“Ten years from now,” says We Wai Kai Chief Ronnie Chickite thoughtfully, “I envision we’ll have at least eight, maybe even ten Guardians working full time for the Nation. They will be monitoring what is happening,” he continues, “and gathering the information the Nation needs to protect our resources for the future. They will be helping us build our capacity to manage those resources, using our Indigenous knowledge and ways of sustaining our territory. They will be out on the water and in the forests, our feet on the ground out there. We want them,” he says emphatically, “to be everywhere.”
Hitting the ground running
Based on the We Wai Kai Nation’s track record over the last twelve months, there’s no reason that won’t happen. It was only in late 2021 that We Wai Kai decided to start a formal Guardian program. Just six months later, three enthusiastic and energetic young Guardians had been hired and put to work. By October 2022, everyone concerned was astounded – and very proud – about how much the small team had achieved in just five months.
“We’ve done archaeological monitoring, wildlife surveying, wetlands studies, and so many other diverse things since we started,” marvels youngest member of the team, Scott Assu. “That’s on top of all the forestry work we’ve been doing, all the Large Cultural Cedar surveys with the forestry companies.”
We Wai Kai Guardian Manager Shane Pollard, an experienced mariner with both fisheries and forestry experience, and one of the first graduates of the Vancouver Island University Stewardship Technician Training Program in 2017, is equally happy. “We’ve done a huge amount of work. I don’t think any of us had any idea of how much we were getting into when we started, but I am so proud of how much we have managed to do already.”
Managing a Guardian team was as new to Shane as the work itself was to Scott, fresh out of high school, and to Anthony Seville, the third member of the youthful team. “But we didn’t have time to worry about that, we had to get out there and get going,” says Shane. “We had to hit the ground running.”
Picking the right team
Chief Ronnie Chickite chuckles when he hears how his team is feeling. He is one proud Chief: “These young men we hired are doing exactly what we hoped for. Shane is so experienced and qualified, and a great person to grow this program for us. Scott and Antho are also really capable, hard workers. We are very happy with the direction this has taken.”
Nanwakolas Referrals Office Manager Art Wilson, who is also a We Wai Kai Councillor, adds: “We knew we wanted to invest in a team of strong, fit young people who could manage the sheer hard physical work in a tough environment, and who would enjoy being outdoors and the work so much they would want to be in these roles for the long term. I think we were very successful in doing exactly that.”
Making it happen
In starting up the program, it’s fair to say that We Wai Kai Chief and Council had to hit the ground running as much as their Guardians did. “We knew we wanted to do this because there is so much happening in our territory that we weren’t able to monitor effectively, and we wanted to be more involved in ensuring that our resources are being treated well, and sustainably,” says Chief Chickite. “Forestry practices were a big concern. So was monitoring the state of our wildlife, especially elk stocks, which are important to us. The stocks have slowly been rebuilding over the last thirty years, but there are huge gaps in the data that we want to fill. To do these things, we needed people working for us on the ground.”
We Wai Kai had observed the success and benefits of other Nanwakolas member First Nations’ Guardian programs, and were eager to participate in the Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network. “So we started talking to Nanwakolas, and staff there helped us by applying for grants to get us going. We also had funding from the Coast Funds conservation fund that we could draw upon to pay for a manager position.”
The final piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place when forestry company Western Forest Products Inc. (WFP) came to We Wai Kai with a proposal. “They proactively reached out to us,” says Art, “and said, ‘We have a full year’s work program for your Guardians to get involved with under the Nanwakolas Large Cultural Cedar (LCC) Operational Protocol, as soon as you have them on board.’ That was a great basis to make the final decision to go ahead and hire our team.”
The LCC Protocol
Two years previously, several large BC forestry companies, including WFP, Interfor Corporation, Mosaic Forest Management and BC Timber Sales, had signed up to the LCC Protocol, which sets out policies and procedures that must be followed by anyone carrying out forestry activities in the territories of the Nanwakolas member First Nations.
The work includes surveys by trained Guardians of the location and quality of Wilkw / k ̓wa’x̱ tłu, or LCC, which are of immense cultural importance to the First Nations. The results of the surveys are used by their forestry company partners in planning their operations in a way that ensures the sustainability of the trees, and by the First Nations as a database to draw upon when a tree is required for a cultural practice such as carving canoes or totem poles, or bighouse construction.
