B.C.-Clayoquot-Sound-drought-salmonhousahtGuardian484

Indigenous guardians connected by new national network in Canada — the first of its kind in the world

The First Nations Guardians Network will streamline funding and capacity-building opportunities for guardians — the eyes and ears of the land

A First Nations Guardians Network, announced Friday, is the first of its kind in the world, Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, said. And it’s all thanks to the demands that Indigenous guardians made themselves back in 2014.

At that meeting, Indigenous guardians — who steward and monitor their territories — called for a national guardians network, stable funding and for the role of guardians to be established as a profession in Canada. 

After years of engaging with government and communities, on Dec. 9 Courtois announced the official launch of the First Nations Guardians Network to meet those demands.

“This is the culmination of over 40 years of work of Indigenous Nations,” Courtois said during the announcement, acknowledging the original modern Guardian program, the Haida Watchman. “It’s worth celebrating.”

She announced the network at COP15, the United Nations biodiversity conference in Montreal, on Kanien’keha:ka territory. She said the network sets an example on the world stage.

“Canada is a global leader in conservation and that’s due in no small part to [Indigenous] leadership on the ground,” Courtois said, in an interview with The Narwhal.

“If we can serve as a model to other regions … it’ll be good for all of us.”

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To start, the network will receive $5.8 million from the federal government to cover operations through to 2026. Funding the federal government previously announced to support Guardian programs is still rolling out, Courtois said during a media scrum after the announcement. In the 2021 budget, the Canadian government committed up to $100 million to support Guardian programs over five years.

“With initiatives like the Indigenous guardians we can fight the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, strengthen relations between our nations and build a better future for everyone,” Environment and Climate Change Canada Minister Steven Guilbeault said during the announcement of the new guardians network.

Indigenous Guardians, like the Wuikinuxv Guardian Watchmen, are the "eyes and ears" on their territories, reporting back to their leadership and communities. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / The Narwhal
Indigenous guardians, like the Wuikinuxv Guardian Watchmen, are the “eyes and ears” on their territories, reporting back to their leadership and communities. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / The Narwhal

The network will serve as a one-stop funding shop, allowing Guardian programs to access needed resources more quickly, efficiently and in a way that aligns with the network’s values, Courtois said.

David Flood, a member of Matachewan First Nation, said the network’s streamlined funding will provide Indigenous governments a “stop-gap,” enabling them to do the work to build a “self-sustaining” program.

Flood helps run a Guardians program as general manager for Wahkohtowin, an organization that focuses on economic development and cultural revitalization, as envisioned by the Northeast Superior Regional Chiefs’ forum in Ontario in 2015.

Flood said guardians will be able to focus on their nation’s priorities, rather than worrying where the next year’s money will come from.

“That’s our inherent right,” he said. “We shouldn’t be scrounging for these kinds of resources, if our treaty counterparts would step forward in a meaningful way.”

New network to free guardians to focus on work on the ground

In less than a decade, the number of Guardians programs has grown from 30 to more than 120, Courtois said.

The new network will not only connect guardians who are from far-apart Indigenous territories, enabling them to learn from each other, it will also provide support on common issues, such as data management.

“As the network grows, it will be meeting what is an existing and growing demand on the ground,” Courtois explained.

Val Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, said the First Nations Guardians Network will facilitate knowledge-sharing between Guardians programs
Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, said the First Nations Guardians Network will facilitate knowledge-sharing between Guardians programs, as well as offering administrative support like data management and funding applications. Photo: Nadya Kwandibens

While Environment and Climate Change Canada will still provide funding, the network, rather than individual Guardian programs, will “bear the burden” of accountability to the federal government.

“Essentially, what that means is that the Guardian programs can do what they’re good at, which is be guardians, as opposed to filling out application forms and reporting and all that administrative burden that comes from accessing federal funds,” Courtois said.

“I remember when I was managing the Innu Nation Guardian program, 80 per cent of my time was filling out applications and writing reports,” she said.

Jimmy Morgan, lead Guardian for the Gitanyow Guardian program in northern B.C., has been doing this work for nine years. Morgan is familiar with the capacity issues Guardians programs face — he is part of Nature United’s technical support team for Indigenous guardians that aims to tackle that very issue, and he was part of the working group that got the national guardian network off the ground.

