, and protection in our territories, which  collectively cover about eight million acres on northern Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland south-central coast of the Great Bear Rainforest. “You can understand why we need a dedicated workforce in place to monitor, protect and manage these ecosystems. Ideally, there would be at least one hundred Guardians right now, if not more.”

To meet this need Nanwakolas will be supporting a fourth cohort of new Guardians in the fall of 2023 so that their journey through the Vancouver Island University Stewardship Technician Training Program, a partnership between VIU, the provincial government’s advanced education program and Nanwakolas, can begin. In anticipation, Nanwakolas has just hired Charlene Everson, K’ómoks Councillor, to help co-create the program and work with the Nations to recruit new Guardians. Everson will also work on the creation of a pathway for current Guardians to become ‘Master Guardians,’ or the equivalent of a registered professional Guardian (akin to a registered professional forester or biologist).

But it isn’t enough. Despite its remarkable success rate – the graduation rate for the third cohort in April 2021 was 100 percent – the STTP is also dependent on one-off funding, with no certainty that future funding will be in place to support another cohort. Nor is reliable, permanent funding in place to support placement of the graduates in fulltime Guardian positions with their Nations. Of those sixteen graduates from 2021, only half are now working as Guardians, in large part because of limited capacity on the part of the Nations to fund these positions permanently, or to supply the necessary equipment – boats, technology and safety gear – to support them.

Train more Guardians, increase their impact exponentially

Among the “Five Pillars” of the Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network – indeed, the first Pillar – is the commitment to build capacity within the Guardian programs through training, education, and technology, to support the other Pillars: data gathering and management, knowledge sharing, and good governance of the territories.

“It is our job at Nanwakolas, through the Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network and working with our various partners, to support the Guardians,” explains 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, if we can, finding secure long-term funding to ensure that all the Nanwakolas Nations can expand their stewardship abilities.”

Why increasing Guardian numbers matters

In May 2022, Tlowitsis Guardian Gina Thomas pointed out that the work of the Guardians is important in understanding what is happening in the territory, and in developing strategies to manage ecosystems effectively so important species thrive. It’s also work that is increasingly significant as the impacts of unsustainable resource extraction and climate change are felt; impacts that are rapidly escalating, which are highly visible to the Guardians who are constantly monitoring the condition of their land and waters, and which are dramatically measured in terms of shrinking diversity in watersheds, vanishing species, and dying trees.

In an effort to develop strategies to combat these types of impacts, the Tlowitsis Guardians have been participating with several other Nanwakolas member First Nations in water quality studies in key estuaries like the Fulmore and Salmon River watershed, partnering with Nature Trust British Columbia (as featured in A Testing Partnership” on March 14, 2022), continuing their prawn and crab surveys in the territory as well as ongoing archaeology work, mapping clam gardens among other activities, and participating in marine emergency response training (as featured in “Partnership and Protection”on March 28, 2022).

This work that Gina and her fellow Guardians are doing is not only invaluable, she emphasizes, but essential: “It’s never been more important to look at the legacy we are leaving our kids, and we have to play our part in contributing to a better world for them to inherit. This is what we as Guardians can do to contribute.”

The more, the better

But they can’t do it all. Here is just a short list of the types of activities that, despite their small numbers, the Nations’ Guardians have been undertaking in recent years:

The list goes on. The practical fieldwork and the data required to support these projects is also helping the Nations better understand how to implement their own Indigenous laws and change policy. The Guardian archaeology work, for example, has enabled the participation of Nanwakolas in the current transformation of the Heritage Conservation Act that is being updated to fall in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the provincial Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

It is pretty clear why there is such an urgent need, reflects Dallas, for much greater numbers of well-trained Guardians to be working in the territories.

It’s also a phenomenal return on investment

Research in recent reports demonstrates beyond debate that for every dollar invested in the work of First Nations land and water Guardians, including those in the Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network, there is – at minimum – a ten-fold return.

It isn’t every investment that returns 1,000 percent – in fact, it’s difficult to think of anything in the mainstream economy that could possibly achieve that kind of profit. But these longitudinal studies have clearly established that for every dollar put into these Guardian programs, the benefits are phenomenal. That includes the economic opportunities created by the programs, of course – running water taxis, equipment supply, and so on – as well as providing deeply meaningful employment to citizens of the Nations and bringing income into their communities.

The other benefits are equally valuable, if not more so: everything from significant improvements to environmental wellbeing in the territories to enhancement of cultural, health and community wellbeing, community capacity, and governance capability as First Nations decision-makers are empowered to make their choices based upon the high-quality data being gathered by their Guardians out in the territories.

That matters to everyone

The research has also made it clear that this matters to the public, and to industry and government agencies. Of course it does: after all, Guardians work in isolated, remote territories that can be difficult for federal and provincial government agencies to manage effectively. In the course of their work, they are a constant, experienced, and committed group of people who are often first on hand in an emergency, taking care of public safety; assist with compliance and enforcement of environmental regulations; and gather high quality data that contributes to improved knowledge and public understanding of the BC coast and ecosystems.

Who better to do it?

As Mamalilikulla First Nation Chief Councillor Winidi (John Powell) points out, First Nations are the original environmental stewards of the coast. The Guardians are often referred to as “the eyes and ears of the Nation out on the land and water;” rigorously trained in everything from environmental monitoring to boat safety, and well-versed in cultural law as well as current non-Indigenous environmental law and regulation, they are ideally suited to implementing their Nations’ environmental responsibilities in the territories.

“It’s vital that Guardians do this work,” he says. “Both the federal and the provincial governments are challenged by capacity. They have limited staff, and it’s difficult for them to do a good job, frankly. But our Guardians know the territories inside out, they are highly trained, and they are out there every day that time and money allow them to do so. They are completely invested in protecting the territories because they belong to them. Who could possibly be better placed to do it?”

Guardians to the power of ten

Imagine, says Dallas, increasing the current number of Guardians by the power of ten: having hundreds of well-trained, highly skilled and knowledgeable Indigenous women and men 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.

“But right across the territories there is a growing and urgent need to expand Guardian capacity. 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.”

“Having training programs in place to support that exponential increase in capacity will serve to benefit everyone on the Coast,” concludes 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 has stated: ‘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.”