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This story was made possible in part by an award from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
Storms have played a significant role in John Powell’s life. On Mamalilikulla territory, which spans small islands and inlets on the misty Pacific coast, the storms can be intense. The sky goes grey, the rain pelts sideways and the waves of the ocean surge in strong winds.
Powell, the nation’s elected chief councillor, can remember being just five years old as his grandfather navigated a fishing boat in “the stormiest weather in November.”
“I could stand on the counter and touch the water outside because we were leaning over so much — and [I remember] not being afraid, because of the faith I had in my grandfather,” he recalled.
Storms also played a role when the colonial government outlawed potlatches from 1885 to 1951. Indian Agent William Halliday broke up a potlatch at ‘Mimkwa̱mlis in 1921, arresting people for participating — regalia was stolen, and people feared being arrested as Halliday continued to monitor the territory.
“They took to potlatching in the worst storms so that people couldn’t go there to interrupt them,” Powell, whose ancestral name is Winidi, said.
He spent his early years on ‘Mimkwa̱mlis, or Village Island, where Mamalilikulla people lived for millennia. Then, when Powell was five, the entire community was forced to abandon their homes due to a lack of clean water, lack of infrastructure and children being taken away to residential school in nearby Alert Bay.
In 1914 a federal-provincial commission also did not allocate Mamalilikulla’s central village sites as reserves, acting on Halliday’s recommendations. So the Mamalilikulla slowly spread out to different urban areas and other reserves, becoming a nation with no home base for its people. Abandoned houses still stand today at ‘Mimkwa̱mlis facing the water, beaten by the rain.
Now, Powell is determined to protect the land the Mamalilikulla were separated from and help people reconnect with it. Last November he led the nation in unilaterally declaring an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area at Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala (Lull Bay/Hoeya Sound), near ‘Mimkwa̱mlis.
The 10,416-hectare protected area is just north of Vancouver Island and includes extremely rare shallow coral as well as salmon-bearing streams that support grizzlies and black bears. The protected area is roughly the size of Vancouver proper, and about 2,000 hectares of it protects the ocean.
Indigenous protected areas in principle have existed as long as Indigenous Peoples have. But their recent iteration of being known as Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, more commonly called IPCAs, goes back to 2018. That’s when the federally funded Indigenous Circle of Experts published a report on how Indigenous-led conservation could be undertaken and how that could help Canada reach its United Nations commitments on climate change and conservation. Indigenous Peoples lead conservation and stewardship within Indigenous protected areas, in accordance with their own priorities and laws.
Since then, the idea has taken off.
But there are more proposals coming from First Nations than the slow wheels of government can keep up with. Mamalilikulla First Nation didn’t wait for buy-in from other levels of government. Instead, they established the protected area according to their own laws and their constitutionally recognized Indigenous Rights. The nation invited the province and federal governments to join them in co-governance.
In May, a group of Mamalilikulla went to Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala (pronounced Gwat-ch-dala-lah / Nah-latch-dala-lah) to celebrate the IPCA declaration. For most people, it was their first time there.
They had hoped for sun, but the sky had other plans. They sang and danced in celebration as the rain fell, feet passing through the mud, mirroring their ancestors who potlatched in the harshest storms.
“I’m happy. It fills my heart to see all of the support,” Powell told The Narwhal that day.
“I know there’s a lot of work that still needs to happen. And I know that this is just the beginning. But I think it’s a good start.”
Mamalilikulla is part of a groundswell of Indigenous Nations declaring IPCAs based on their own sovereignty — not waiting for approval, but leaving the door open for colonial governments to get on board.
Powell said colonial governments will have to find a way to handle the wave of IPCA proposals coming their way as Indigenous Peoples look for ways to protect land faster than government bureaucracy often allows.
“These IPCAs are not going away. They are the thing of the future,” he said.
Starting with an investment of $25 million in Indigenous Guardians programs in 2017, the federal government has continued to make major investments in Indigenous-led conservation. It announced funding in 2019 through Canada’s Nature Fund to support the establishment of up to 27 Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and in 2021 announced $340 million in funding over five years to support Indigenous-led conservation through guardians programs and IPCAs. In the federal government’s 2021 budget, more than $166 million was allocated for IPCAs.
Now, so many IPCA proposals and declarations are being announced that it’s hard to keep track of them. In June of this year, Kitasoo Xai’xais declared a 33.5-square-kilometre marine protected area. In 2021, after waiting for more than four years for provincial support, Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs unilaterally declared the Wilp Wii Litsxw Meziadin Indigenous Protected Area, encompassing 540 square kilometres of land and water.
Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, said the idea of Indigenous protected areas “really is catching fire.” The initiative supports Indigenous-led conservation.
There are half a million square kilometres in proposed protected areas by Indigenous Peoples in Canada, according to Courtois.
