Roger Harris casts the spotlight from his truck around an overgrown back alley. No sign of the bears — a mother and cub grizzly that have been prowling around the community of Bella Coola.
It’s 11:30 p.m., and he’s been at it for hours. He was out late last night, chasing a big male grizzly away from town. He’ll do it again tomorrow night.
And that’s not even his day job.
Harris is a member of the Nuxalk Coastal Guardian Watchmen, a group tasked with being “the eyes and ears of the nation,” in the words of Ernie Tallio, who heads up the program. Starting in 2008, the guardians have monitored the land and water, speaking with visitors to the territory, conducting sampling programs and harvesting on behalf of the elders.
“It was really obvious, mid-2000s, that the government agencies were in decline,” says Tallio. “So the leaders on the central coast realized that something needed to be done, to have our own people out on the land.”
Tallio’s data shows the guardians travelled more than 18,000 kilometres in their territory last year.
The program has grown to the extent that the guardians are even in many ways the de facto emergency response unit on the land.
“When something happens in the community, and there’s a need for say a search and rescue mission, it’s the guardians that people call,” says Lara Hoshizaki, a program manager with the Coastal Stewardship Network. “Because they’re the ones that are around.”
The idea is spreading.
New guardian programs are sprouting up across Canada, and even being built into the structure of some new national parks, such as Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories.
“When we negotiate new national parks and even protected areas, [Parks Canada is] looking at how we have Indigenous guardians as part of it,” Catherine McKenna told The Narwhal in August.
One of those new programs is in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, where the enormous new Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area has been designated. So in late September a group of guardians traveled from Arctic Bay on an exchange, to meet with and share knowledge with the Nuxalk guardians.
“If we can learn from their trials and tribulations, we’re not starting from square one,” says Andrew Randall, director of marine and wildlife stewardship at the Qikiqtani Inuit Association. Randall is helping to create the northern guardian program. “I think it’s been really valuable to be here and speak to folks that have been running guardian-type programs for the past … 13 years.”
The Nuxalk guardians took their Arctic Bay counterparts out on patrols to sacred hot springs and waterfalls, to see a cedar tree big enough that all of the guardians together could only barely wrap around it and harvested crabs for a community feast in honour of the northern guests. They were returning the hospitality of the Arctic Bay guardians, who had hosted the Nuxalk in May.
But for Niore Iqalukjuak, from Arctic Bay, the visit is also about business. With his own community’s program starting up, he’s eager to absorb as much technical know-how from the more established guardians.
“I’m hoping to see what kind of apps they use and also see the different methods they use to record traditional sites,” he says. “We’re slowly starting to document what the scientists say is not documented.”
At 108,000 square kilometres, Tallurutiup Imanga is also going to be in need of trained local people who can respond to emergencies and watch the land. Like Tallio and Harris, Iqalukjuak expects to be among the first to be called when a problem arises.
“The responsibilities are fairly huge,” he says.
The responsibility for the land and its resources is what drew Harris to the program when he saw it advertised in the community flyer. He jumped at the chance to learn about traditional harvesting, to hunt and fish for his elders and to respond when needed. In return, the program has given him valuable training opportunities and a sense of purpose.
“We’re protecting the land and water, and that really touches my heart,” he says. “I want to protect that for my grandkids.”