Indigenous Guardian Program Awarded First Ever Federal Funding

The federal government has committed $25 million over five years to funding Indigenous guardian programs.

The news, announced on Wednesday in the federal budget, marks the first time the government has ever financially supported the community-run programs, which work to monitor ancestral territories, enforce Indigenous laws, conduct scientific research and increase cultural knowledge. There are currently about 30 existing Indigenous Guardians programs across Canada.

However, the $25 million commitment represents only five per cent of what was requested by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, which has been leading the charge to attain federal funding for 1,600 guardians and associated costs.

“This budget commitment acknowledges the leadership of Indigenous Peoples in determining the future of our lands,”said Ovide Mercredi, a senior advisor with the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

While the investment will not enable new guardian programs to be established immediately, the seed funding will help develop a national network and prepare indigenous nations and communities to launch their own indigenous guardians programs, according to a press release from the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

“Indigenous Guardians programs strengthen our communities,” said Valérie Courtois, the director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative. “They create jobs, lower crime rates and improve public health. But most importantly, they inspire our young people. They connect them to the land and their elders. They give them professional training tied to their language and culture. That offers hope that can combat the despair so many Indigenous youth feel today.”

A recent study of Indigenous Guardians programs in the Northwest Territories found that every dollar invested in the programs generated $2.50 in social, economic and environmental value. Sustained federal funding would increase the value to $3.70.

“A critical driver behind Indigenous communities having authority to manage lands and waters is having active and fulsome on-the-ground programs such as Indigenous guardians: really having the boots on the ground, the eyes and ears there to monitor and protect and manage their lands and territories,” says Claire Hutton, community conservation and leadership advisor at TNC Canada, an affiliate of The Nature Conservancy

Provincial and Federal Enforcement Lacking in Many Regions

Douglas Neasloss, chief councillor of the Kitasoo/Xaixais Nation on British Columbia’s Central Coast, recalls conditions in his nation’s territory some two decades.

“We saw so many illegal activities,” he says. “Everything from illegal poaching of abalone — which was our food that was wiped out almost 20 years ago — to illegal forestry, to a lot of different types of illegal fisheries, to illegal hunting.”

Yet Neasloss says they would only see BC Parks once or twice in a “good year,” and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans even less than that. The Great Bear Rainforest spans over 100,000 square kilometres — with his nation’s ancestral territory making up some 5,000 square kilometres of that — which means that vast areas were effectively unmonitored.

That’s where the idea of the “guardian watchmen” came in, following the lead of the Innu in Labrador, which first established a program in the early 1990s.

In 2005, the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network was created. There are now watchmen programs in eight coastal communities — including Old Massett (Haida), Bella Bella (Heiltsuk) and Hartley Bay (Gitga’at) — and over 20 more across Canada. And many more communities want to establish programs: Hutton says there were 30 communities at the recent national gathering organized by Indigenous Leadership Initiative, with upward of 200 communities that have expressed interest.

“The appetite and conversation around it feels very alive right now in communities,” Hutton says. “There’s a lot of interest.”

Single Program Costs Over $200,000 For Six Guardians, Fuel and Equipment

In addition to monitoring for illegal activities, Indigenous guardians serve as ambassadors to visitors, welcoming them to the territory and teaching them about its history and laws.

Chantal Pronteau, who’s about to start her third season as a Guardian Watchman for Kitasoo/Xaixais Nation, says that exchanges with visitors are usually fairly friendly: “We’re going in there with respect and open minds to try to understand the person’s reason to be extracting our resources,” she says.

Pronteau is one of six full-time guardians for the First Nation, with a specific role of working alongside biologists conducting research within the territory and monitoring Mussel Inlet for illegal crabbing; her and a colleague spend two-and-a-half months every season stationed out at a cabin in the inlet.

Hutton stresses that every guardian program is as unique as every Indigenous community, but that there are common themes (TNC Canada is releasing a toolkit in June for communities to help share resources and practices about guardian programs).

One commonality is these programs all cost money. Neasloss says the guardian program run by the Kitasoo/Xaixais Nation costs $210,000 a year, including fuel, wages and equipment. The First Nation charges a “sustainability fee” — $10 per day, per person — for any commercial users in the territory, which supports the Guardian Watchmen program.

“It’s a small fraction of what we need,” he says. “I don’t think it’s fair for our community to spend that kind of money to go monitor commercial activity when it’s the province that gives out those permits. Essentially, they give out the permits and we’re there to babysit.”

Tensions Between Indigenous and Canadian Laws

That’s where federal funding is needed, helping to kickstart and maintain programs across the country.

But there’s a major problem that has yet to be resolved: the Canadian government still doesn’t recognize the Indigenous laws that guardian watchman attempt to enforce as legitimate. In addition, the federal government has approved a series of resource extraction projects in recent months that challenge Indigenous claims to nationhood, including the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and Pacific Northwest LNG export terminal.

“There are very complex jurisdictional issues that tie certain activities to certain departments,” Hutton says.

Neasloss explains: “In the eyes of the nation, my community, we feel our watchmen do have the enforcement authority on behalf of our nation. Our nation never signed a treaty with Canada, we never surrendered it, we were never conquered in war, therefore we maintain it belongs to us. The feds and the province do not agree or support that at this point.”

However, he says that while he thinks it’s hard for the Crown to look at relinquishing any authority, the new funding represents a “step in the right direction.”

The budget says the ministers of Indigenous Affairs and Environment and Climate Change will “develop a proposal for the pilot” in the coming months.

Image: The Ahousaht Resource Stewardship Guardians leave the dock in Tofino, on Vancouver Island, for their daily patrols. The First Nation started its Guardian program in May 2016. © TNC Canada

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