The Nanwakolas Council Marine Team works with the member First Nations to achieve their goals and priorities in marine stewardship.
Behind the scenes in the Nanwakolas office are a small, hardworking crew, supporting member First Nations to exercise their ancestral responsibilities and rights to take care of the marine environment in various ways. We recently spent some time catching up with them about the work that is being done, and why it is so important.
Introducing the team
The Marine Team is led by Planning Coordinator John Bones. John’s impressive resume includes university degrees in geography and geomorphology, and more than forty years’ experience in land and coastal management, planning, and environmental assessment in British Columbia and Alberta for government organizations, consulting firms and First Nations (“How time flies!” he commented in mild shock when he was describing his background).
John’s last government assignment before joining the Nanwakolas Marine Team was as a BC Assistant Deputy Minister responsible for strategic planning across the province. These days, he spends most of his time sitting across the table from governments: “One of the key things I do is try to bridge any gaps in understanding that people in government positions may have. I play a liaison role to ensure that officials from both the province and the federal government, are hearing, understanding and acting on the rights, interests and needs that the member First Nations have articulated,” says John.
John’s work is complemented by Marine Planner and GIS Analyst Barb Dinning, who brings over twenty years of technical expertise and planning experience to the team. With a degree in Earth and Ocean Sciences from the University of Victoria, and an advanced diploma in Geographic Information Systems from the BC Institute of Technology, Barb spent time as an exploration geologist in Canada’s High Arctic, worked for over fifteen years as a GIS Analyst in various industries, and spent two years with the Marine Plan Partnership for the North Pacific Coast as Technical Planner for the NVI Sub-region.
The best part of the job, says Barb, is the privilege of contributing that experience in supporting the member First Nations in the work they do to safeguard their territories: “I am so lucky to work with amazing people from whom I am always learning, about everything out there. Their knowledge and understanding of the marine environment in their territories is phenomenal.” Barb also enjoys getting to work in some stunning places out in the field. She says those are her best days: “It might sound funny, I always come home so tired, but also feeling really refreshed, and very contented.”
The team is also supported by Environmental Response and Planning Consultant Jason Howes, from Victoria, who has more than two decades of experience in coastal marine science and emergency response and planning work.
Taking care of the marine environment
The Nanwakolas member First Nations have marine use plans in their traditional areas that include their values in relation to the marine environment, and strategies for keeping the environment healthy. The plans prioritize activities such as the development of Guardian programs, marine-related training for the First Nation’s members, research, monitoring, communications, and the negotiation of governance agreements. Among other things, these plans now assist the individual member First Nations in making decisions about development proposals affecting the marine environment that are referred to them for consideration.
Reconciliation Framework Agreement
An important step in the protection of the marine environment was taken in 2018, when the Nanwakolas member First Nations agreed to participate in implementing Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan and marine planning programs along with thirteen other coastal Nations, through a Reconciliation Framework Agreement (RFA) with the Government of Canada.
“The RFA is an important step in advancing collaborative governance and management of the marine environment with federal government departments such as Coast Guard, Transport Canada, and DFO,” says Nanwakolas Council Executive Director Merv Child.
That means active participation from the outset by the member First Nations in everything from policy to planning, and response design and implementation. “It’s so important,” says Nanwakolas Council President Dallas Smith, “that everyone in government, from technicians to executives, realizes that true reconciliation means that everything done by these departments from now on will be done with us, not to us, as it has in the past. That includes making stewardship decisions together. That’s what the RFA is supposed to be all about.”
Not only that, adds Dallas, but it’s just a smart thing to do: “If you think about it, it’s the First Nations, especially the Guardians who are out on the water all the time who know it better than anyone else. The combined expertise and knowledge of the Nanwakolas Nations goes back thousands of years. We understand where the most sensitive places are, and what impacts them the most. That is valuable information that we bring to the table in planning and implementing the kinds of things that need to be done to take care of the territories properly. That’s beneficial for everyone who lives on and enjoys the coast in British Columbia.”
The projects under way
The OPP, and all the initiatives associated with it, comprise a vast and ambitious management agenda. Each member Nation has therefore identified personnel to provide marine project coordination services, to coordinate involvement and provide direction from the Nation’s leadership and members and to work with the Nanwakolas Marine Team on each OPP project. Here is a quick snapshot of some of those projects.
