Landmark Agreement Appoints Coastal Guardian Watchmen with Provincial Authority

Story by Emilee Gilpin

A first-in-Canada agreement between B.C. and two coastal First Nations recognizes thousands of years of stewardship authority and paves the way for a new management model for coastal protection.

On June 1, 2022, the Kitasoo Xai’xais and Nuxalk Nations signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with BC Parks to launch an unprecedented pilot project that recognizes Coastal Guardian Watchmen with Park Ranger authorities under the Park Act and Ecological Reserve Act.

The MOU was signed by leadership from both the Kitasoo Xai’xais and Nuxalk Nations, as well as the B.C. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman at the Legislature in Victoria.

“Building a strong, secure future requires shared approaches to caring for the land, waters and all the life that depends on healthy ecosystems,” writes Minister Heyman in a press release by the province. “We continue to learn from each other as we take steps on our reconciliation journey. This MOU is another important opportunity to improve the health of our environment and recognizes its critical role in safeguarding our future.”

Kitasoo Xai’xais Chief Councillor Doug Neasloss, Minister Heyman and Nuxalk Chief Samuel Schooner at the MOU signing, June 1, 2022. Photo: Mike Graeme, CFN.
“This is a way to merge Indigenous law with provincial law, our Guardians will carry both authority,” says Doug Neasloss, Chief Councillor and Stewardship Director of the Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation. Photo by Tavish Campbell.

The shared compliance and enforcement pilot project recognizes that First Nations Guardians already assume many responsibilities of BC Parks and BC Parks Rangers, but often lack the authority required to carry out compliance and enforcement activities within parks, conservancies and protected areas within their ancestral territories.

“This has been a long time coming. We’ve been talking about this for over 12 years. It’s a step in the right direction,” says Kitasoo Xai’xais Chief Councillor and Stewardship Director Doug Neasloss. “Our Guardians have the same training as anyone in BC Parks, anyone in DFO, anyone within Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations. We’ve worked super hard for that and it’s good to see recognition.”

‘Lines on a map don’t protect territories, people do’

First Nations are the original stewards of their territories, the eyes and ears of their lands and waters, for thousands of years. The Coastal Guardian Watchmen are the modern version of that ancient tradition, they work together to monitor, protect and restore the cultural and natural resources of their Nations, upholding their Nation’s laws and the traditions passed down for their ancestors.

Coastal Guardians hold a wealth of local knowledge, are first on the scene in emergency situations, and out monitoring and stewarding their territories daily, through every season.

“My community made it clear to me a long time ago that lines on a map don’t protect areas, people do,” Neasloss says. “We monitor everything in our territory — industrial activities, commercial tourism operators, anglers, general public, helicopters and planes that go through, commercial fisheries (crab fisheries, halibut, salmon).”

Chief Samuel Schooner of the Nuxalk Nation says they have worked hard to build a strong relationship with BC Parks, based on trust and mutual respect and the Province’s recognition of Nuxalk’s rightful stewardship role within their territory.

“We are confident that this shared approach to compliance and enforcement will continue to strengthen this relationship and lead to further opportunities for our community,” Chief Schooner writes in a press release by the Ministry.

Ernest Tallio, coordinator of the Nuxalk Coastal Guardian program says this agreement is a “huge step forward.” Tallio says he’s worked with strong allies within BC Parks who have a shared vision on collaborative management moving forward. “We’re always out, we’re always interacting with the public — sports fishers, tourists during bear watching season — but in the last 10-12 years, we’ve had a few instances where we’ve needed some kind of authority for illegal activity,” he says.

The interest in developing a Guardian program stemmed from a lack of government presence in his territory, Tallio says. “For years we didn’t have conservation officers, DFO rarely out in the field, not nearly as much as we are… we’re out monitoring our cultural sites, village sites, passing on knowledge from one generation to the next.”

The Nuxalk and Kitasoo Xai’xais Nations have been monitoring and managing their ancestral territories for thousands of years, upholding ancestral and contemporary Indigenous laws handed down over many generations. Photo by Tavish Campbell. 
Located on the Central Coast within the Great Bear Rainforest, Kitasoo Xai’xais territory is recognized globally for its ancient forests, deep oceans and coastal fjords. Photo by Moonfish Media.

‘We are the model’

While the MOU states that Kitasoo Xai’xais and Nuxalk Guardians will have authority under the Parks Act and Ecological Reserve Act, to be able to write someone a ticket, for example, for illegal activity in their territory, they remain employees of their Nation.

“Our staff are not Parks employees, they remain our employees, but have Parks status,” Neasloss says. “This is a way to merge Indigenous law with provincial law. Our Guardians will carry both authority, Kitasoo Xai’xais law and some of the law under the province.”

The Great Bear Rainforest Agreements protect about 50 per cent of Kitasoo Xai’xais territory, Neasloss explains, “as Parks and Conservancies.” But while these agreements assure protection for half of Kitasoo Xai’xais territory, “Crown agencies are the only entities that really have recognized authority to management and ensure its protection,” he says. “We essentially protected the area, and then turned over the keys to the province to manage, while we can only make recommendations.” Recognition from the province is the latest step after years of time and effort into developing the Guardian program.

Following the signing, the three Parties will establish a technical working group to develop mutually agreed to terms of reference to support the implementation of the Pilot Program. Various policies and procedures will also be collaboratively developed.

The Guiding Principles included in the MOU include advancing reconciliation between Nations and the province, recognizing the need for long-term, sustainable and collaborative arrangements, and incorporating traditional knowledge and Indigenous laws, policies and customs.

Funding attained to implement the MOU will go towards supporting training, development of policies and procedures, and will support Nation participation in discussions and related meetings. Guardians’ wages and all other operational costs remain the responsibility of their respective Nations.

The MOU will remain in effect until March 15, 2023, when an extension will be possible if agreed on by all Parties. Neasloss says he feels the pressure, but is confident that this collaboration is a step in the right direction, for all who care about the wellbeing and sustainability of the coast.

“This new authority allows us to react ASAP if needed, not waiting for someone to come up and do it for us. I want to make sure we deliver a solid program. We are the model on how we can conduct compliance and enforcement to protect these special areas,” Neasloss says. “This could be a powerful tool for many Nations. I’m hoping this gets rolled out to every Nation across the province.”