Coastal watchmen training

Indigenous Guardians get $6.4 million to monitor traditional territories

From tracking wildlife populations to reporting industrial pollution, more than 40 Indigenous Guardian programs across Canada are proving their value

The federal government has boosted its investment in Indigenous-led conservation projects across the country, announcing it will commit $6.4 million into 22 projects. 

The funding is for the Indigenous Guardians pilot program, which began in 2017 with a $25 million announcement and now encompasses 40 programs across the country.

The guardians projects put local Indigenous people on the land to monitor and protect their traditional territories. 

“In Canada, we find that Indigenous-led stewardship is taking on a new significance,” says Ethel Blondin-Andrew, a former Liberal MP who is now the chair of the Sahtu Secretariat in the Northwest Territories. “They are keepers of the land, protectors of the land; they know the land best.” 

Of the 22 newly funded projects, most are in the northern territories and northern parts of the provinces

Funding will help process food from the land 

One project to receive funding is in Gitanyow First Nation territory near Terrace, B.C. A guardians program started nine years ago was awarded $420,000 over three years to continue.

A large part of that funding will go toward a facility for processing food harvested from the land. Fish and wildlife biologist Kevin Koch, who heads the Gitanyow program, says a sampling program at the facility will help the First Nation monitor the health of the animals and what is being harvested, and protect food security. 

“Data is power,” he says. “Decisions are made based on data. Protecting territories requires data.” 

The new funding will allow a second team of guardians to monitor habitats and populations of birds, fish and mammals, conduct stream and wetland assessments, and make land-use planning decisions.

Koch says before the guardians monitored moose, B.C. conservation officers told him they were making “one or two” monitoring visits to the area each hunting season, meaning the hunt in Gitanyow traditional territory was going essentially unmonitored.

A pair of full-time Gitanyow guardians last year made more than 100 patrols, with a budget of less than $100,000. 

“When we’re out there, we’re often finding things [conservation officers] would like to find,” Koch says with pride. “Now, they’re calling us.” 

Return on investment high for guardians programs

It’s exactly the kind of work Valerie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, boasts about when asked about the value of Indigenous guardians. 

The Indigenous Leadership Initiative is advocating for a national network of guardians programs that would accompany a growing system of Indigenous protected areas.

“We see that guardians don’t just do a good job of protecting and managing protected areas,” she says. “They help build relationships.” 

The return on investment for guardians programs has been reported as up to $2.50 for every dollar invested in terms of the reduction in incarceration, reduced violence, language retention and other social benefits.

“It’s an investment that allows us to really be who we say we are,” Courtois says. 

The investment can also be a boon to private industry. Guardians patrolling a remote part of a mine site in Labrador noticed a leak in a slurry pipe. The slurry was draining into a fish-bearing brook, an offence that would have cost the company an enormous sum in automatic fines and cleanup costs — but because the guardians noticed the leak, it was stopped immediately.

“Just that intervention paid for the cost of the program,” Courtois says.  

Guardianship a ‘meaningful’ occupation

The oldest of these programs in Canada, the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network in British Columbia, has been running for decades in different forms. 

“Back in the old days there were guardians and watchmen, and those sort of things, ever-present on our land,” explains Guujaaw (Gary Edenshaw) of Haida Nation. “It really wasn’t something we brought to [the federal government] and said, ‘Can we do this?’ ”

Like Koch, Guujaaw says a lot of the work the watchmen do on the coast makes up for a lack of commitment to on-the-ground monitoring from the responsible provincial and federal departments.

Today they cover a large portion of the West Coast, from north of Vancouver Island to Alaska. And they manage everything from ecotourism visitors to herring fisheries. It’s a way of asserting sovereignty while also protecting the resources that have sustained the First Nations for millennia. 

Guujaaw says aside from its political and ecological necessity, it’s just a great job. 

“For the guys that are working, it’s a meaningful, good occupation, being out on the land and representing their people in an honourable way.”

He says that while there may be economic returns, “that’s certainly not the point of it.” 

Guujaaw is currently a special advisor to the Coastal First Nations, which had their coastal watchmen program funded in the recent announcement. 

Ethel Blondin-Andrew was recently in the territory covered by the coastal watchmen, in a boat on the Central Coast as she returned from a retreat at the Hakai Institute. 

As the boat zipped between lush rainforest islands and islets, she admired the proliferation of life the guardians were protecting — humpback whales, deer, seals, eagles. It led to a moment of realization for her. The relationship, she understood, was a two-way street.

“We are only half of what we should be. We are incomplete without our environment, which should be healthy, and without our species,” she says. “It occurred to me that guardians need the land, and that the land needs guardians.” 

Jimmy Thomson is a freelance journalist. He has worked as a CBC videojournalist and has bylines in the Globe and…

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