On April 9, 2021, all sixteen students in the third cohort of Vancouver Island University’s Stewardship Technician Training Program graduated, with flying colours. The program had been immensely successful. The newly-qualified Guardians were thrilled, proud, and eager to get out in the territories in summer field placements with their respective First Nations and put their hard-earned skills to work.
But after spending nearly six months together, how do you say goodbye to your tightknit team of fellow students and go your different ways, and from the theories of the classroom to the realities of fieldwork? How do you learn to work with senior Guardians and managers who you may not have met before? Just as importantly: how do experienced Guardians managing heavy workloads and substantial responsibilities cope with having new, energetic, enthusiastic but relatively inexperienced people join their teams?
Success for one is success for all
The answers lay in the Bakwam Accord, a document that the STTP students had created at the beginning of the program to set out their shared values. Entitled “’Namwayut – We Are All One,” the Accord emphasized the importance of maya’xala (respect) for all living things and for each other, inside and out of the classroom. Amongst other things, it described their expectations of each other, and equally importantly, of themselves: to work hard, to be fearless, and to lift each other up in their efforts to succeed. At the end of the program, that last commitment was one that every participant, whether student, support staff, or instructor, pointed to as a key reason everyone graduated.
In “A Family of Graduates,” student and Wei Wai Kum Guardian David Cliffe reflected: “The Bakwam Accord was really important. We knew that we would be taking what we learned out into the world. How we would behave was so important. The Bakwam Accord helped us live that way every day through the program, together. We learned to share with each other, to work together safely and respectfully and to help each other’s progress.” Candace Newman (K’omoks), another STTP graduate, said: “Each of us had different strengths, and we learned to use those strengths for each other. If someone was struggling, the rest of us were there to lift them up. We worked together to make sure we would graduate as a team.”
Building on success: the Indigenous Guardians Technical Support Team
As the STT Program drew to a close, Nanwakolas Council staff asked themselves, “How can we support the upholding of that value of maya’xala in the Bakwam Accord into the field post-graduation? How can we support the graduates and the senior Guardians who will be managing them to work safely and respectfully together?”
Nanwakolas Council turned for help to Nature United’s Emerging Leaders program and Indigenous Guardians Technical Support Team (TST), which support Indigenous Nations establishing or strengthening youth land-based learning and Guardian programs. Nature United facilitators help Indigenous Nations and youth on-the-land/Guardian programs identify priorities, address their needs, and learn directly from each other as they develop and grow their programs. Nanwakolas asked the Nature United facilitators – Claire Hutton, James (Jimmy) Morgan, Claire Menendez and Jonaki Bhattacharyya – if they could offer their expertise to help the graduates and their future crew bosses have some space to learn, share their stories with each other, and prepare for having a good working relationship as they undertook their respective Guardian roles over the summer.
The team enthusiastically agreed, suggesting a combined online and in-house facilitated workshop that would provide the space for participants to share and learn from each other, and ideally, jointly develop principles for Guardian teams that they could take with them out in the field to put into practice.
In a world governed by Covid safety practices, that was not as straightforward as it might sound. “Having people engage in virtual online facilitation is a big ask,” says Jonaki. “We would have been much happier doing this completely face to face, of course, but we had to find a way to make it work in a combination of small groups in person and online facilitation.”
“We were very aware of the potential for loss of human connection in an online workshop,” adds Claire Menendez. “We also had in mind that the workshop would involve talking about team dynamics and that some sensitive issues might come up. We needed to create a format that provided a safe, comfortable environment, despite the lack of physically being present to help with that.”
A good experience
Despite the challenges, and the inevitable occasional technical glitch, the workshop and the results coming out of it could not have been better from the facilitators’ point of view. “I was blown away by how all the participants stepped into the space with such enthusiasm and passion to make it work,” says Jonaki. “It worked out so well,” adds Claire. The workshop was not intended to direct the participants on what they had to do, but rather to give them the opportunity to develop or outline their own principles for good, respectful relationships in working together: “The participants were all so amazing, they were full of energy and really engaged,” reflects Claire. “They really made the sessions work. It was very positive.”
The workshop agenda was structured so that both senior and junior Guardians could have separate time in their own groups to discuss questions such as “What does a successful season look like?” and “What makes a good Indigenous Guardian Program manager?” After those discussions, the senior and junior Guardian teams who would be on the same field crews over the summer came together to compare notes, share stories of their personal experiences, and discuss good ways to work together.