Courtois said that in the face of climate change impacts, including the wildfire that burnt down Lytton, B.C., during the 2021 heat dome, she thinks people are open to realizing “there’s a better way” of doing things. With Indigenous Peoples stewarding 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity, Indigenous-led conservation is one such solution.
“Even in cases of nations declaring them unilaterally, they’re never doing that just for their own purposes,” she said. “We’re doing this for the good of everybody.”
The momentum is palpable, she said. In August, the Indigenous Leadership Initiative announced the launch of a First Nations National Guardians Network, which will connect guardians across the country and create a more streamlined process to access funds. According to Courtois, it’s the first program of its kind in the world.
But the demand to launch IPCAs and guardians programs still “far outweighs what is available for funding,” Courtois said. She sees many more applications come in than current federal funding can support.
If Canada increased its investment to provide the core funding needed to get programs off the ground, First Nations could then build out and generate their own revenue and access other funding, she argued.
Courtois said Canada has a responsibility to support Indigenous protected areas since it has made international climate and conservation commitments, including protecting 30 per cent of lands and waters by 2030 — a commitment that will be in the spotlight this December when Canada hosts a UN conference on biodiversity.
If Canada did finance the ambitions of First Nations, the country would “far surpass any country globally, both in conservation achievements and the role of Indigenous Peoples within those conservation achievements,” she said.
“We’re kicking ass when it comes to conservation.”
The return on investment has been proven — a 2016 study looking at the Lutsel K’e Ni Hat’ni Dene and the Dehcho K’ehodi guardians programs in the Northwest Territories found that every dollar invested generated $2.50 in social, cultural, economic and environmental value. A 2017 study of the Coastal Guardians Watchmen programs found that every dollar invested generated $10 in returns.
John Bones, advisor to the Mamalilikulla First Nation, said they wanted to minimize the possibility of the government controlling the agenda when they first began planning the protected area.
“We were not going to take the usual approach of saying, ‘We want to do this and we need you to give us money so we can do it,’ ” he said.
Instead, they sought funding from Environment Funders Canada’s ocean collaborative to begin business planning, expand the Mamalilikulla Guardian Program that stewards the territory and build an IPCA framework first.
Shortly before the nation declared the IPCA, in December 2021, the B.C. government began discussions about collaboration, but the nation had no luck getting the federal government to the table. Now, almost a year after the declaration and after lots of pushing, the federal government has begun tentative talks with the nation as well. The province and the nation signed a letter of intent to work together on collaborative management, but no formal agreement has been made with either level of government yet.
The province still provided funding to the nation after they began their discussions, and the nation has applied for further funding from Fisheries and Oceans Canada to support their monitoring.
From there, they plan to apply for more third-party funding and find ways to generate their own revenue. They are exploring ideas like ecotourism and a permit system for companies and individuals operating on their land.
Sarah Fraser, an assistant deputy minister of B.C.’s ministry of forests, attended the celebratory event in May.
“I’d like to really applaud the nation for taking this very bold initiative,” she said at the time. She didn’t use the term Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area, but instead referenced the letter of intent signed by the nation and the province to work together.
“I support the Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala collaborative management project and look forward to seeing that work in progress,” she said.
In an emailed statement, Fisheries and Oceans Canada told The Narwhal the federal government “will continue to consult with the Mamalilikulla Nation and any impacted groups on potential protections within the Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala site.”
The department pointed out it has policies in place to mitigate fishing impacts on sensitive areas of the ocean floor, and that it has been working with First Nations including Mamalilikulla to develop a Marine Protected Area Network that would include the corals in the Hoeya Sill. This network has been in development since 2020, and the First Nation would like to see interim protections while the network is developed.
In the emailed statement, the department said it is working with partners to advance “Indigenous-led area-based conservation” in marine areas and considering how IPCAs “might play a role in supporting mutual conservation objectives.”
In Mamalilikulla territory, challenges range from plummeting salmon returns to landslides taking place on destabilized slopes damaged from logging — all long-term impacts of extractive industries. That’s why Powell wants the Mamalilikulla to reclaim stewardship of the area.
“It’s evident we can’t count on the government to protect our best interests,” he said. “Government protects industry.”
Powell said the nation wouldn’t stop all industry in the territory, but would ensure it is done more sustainably in accordance with Aweenak’ola, their law “to protect, to house, to feed and to defend all those from the lands, seas, skies and the sacred stories that connect us to them all.”
There is no time to waste because rare coral gardens, found nowhere in the world except the coast between Alaska and California, continue to be damaged by fisheries, Powell said. Knight Inlet is home to rare shallow corals that are typically found in deeper waters, such as primnoa pacifica, a soft and fleshy coral that can reach more than three metres in height. Corals and sea sponges filter ocean water and provide homes for crabs, rockfish, sea spiders and other sea life.
