The work of the Wei Wai Kum Guardians
Wei Wai Kum Chief Chris Roberts has no doubts about the importance of his First Nation’s Guardian program: ” The Guardians are the eyes and ears of Wei Wai Kum out in the territory,” he says firmly. “They are monitoring what is happening so that we can make well-informed decisions about what resource development or harvesting activities can take place in our territory, and what we need to be doing to take care of our lands and waters.” That information is absolutely vital: “We cannot meaningfully feel like we are managing our resources,” he explains, “if we don’t have first-hand knowledge of what is happening in our environment and ecosystems.”
Carrying on ancient stewardship responsibilities
The Wei Wai Kum Guardian program was formally established in 2019. But Guardian Manager Karl Smith emphasizes that the First Nation has been responsible for overseeing the health and sustainability of the lands, waters and resources in its traditional territory for thousands of years before that. A primary goal of the Guardian program is to realize the long-standing desire of the First Nation, outlined in its 2015 Marine Plan, to resume that ancient responsibility to the fullest extent possible.
For several years prior to 2019 Wei Wai Kum had already been actively rebuilding capacity to do that, undertaking stewardship activities and conservation-based projects with the support of partners like the Marine Planning Partnership (MaPP) and Nanwakolas Council. As those activities expanded, a more formal arrangement was called for, says Chief Roberts. “The priority was to get organized in an efficient and effective manner, in line with our strategic direction as a Nation.” Drawing on the knowledge and understanding gained from existing Guardian programs run by neighboring First Nations, and with the highly experienced Smith at the helm, establishing Wei Wai Kum’s own Guardian program was the logical next step.
Good work under way
Smith and his team are working on a wide range of stewardship activities, including restoration of endangered plant species in the Campbell River Estuary, and research into sensitive and culturally important areas in Loughborough Inlet. That research will support the development of conservation and management plans for the Inlet.
The plan is to keep expanding monitoring and research in Heydon Bay and Heydon Lake, with a focus on salmon enumeration data collection and habitat restoration. Wei Wai Kum have a fenced and gated fish counting enclosure on a key indicator stream in Loughborough Inlet, the only one of its kind in British Columbia. “It allows us to get DNA samples from the salmon species that go through it to spawn, as well as count them, of course,” explains Smith. That critical information is shared with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, in an effort to ensure the federal regulator knows and understands as much as possible about this vitally important fish.
Over the long term, Wei Wai Kum will be looking at terrestrial impacts to the lake spawning salmon of the Heydon system, including forestry impacts. As part of the ongoing work of MaPP implementation and with funding secured through Nanwakolas Council, Wei Wai Kum is also collecting oceanographic and freshwater data. Other activities include everything from developing and implementing a Dungeness crab survey for several estuaries in the territory, grizzly bear data collection via wildlife cams, and Large Cultural Cedar inventory in conjunction with regular archeological reconnaissance related to forestry activities.
Last but not least, Smith, who has more than a decade of experience monitoring fish farms, is implementing a three-year study of their impacts in the territory. “The goal is to make sure community members have good, accurate information about the impacts of the farms in order to make decisions,” says Smith. Chief Roberts adds: “We want an independent assessment on the risks they pose, especially to wild salmon and the environment. We need to fully understand the socioeconomic impacts as well. We need to determine whether the risks are manageable or aren’t in fact tolerable, or if there is any way the industry can operate safely, such as closed containment. This study will help us understand all of that objectively.”
Chief Roberts hopes that the high visibility of the Guardians on the lands and waters of Wei Wai Kum territory will help to grow the public’s understanding of the First Nations role. “I think there is a really good opportunity for people to learn about what we mean and when we say we want to manage the resources for both environmental and socioeconomic wellbeing, and to respect that,” says Roberts. It’s not about absolute protection or outright resource exploitation: “It’s about being able to use the resources well and sustainably while keeping the environment healthy. It is possible to do both.”
Roberts hopes that industry will engage with Wei Wai Kum and other First Nations to support that view of stewardship: “We have all kinds of industrial activities happening that are having an impact. By working with us, by supporting our Guardian program, the companies can help demonstrate that sustainability is achievable, that you can have wellbeing of the environment and use its resources responsibly for everyone’s benefit. That would be a great triple bottom line for them to have, I believe.”
Getting on board with the Guardians
Karl Smith and Chief Roberts are both hoping that Wei Wai Kum will be able to expand its Guardian capacity significantly in 2021. “It’s a big responsibility but we are up to the challenge,” says Smith. “It’s such an honour to have this position, to work for our Nation this way, It makes me proud to be out there, explaining to people what we are doing, and why it is so important. People really seem to appreciate what we are doing out here.”
Smith says that being a “good Guardian” requires integrity, trustworthiness, reliability, confidence in dealing with the public, a positive attitude, and most importantly, a willingness to learn. “Experience in data collection and monitoring and being outdoors is good,” he says, “but so long as someone is keen and willing to listen and work to attain the necessary skills, they can be a Guardian.”
Smith himself grew up working alongside his grandfather, a commercial fisherman. “So I know this territory really well. Being a Guardian is a perfect fit for me.” He has too many favourite aspects of the job to pick just one, when asked: he says he loves the outdoors, helping protect the environment, and working for the wellbeing of future generations. “It’s the most fulfilling job I have ever had,” he concludes. “I am so glad to be working for Wei Wai Kum like this.”