“The agenda also had to be agile enough to shift with the direction that participants might want to go,” says Zahra Remtulla, who coordinates Nature United’s Emerging Leaders program. “It had to be a format that didn’t prescribe or force them into a box. It had to support the way they wanted to engage with each other as Indigenous Guardians.”
That flexibility lent itself to a beautiful, connecting experience, says Jonaki: “As facilitators, and members of the TST, we learned so much ourselves from listening to those conversations. The experienced Guardian managers had the space and time to share stories about safety and responsibility, and about themselves,” she adds. “These are tough, hardworking people who really opened up and shared very personal anecdotes and experiences. It helped build instant trust with the junior Guardians in a magical way, that these future mentors and role models were willing to be so open.”
Claire, who managed the complicated technological ballet of switching between large groups and smaller breakout groups both on Zoom and in the room, found that despite the virtual setting for many participants – and the facilitators – the level of sharing and the willingness to be vulnerable in front of others contributed to connecting people strongly and in a profound way. “It is a beautiful reminder in these Covid times that just because you can’t be there face to face, doesn’t mean you can’t have a connection, and work together to build team strength and cohesion.”
Wise Principles for Guardian Teams
Following the workshop, a set of principles generated by the participants, called Wise Principles for Guardian Teams, was documented so that Guardians, both old and new, can carry the Principles with them wherever they go.
Including values such as formally committing to work together as a team, understanding each other and each other’s roles, and recognizing and celebrating success, the Wise Principles are elegant and compelling tenets for team behaviour and practice that any group would do well to adopt. The TST hope to add them to their Indigenous Guardians Toolkit, a set of resources and shared stories for Indigenous Guardians, so that Guardians across Canada can benefit from them.
“As a conservation organization, Nature United believes that durable conservation depends on strong Indigenous leadership as well as increased authority and capacity of Indigenous peoples to steward their lands and waters,” says Zahra. “These new STT program graduates are the next generation of those leaders.”
“Seeing an entire Network planning a whole year of mentorship, let alone the actual project planning is very impressive!” says Jimmy. “It’s a testament to the level of commitment as well as professionalism put into their program.”
Chip Mountain, who along with his fifteen classmates graduated the day after the workshop, was excited about what the summer would hold for him: “You get to go to work every day with amazing people, all with different backgrounds but similar interests to yours. It might feel like unknown territory at first but the people around you will soon change that. They will help make you comfortable so quickly.”
“Put it this way,” mused David Cliffe. “I will get to go to work every day in this job as a Guardian where I will hear the birds sing, I will feel the sun or the rain on my face, I will hear the wind and the water and feel the energy of the forest. It’s all so beautiful.” Along with his fellow Guardians, both senior and brand-new, says David: “You all get to keep working on changing the world at the same time. How could you not want to be a part of it?”
Who is the IG TST?
James (Jimmy) Morgan, TST Facilitator
Jimmy is Gitwangak Eagle working for Gitanyow, and brings many years of experience as a Guardian and supervising field technician, monitoring wildlife and fisheries, to his current work supporting Guardian programs in his own Nation, and other First Nations. He works as part of the federal First Nations Joint Working Group on Indigenous Guardians. Jimmy brings to the TST his years of experience with every aspect of Guardian work, from boots on the ground (and in water!) to crew supervision, operations, and program management.
Claire Menendez, TST Facilitator
Claire is a quantitative social scientist with a background in fisheries biology. She has experience working with First Nations in Ontario and BC to develop resource management practices and decision-making processes that recognize and support Indigenous authority. She is continually inspired by the passion and commitment Indigenous communities have for protecting their lands and waters, and is honoured to be able to support Indigenous Guardians in her new role.
Jonaki Bhattacharyya, TST Coordinator
Jonaki is an ethnoecologist and environmental planner with extensive experience working with Indigenous Nations on resource management issues. Jonaki has worked to support a variety of Indigenous Guardians and programs across scales, from individuals working out field protocols, to integrating Indigenous knowledge with science, to network-level strategic planning and facilitation. She also specializes in Indigenous-led Protected and Areas and culturally appropriate wildlife stewardship.
Claire Hutton, TST Nature United Lead
Claire currently works as the Indigenous Stewardship Director at Nature United and provides support to the Indigenous Guardian Technical Support Team. Claire has over 15 years’ experience working directly with First Nations to support their authority to manage their lands and waters. Claire helped to establish the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network and continues to be passionate and committed to supporting the work of Indigenous Guardians.
How can you contact the Indigenous Guardians TST?