The Mamalilikulla First Nation appealed to the commercial prawn fishing sectors to voluntarily avoid the coral gardens in the IPCA this year, and some agreed. Bones remains hopeful the fishing sectors will be willing to talk to them about future fishing seasons.
Since Fisheries and Oceans Canada controls fisheries, Bones said the department’s willingness to come to the table or not is significant.
He said he heard from the prawn fishing sector “if there’s something that’s really worth protecting, they want to protect it too.”
Powell said they will continue to build the IPCA whether the government hops on board or not. The nation has heard it will take many months or even years to get some permits and protections in place, according to Powell.
“We have to sometimes stand by our guns and just say ‘no, that’s not good enough,’ ” he said. “Two years from now is not good enough. Who knows what state those corals are going to be in?”
The longer they wait to restore and protect the area, the greater chance it will pass a tipping point beyond repair, Powell said. The coral may disappear, the salmon may disappear, causing dependent species like grizzlies to suffer — a possibility he doesn’t want to imagine.
All of the ecological issues the Mamalilikulla are trying to fix in the new protected area are connected, Powell explained. Landslides caused by logging have smothered salmon-bearing streams. Since salmon numbers are low, grizzlies are starving. Since grizzlies aren’t catching salmon, the nutrients of salmon carcasses aren’t nourishing the forest and forest dwellers. This, in turn, impacts people’s health.
“The connection to the land, sea and sky into the supernatural ones was what kept our people healthy,” he said.
That’s why it was so important for Powell to bring people to the territory in May.
It was Mamalilikulla citizen Mae Flanders’ first time going to Gwaxdlala and Nalaxdlala, and she was one of the first people to dance there in a century. She felt “the love and the warmth” even in the cold.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “It’s just so important for our people to get reconnected … We need our traditional learnings and teachings back.”
Another dancer, Carolyn Dawson, said it was her first time at Gwaxdlala/Nalaxdlala as well. She also joined a 2019 trip organized by the band office to ‘Mimkwa̱mlis and said both experiences were profound.
“Our people have been lost for a long time because we don’t have our home,” she said. “It’s nice that we’re actually able to put our feet down to where our ancestors once did.”
“I felt like I was connecting with all our ancestors.”
Mamalilikulla Hereditary Chief Nah Kah Pun Kyim, or Amos Dawson, said it was his first time visiting the area.
“I’m going to come back here,” he said with a big smile. He hopes to see cultural camps for youth take place in the protected area.
Chief Robert Joseph, ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, hosted the May event. Joseph’s ancestral name is Kwankwanxwaligedzi-wakas and he is a hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation of the Kwakwaka’wakw, and he is a Kwak̓wala speaker. The Mamalilikulla are also Kwakwaka’wakw. Joseph said it was “profound” to witness the Mamalilikulla return to their land. He waited for a bowl of hot soup, wearing one of the bright rain ponchos Powell had provided.
“It’s really inspirational, even with this heavy rain, the idea that we’re starting — at this point in our history — to come back home in a real way,” he said.
“It’s all about — always has been about — home.”
Andrew Puglas Jr. attended the event in May with his family, holding his son Gregory up to the window to let him watch the islands go by.
“I’m just happy to bring my son with me, show him this is where we’re from,” he said.
At the same time, the damage to the territory weighed heavily on him. He said he walked every creek in Knight Inlet as a guardian almost 10 years ago, and would see no fish. Like many other nations, he said the Mamalilikulla haven’t had access to salmon for years because of low returns, and he fears prawn and crab will go the same way. He wants to see the Mamalilikulla take the lead on protecting more land and water.
“The environment is ruined, right from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the mountains,” he said. “We’ve got to protect our territory.”
Powell said both the land and the people need time to heal from the trauma inflicted on them, but he sees it happening before his eyes.
“It took a long time to get here, it’s going to take a long time to heal,” he said. “I look forward to the day where everybody is healthy. I’m planning to live to be about 150 so I hope I see it,” he said with a big smile.
And when that time comes in another century or so, Powell said he’ll return to ‘Mimkwa̱mlis once more.
“It’s where I intend to lay in my last days.”
Updated Oct. 25, 2022 at 10:50 a.m., PT: A previous version of this story stated that Indian Agent William Halliday did not allocate Mamalilikulla a reserve. This story has been updated to clarify that it was a federal-provincial commission that did not allocate Mamalilikulla’s central village sites as reserves, acting on Halliday’s recommendations.
Updated Oct. 28, 2022 at 2:36 p.m. PT: A previous version of this story stated Valérie Courtois told The Narwhal there are half a billion square kilometres in proposed protected areas by Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Courtois confirmed there are half a million, not billion, and the story has been corrected.