This is invaluable knowledge both for the First Nations and for the forestry companies. Cedar trees have been at high risk under previous logging practices, and along with them, the cultural wellbeing of the Nations. The Protocol contributes significantly to their long term resilience, and ensures access to suitable trees for the use of the Nations in the future.
Working in the forest
The We Wai Kai Guardians have been working with the forestry companies under the Protocol almost non-stop since the Guardian program was started up in May 2022. “WFP in particular offered our Guardians a solid program of days of work on LCC surveys, right from the beginning,” says Art. “So they took that and ran with it.”
Katherine Robazza, a planning and Indigenous relationships forester with WFP, and Indigenous Relationships Project Manager Kindry Mercer, have both accompanied the We Wai Kai Guardians on several LCC surveys this season. Each day and each survey are different, says Katherine; the difficulty of the terrain, access to the proposed cut block, and the weather all play significant roles in how a survey is approached.
“We always start the day in the office with the Guardians and the WFP crew who are going out to survey the block we are going to, and do a review of the block,” she says. “We make sure we go through all the information we have about the block, including the safety hazards. We look at emergency exit routes, what equipment we are going to need, all those things, every time.”
The crew then head out together to the block, typically anything from between half an hour to two hours’ drive away on logging roads. Some sites in We Wai Kai territory are fly-in or boat access only. After a “tailgate” meeting onsite to check all the equipment is ready – hard hats, high visual safety clothing, eye protection and cork boots, among other things, as well as data recorders – the crew set off to start the tough physical work of bushwhacking through rugged terrain, looking for LCC and documenting their location and characteristics.
It was a steep learning curve for the new Guardian team at the beginning, says Shane Pollard ruefully. “We had to do all our learning on the job. We really did have to find out the hard way how to do some things, like not trying to hammer iron stakes into the ground with rubber mallets!” Scott learned on his first day not to tie his lunch in a plastic bag hung on the front of his jacket. “It not only got in the way of everything I was doing, but it was also pretty crushed up by the time lunch rolled around.”
Those were minor lessons in the bigger picture, and the team quickly adapted to the work. “Those three are all amazing,” says Katherine. “They are such great guys, and so hardworking. They have become seasoned field workers in such a short space of time. They are safety conscious, and take huge pride in their work. I can’t say enough about what a great crew they are. All three of them are also so knowledgeable about LCC. That was invaluable to WFP in our work and being able to plan effectively to ensure their resilience and protection in our harvesting approach.”
From forest to carver
Not every cedar tree fits the criteria for LCC use. Those criteria have been carefully developed through consultation with First Nation knowledge keepers who have expertise in the characteristics that make an LCC suitable for different traditional uses.
Both the First Nation and WFP are building their records of where LCC are located and information about them. In WFP’s case, the data will be built into their harvesting plan for the block, to ensure the LCC are protected. The Guardians report the data to their Nation, who will then be able to plan for future uses of the LCC for cultural purposes. When a tree is selected for use at some point, based on its specific age, characteristics and location, the First Nation will then work with the forestry company to harvest the tree and deliver it to the carver or carvers who will be working with it.
The Guardians, who have been trained in what to look for, are acutely aware of ensuring they identify and record in the database only high quality cedar that will meet the expectations of their carvers and knowledge keepers. “Have you seen some of our carvers?” exclaims Scott, tongue only slightly in cheek. “They are big, and they are mean! No way am I identifying a tree that is not the quality that they expect, or I will hear all about it later when they get a tree to carve that is not up to par.”
In all seriousness, he adds: “There is so much to consider in deciding whether a tree is suitable or not. You must make so many decisions. You must consider how it looks, its defects and how significant they are, whether there are environmental factors that will affect the quality of the wood over time, and other external factors as well, like is it a good area to preserve for other cultural reasons, such as the presence of medicinal plants, or bear dens, or culturally modified trees (CMTs). These are all decisions we have to make right there in the field.” The Protocol, adds Scott, “is ingrained in my brain now. I know every step of the process so well, even if it is not something I am specifically doing – I think it is important for us to be aware of what happens to the data after we have collected it, for example, so we understand the big picture of our work.”
