Bella Coola Indigenous Guardians

A gathering of guardians: Indigenous monitors convene for historic knowledge exchange

In remote areas from the B.C. coast to Nunavut’s far north, Indigenous guardians and coastal watchmen are increasingly relied on to monitor landscapes, conduct search and rescue, gather environmental samples and document the impacts of climate change. Now these communities are assembling to share best practices for everything from tracking data to supporting traditional ways of life out on the land

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.

Meet the Kaska land guardians

“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.” 

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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The Narwhal’s reporters uncover energy stories that send shockwaves throughout Canada. But they can’t do it alone — we need to add 300 new members this month to meet our budget. Will you support crucial climate reporting that makes an impact?