< Back to All News

Staying Safe, Getting Things Done

Ha-ma-yas Lands Referrals Training Waters

How Nanwakolas Council is working during COVID-19


Earlier this year—like every other organization in British Columbia—Nanwakolas Council was faced with the challenge of how to keep working while ensuring we are doing our best to keep people safe as the COVID-19 virus began spreading in the province.

Nanwakolas Council staff initially worked from home during the early days of the pandemic, using digital technology to stay in close communication with each other and with our colleagues in First Nations communities and other partners. But on June 8, staff transitioned back into working in the Campbell River office, following a comprehensive safety plan created by Nanwakolas Executive Director Merv Child with a small working group, including Training Coordinator Heidi Kalmakoff.

“I spent time during the lock down learning as much as I could about the virus, managing its risks, and the best ways to stay safe in returning to work,” says Heidi. “Based on emerging provincial safety standards and protocols, I helped develop the content for our own plan.” Because Nanwakolas staff undertake field work as well as working in an office where we expect visitors from the First Nations, the plan had to work for everyone. So Executive Director Merv Child sought advice and input on the draft plan not only from Nanwakolas staff and the Nanwakolas Council Board of Directors, but also from the member First Nations.

The goal of the Safety Plan is to prevent any transmission of illness between Nanwakolas Council staff and local communities and other groups through a range of measures that cover physical distancing procedures for meetings and traveling, closure of the office building to all but essential visitors, physical barriers such as a plexiglass screen for the office reception area, use of personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning of the office and all equipment, pre-planning and approval procedures for all field work, and post-field trip “lessons learned” debriefing.

“It’s been a very helpful guide to ensure everyone is operating on the same page as we work together, especially in the field,” says Regional Forestry Adviser Jordan Benner. “In fact, some of the member First Nations have used it as a template to develop their own plans, which is great for consistency of approach.” While field trips are more restricted than usual under the Safety Plan—for example, overnight trips have been discouraged in favour of day trips—they are still going ahead whenever safely possible, to ensure that projects can keep progressing.

Both Heidi and Jordan have put the plan into practice on field trips, including a day trip to learn about bear den identification with biologist Helen Davis. “The first thing we have to do is prepare a plan for the trip and have that approved by both our Executive Director, and the Chief of the member First Nation involved,” explains Heidi. The plan also goes through a robust review with the people attending the field trip, in advance of departure. This ensures that everyone is fully prepared, brings all their own equipment with them, including their own vehicles, and knows what to expect on the day.

“We also do a post-trip debrief about lessons learned,” says Heidi. “We already know we need to do the pre-briefing more in advance, so people have more time to prepare, for example.” Heidi knows just how easy it is to forget something on the list of required items, like a personal first aid kit (no sharing is allowed under the Safety Plan). “I had to buy replacement supplies on the way up-Island,” she acknowledges.

Practice makes perfect, however, and overall, both Heidi and Jordan have been very happy with how well the Safety Plan has worked in the field and in the office. “Everyone wants to do the right thing,” says Heidi. “It has gone really well. Everyone has stayed safe, which is the most important thing. People have kept within their own ‘work families,’ or work pods, and have done a great job with keeping their equipment super-clean and well-separated from anyone else’s equipment.”

“The expanded pre-planning and briefing process, and the approval process in particular, are really good practices that I think we will keep in place permanently,” reflects Jordan. The use of digital technology has also been good, he adds: “I think it will be really helpful to keep using tools like Zoom for virtual meetings, it is making it so much easier to connect in a way.”

Another silver lining to the situation has been the availability of funding to assist in making this all a bit easier. With funding support from Nature United, Nanwakolas Council has been able to arrange for the purchase of tablets and laptop computers for the member First Nations, to make connecting through virtual meetings feasible for everyone. Funding was also contributed through the BC Capacity Initiative to support innovative ways for the member First Nations to access data collected by their Guardians online, at any time, and even to gather the data in the first place.

Similar innovation and support is being brought to bear in designing and developing training videos and software to enable remote learning in lieu of face-to-face workshops, working with organizations like the Hakai Institute (watch this space to learn more as this work unfolds).

In the meantime, to learn more about the Nanwakolas Council Safety Plan or any other aspect of our work, please contact our office. Please note that only essential visitors are permitted in our offices at present: we recommend you call in advance to check if you are uncertain.