Morgan said most programs don’t have the money to hire someone dedicated to all that report-writing to cobble together small grants and short-term funding. Like Courtois, he sees that means nations are taking biologists or guardians out of the field to meet the administrative demand, which hinders their capacity.

“You can’t move forward or develop if you’re still stuck in one position,” he said.

Lead Gitanyow Guardian Jimmy Morgan said Guardians programs are one way Indigenous nations can assert authority over their territories. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal
Lead Gitanyow Guardian Jimmy Morgan said Guardians programs are one way Indigenous nations can assert authority over their territories. Photo: Ryan Dickie / The Narwhal

Indigenous guardians network to address funding delays and precariousness

The  new network will ensure Guardian programs have access to stable, certain funding. Morgan said this consistent core funding has the potential to make a huge difference in meeting the everyday needs of guardians, like buying a truck to get around the territory.

“Sometimes it takes so long to get that money that the truck you had in your proposal isn’t even there anymore,” he said. 

Courtois said there have also been cases where guardians have been laid off because programs were having to wait too long for funding.

“This is a serious career path for young people and the worst thing that can happen is you lose your job because the funding doesn’t flow yet or it’s run out,” Courtois noted.

Funding delays interrupt and impede the important work guardians do, whether it’s helping to manage parks and other protected areas or tracking the relationship between people and wildlife, Courtois said.

Byron Charlie, an Ahousaht First Nation guardian
Byron Charlie, an Ahousaht First Nation guardian, working in Bedwell Sound, B.C. Guardians require multi-faceted resources like transportation, such as trucks and boats. They also require monitoring equipment and training. Photo: Melissa Renwick / The Narwhal

For now, the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI) is serving as a sort of secretariat for the guardian network, Courtois explained.  But the plan is for the network to be an independent body. And once the staff and structures are fully in place the initiative will step back, she said.

“ILI’s goal is that every First Nation that wants a Guardian program should be supported and enabled to have one,” Courtois said. And, the organization will continue to advocate for more funding and support for guardians.

Morgan hopes the network will also help establish the guardian profession and gain them recognition for their roles being the “eyes and ears” on the territory for their leadership and communities.

Morgan said not only do guardians bring practical skills like search and rescue and wildlife monitoring, but they are also part of a much bigger movement of reasserting leadership and stewardship on the land.

“It’s a chance to assert your authority over territory. Not that we own it, but that we’re here to take care of it,” he said.

Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks project coordinator Terry Dorward walks through a lush old-growth forest in his territory
Guardians contribute to cultural revitalization, community wellness and conserving biodiversity, like the old-growth forests in Tla-o-qui-aht territory, where Terry Dorward works as projects coordinator for Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks. Photo: Stephanie Wood / The Narwhal

Network announced in wake of $800 million commitment from the feds

The launch of the network comes on the heels of an announcement on Wednesday that Canada will invest up to $800 million for four large-scale Indigenous-led conservation initiatives — though no agreements are in place and no details are public yet.

“It’s groundbreaking and fundamental,” Flood said about the investment. In his 30 years advocating for Indigenous Rights, he said he is finally seeing more support for Indigenous conservation within bureaucracy, even though there is still a way to go.

He said one challenge is the fact provinces aren’t always on the same page when it comes to climate change, biodiversity and Indigenous conservation. 

Six provinces lack species at risk legislation. Flood sees issues in Ontario, which has cut environmental protections. In October, three First Nations brought Ontario to court over its management in the boreal forest. Meanwhile, The Narwhal obtained documents showing Ontario feared Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas imposed on provincial jurisdiction.

But Flood is full of optimism about the national guardians network, and believes it will bring empowerment and mentorship to Indigenous Peoples as they pursue their goals for their lands and cultures.

“I just can’t help but think that the network of guardians is going to elevate that pool of knowledge systems, awareness and sharing — and accelerate cultural revitalization that is reversing the impacts of the residential schools in a very accelerated way,” he said.

“I see bright, positive, real opportunities to help the world, Indigenous Peoples around the world, and showcase some of the work we can do in the Canadian context.”

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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