There are few eyes and ears on the ground during the winter around the Broken Group Islands in Barkley Sound, but Darrell Ross is hoping that will change with the help of federal funding for the Indigenous Guardians program.
The islands, part of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, are rich in cultural sites, and central to the Tseshaht First Nation creation story, but, with limited funding, a Beachkeeper Program has been able to operate only in the summer.
Now, there should be year-round opportunities to teach young people about their history, train band members in safety techniques and monitor fisheries and tourism activities, said Ross, Tseshaht research and planning associate.
“Youth are the priority — and safety because you can only get to central Barkley Sound by boat or float plane,” Ross said, after federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna announced $5.7-million in federal funding for 28 Indigenous Guardians pilot programs.
The federal government committed $25 million for Indigenous Guardians in last year’s budget and the pilot programs, in First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities across Canada, will be assessed to help plan a full-scale network of Indigenous Guardians to monitor and protect sensitive areas.
“There has been a great deal of interest and we did want to make sure we had projects on the ground in the communities this year. We are going to learn a lot from the different approaches,” McKenna said in an interview with The Narwhal after making the funding announcement Tuesday at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C.
Nine of the pilot projects are in B.C., including tribal park monitoring and tourism guiding by the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation in Tofino.
Guardians will help monitor illegal fisheries and forestry activities, protect cultural sites and, in the North, monitor how climate change and increased shipping in the Northwest Passage are affecting the Arctic.
Izaac Wilman, representing Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. — recipient of one of the funding packages — said the main food source for communities in Nunavut is the ocean, so, as the climate changes, monitoring is essential.
“Increased shipping and oil and gas exploration poses a risk to our lands, wildlife and our relationship to both. Being that Nunavut is a food insecure place, it’s important we keep our wildlife healthy and sustain healthy relationships,” he said.
The projects fit well with the government’s $1.3-billion nature legacy, announced in this year’s budget, which focuses on how to protect species and nature, McKenna said.
“It’s attracting interest from around the world because Canada has a huge amount of virgin land and we have an opportunity to showcase to the world how to do things better, including working with Indigenous peoples,” she said.
Reconciliation played a major part in the decision to fund the programs, said McKenna, who emphasized that, as minister, she has learned to listen and understand the importance of Indigenous knowledge.
“The idea of reconciliation has so much to do with the land,” she said.
The projects also mesh with Canada’s international commitment to protect 17 per cent of land and fresh water by 2020, a commitment that was given a boost last month by creation of the first federally recognized Indigenous Protected Area.
The 14,281 square kilometre Edehzhie protected area will be followed by other Indigenous Protected Areas, McKenna said.
“These are a top priority,” she said.
“We are looking at a very big announcement early next year — a marine conservation area. It would be really exciting and I think it would really capture the imagination of the world and there are a number of other initiatives across the country we are working on,” she said.
McKenna, who will meet with B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman on Wednesday, downplayed disagreements between the federal government and B.C. over the Trans Mountain pipeline and protection of endangered mountain caribou.
The federal government has relentlessly pushed the Trans Mountain oilsands pipeline despite opposition from the B.C. government, several First Nations and a court ruling against the project.
“Obviously there are some files that are going to be more challenging, but when we look at what we need to do when it comes to taking action on climate change, protecting more of our nature, protecting species at risk, we absolutely have to work together,” she said.
Last May, the federal government warned B.C. that it needed a strong protection plan for endangered southern mountain caribou, appearing ready to step in and override provincial powers over resource development in caribou critical habitat.
McKenna declared an imminent threat to the recovery of 10 herds, but, instead of an emergency protection order that would allow the federal government to step in, both levels of government have been working on a joint recovery plan.
However, during the last six months, the province has approved 83 logging cut blocks in critical habitat of the eight most endangered southern mountain caribou populations.
Thirty of B.C.’s 54 caribou herds are at risk of local extinction and 14 of those herds now have fewer than 25 animals, but pleas for federal action have not been heeded.
McKenna said her department has been working closely with B.C. and she will be bringing up the topic during her meeting with Heyman.
“We know we need to take action to protect the caribou and there are also First Nations communities that are incredibly important to the discussions and I am looking forward to finding a resolution — a path forward — really shortly,” she said.