Under the Protocol, one use of the data is to ensure LCC that have been identified are available to be harvested in the future for cultural uses. That’s a significantly different system to the one that has been in place for the last decade or so. Up until now, if the Nation wanted a cedar tree for carving, says WFP Manager of Fibre Access Gene Hudema, the company would simply select a cut tree from its stockpile and deliver it. Neither WFP nor the Nation would be able to say with certainty where the tree had come from. In the future, the First Nations will be able to identify a specific standing tree for harvesting, and the carver will have access to information about how old it is, where it came from, and which Guardian identified it in the first place.
A productive partnership
For WFP, says Gene, the partnership with the Nanwakolas member First Nations under the LCC Protocol has been positive. “Understanding the objectives and priorities of the First Nations means that WFP can plan with certainty on where we can go to establish working forests with their support, and what we need to protect.”
The better the company’s engineers understand the First Nations’ criteria for LCC, adds Kindry, the easier it is for them to identify blocks that will require LCC surveys at the beginning of the planning process. “It’s a two-year process from planning to delivering a tree to the mill. Knowing from day one what we need to do helps us meet our responsibilities under the Protocol.”
Not least of all, says Kindry, working together every day has built a strong human connection and relationship between the Guardians and the forestry team. “They get to see almost on a daily basis exactly what we do, and why. That’s been really helpful in their understanding of our operations, and in building trust. Just as importantly, we learn from them about what matters from a cultural perspective, and gain so much from their knowledge about resource management and sustainability.”
“I am really pleased they want to learn about LCC,” says Anthony, “and what we use LCC for. Cedar is the tree of life for us. It’s important they know that, about who we are as Indigenous people, and why it is important to work with us this way.”
“This work together,” agrees Scott, “and getting to know each other through the work, has really helped build a strong level of understanding between the two groups.”
A wild success
Through the work, a record-breaking number of LCC have been identified in 2022. “Just in June and July, 650 trees were identified with WFP alone. It’s probably double that by now,” says Katherine Robazza. “Combined with surveys being done by the other forestry companies, that’s a huge number, which is very exciting.” That, adds Gene, is more than exciting: “That’s what I’d call a wild success!”
To the Guardians, the work has meant even more than that. They are justifiably proud of the LCC findings they have contributed to, of course, but they are equally proud of the incidental achievements along the way, like finding bear dens, after participating in a workshop on how to locate and identify the dens – the protection of which is enormously important to the survival of bears on Vancouver Island in particular – and, on one of Scott’s first outings with Mosaic, the discovery of three CMTs. “There hadn’t been one undocumented CMT found in the area for a very long time before that,” says Shane. “To find three in one day – that’s so rewarding for us all.”
For Scott, the work has another level of reward. “My family isn’t very culturally involved, so this is a great way for me to learn about my culture. I am learning about what carvers do with these trees and why, about archaeology and how we used to do things in the past, things I would never get to learn about without this job. So the culture is being revitalized in my family, too, which is really nice.”
“The best part for me is being able to share all of this information with the community,” observes Shane. “There are members of We Wai Kai who have never been able to go where we go, or out to parts of our territory that are only boat accessible. They have no idea what it’s like and how beautiful it all is. That’s the next step,” he says with a smile. “Getting a boat so we can get out on the water too!”
An even more positive future
That’s the goal, agrees Chief Chickite. “It’s also more than just forestry and LCC work, of course. The Guardians have been supervising work on archaeological sites, and doing wildlife monitoring as well. With more Guardians in the future, and boats of course, we can be out on the water as well as in the forests, and we will be able to actively govern and protect all of our territory and its wildlife. Our Guardians will be monitoring what is happening, and reporting to us so we can make well-informed decisions and work with responsible government partners to ensure the accountability of everyone using the resources here.”
A boat is definitely on the wish list, adds Art Wilson. “We are really interested in kelp monitoring, and blue carbon. We want to understand what is happening at fish farm sites so we can inform ourselves properly about them. Our Guardians,” he concludes, “will be the key to unlocking that information. We are so fortunate to have people like Shane, who is a great leader, and Scott and Anthony. Those guys are amazing. They literally are our ears and eyes on the ground out there. Without them, any decision we make as Council is mostly just a paper exercise. But with them, We Wai Kai really will be in the driver’s seat in governing and managing our territory.”