Marine Safety, Shipping and Transportation
Improved protection of the marine environment from marine transportation incidents such as oil spills is a high priority for the member Nations under the RFA. “That’s understandable,” says John, “given the range of serious impacts oil spills are likely to have on marine habitat and dependent First Nation activities, such as food harvesting.”
Nanwakolas Council is therefore participating with other First Nations who signed the RFA, and with the Government of Canada, to develop complementary marine incident response plans for North Vancouver Island. Preparedness and Response Plans are also being prepared by each member First Nation with Nanwakolas assistance: “These plans will include First Nation roles and responsibilities, priority response areas, training and equipment needs and other important information,” says John.
Areas of Concern and Geographic Response Strategies
Member First Nations have also spent a lot of time identifying areas that would be of concern if threatened or affected by a marine pollution incident (especially those involving oil or chemical products). Areas with cultural, food gathering, ecological and economic significance have been mapped and ranked in order of importance.
Field surveys were conducted, and expert advice has resulted in the generation of protection strategies, known as “Geographic Response Strategies,” or GRS, says Barb. “If an incident occurs, it will be brought to the attention of incident response leaders by the affected First Nation, who will advise on the most vulnerable sites to protect and priorities for the response, as well as appropriate tactics to use.”
Some of these strategies are starting to be exercised in collaboration with Western Canada Marine Response Corporation (WCMRC), to test the theories and make improvements.
Places of Refuge Planning
The member Nations, with support from the Marine Team, have been working with the B.C. Coast Pilots and Transport Canada in identifying acceptable Places of Refuge (PORs) in the territories. These PORs are locations where disabled vessels may be directed for temporary anchorage while they are inspected or undergo necessary repairs to enable safe removal. “The participation of member Nations in identification of PORs is important, of course,” says Barb, “to ensure that sensitive areas that are important to the First Nations for different reasons, like food harvesting, can be avoided.”
Proactive Vessel Management
An important part of the OPP is developing a pilot project to test the ability of the shipping industry to voluntarily improve shipping safety. Nanwakolas Council participated in a pilot of this kind with Central Coast First Nations, to identify voluntary measures for “articulated” or connected tug and barge vessels (ATBs) transporting petroleum products through the Inside Passage from Alaska to Seattle, Washington.
The importance of this pilot, and the need for First Nations’ participation in proactive management, was made very real when a barge ran aground on a reef across from Campbell River in 2019, said John: “Unfortunately, at the time the Wei Wai Kum First Nation was not invited to participate in the response and removal of the stranded vessel.” The kinds of measures being tested included identifying high risk areas that should be avoided, as well as improved notification processes, and procedures determining when ATBs can waive requirements to have a vessel pilot on board to guide it in navigating such areas.
Although the ATB pilot project is now complete, says Barb, recommendations have been made to Transport Canada about the importance of continuing this work in the coming years, especially as the understanding of the marine transportation industry about what is important to First Nations grows. “For example, the recommendations include ways to address safety issues of importance to member Nations that are not currently considered by the transportation industry as needing voluntary safety measures,” says John.
Vessels of Concern
Both Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have responsibility for identification, risk assessment, and removal of abandoned and derelict vessels, and any vessels that may be a pollution risk, like boats drifting from their moorings. These “Vessels of Concern,” or VOCs, are found throughout member Nation territories, and many have been mapped and documented by member Nation Guardians.
VOCs are a serious concern for everyone in the Nanwakolas member Nation territories, says the Marine Team, who is in constant communication with federal government officials to reinforce the concerns of member First Nations and their requirements to be involved in VOC identification, in establishing the priority for removal, and in monitoring of removal and clean-up activities.
A Work in Progress
“These projects are so important,” reiterates Nanwakolas President Dallas Smith. “We are coastal Nations who have always depended on our marine environment physically, economically, and spiritually. The Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network is named for the words we use for ‘the place we go to get food.’ We depend on the health of our waters, and the water depends on us to keep it healthy. That’s why we have to be part of a true collaborative governance framework in which we are making decisions together to protect these vitally important areas.”
There is still work to be done, he says, especially in ensuring that the RFA government partners step up to its RFA commitments. “When we signed the RFA,” says Dallas, “the elders told me, well done, but don’t pat yourself on the back until you can point to real-time progress in re-establishing our inherited stewardship role of our marine territory and resources and restoring its natural health. So that’s our mandate, and we’ll keep working until we achieve that.”
Watch this space: we’ll be featuring the work being done by the Nations on VOCs in our next article on marine work, as well as other features in the coming months on Areas of Concern and Geographic Response Strategies, among other things.