Learning Exchange: Nuxalk and Arctic Bay Guardians

In one of the world’s largest temperate rainforests, Nuxalk territory features lush coastal forests, towering peaks, and rushing rivers, inlets and bays that are home to an abundance of life. Far to the northeast, deep within the Arctic Circle, sits Arctic Bay, Nunavut, a treeless landscape of wind-carved snow and ice—home to roaming polar bears and caribou, plus narwhal and Arctic char.

Although these regions are vastly different, and separated by a vast distance, the communities they support both have teams of Indigenous Guardians who monitor, protect and restore the cultural and natural resources of their territories.

So, when the opportunity arose for a learning exchange between their respective stewardship programs, both the Nuxalk Guardian Watchmen and Arctic Bay Guardians jumped at the chance to visit each other’s communities, share stories and learn from their unique circumstances. Funded by Tides Canada, the learning exchange was an excellent way to make new connections while building on the successes of each Guardian program in the process.

“Our programs are very unique, but there are many similarities as well,” says Nuxalk Guardian Watchmen manager Ernie Tallio. “Both teams work out on the land and water, and deal with search and rescue, as well as monitoring and maintaining cultural sites.” Along with Elodie Button, training coordinator for CFN’s Coastal Stewardship Network (CSN), Tallio travelled to Arctic Bay last May—with winter still holding an icy grip on the village, and the year’s first day of 24-hour sunlight about to begin.

“We travelled to many fiords on snowmobile and to an inland lake to go fishing for char,” says Tallio, adding that a big part of the Arctic Bay Guardians’ role is harvesting seal, narwhal, char and caribou to put in the community freezer. “People up there are so resilient, and they depend on the land so much,” he says. “They deal with months of darkness, so when the sun is out all day, they work as much as possible to harvest for the winter.”

Although it was an exhausting trip, Tallio said it was worth every moment. And several months later, he and the Nuxalk community got a chance to return the favour by hosting the Arctic Bay Guardians. Joined by members of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and other representatives from Inuit communities, the Guardians made the long trip down to the relatively balmy Bella Coola Valley in early October.

“We thought they’d be tired after their trip, but they were ready to go as soon as they got here,” says Tallio. The Nuxalk team gave the visiting Guardians an overview of monitoring work along coastal waterways and inland river systems, then took them to see local hotsprings, a massive cedar tree and other sacred cultural sites. “We also brought them fishing for salmon and crab, and even had time to conduct a joint radio interview on Nuxalk Radio near the end of the trip,” he says, adding that it was great to hear the visitors’ insights about their culture and language, Inuktitut.

Each trip featured packed agendas and a full slate of activities, and the Guardians gained knowledge about each other’s territories, and the cultural and ecological uniqueness that underlie their stewardship efforts. During the Bella Coola trip, for example, CSN Program Manager Lara Hoshizaki presented on the importance of regional stewardship, highlighting Nuxalk’s inclusion within the Coastal Guardian Watchmen. “Guardian programs along this coast have many shared goals and they see many benefits to working together,” she said, pointing to the Regional Monitoring System as one key example. “That same regional focus is in place throughout the north, too, where the Arctic Bay Guardians are just one of several Guardian programs. We had representation from all three coasts in the room for those discussions, which was amazing to see.”

Tallio says the Guardians learned about important strategies that could help them do their jobs more effectively, which could easily be replicated across different landscapes and programs. And he believes the cultural sharing and learning was invaluable. “There’s no doubt we’ll stay in touch,” he says. “We hope to get other Nuxalk Guardians up to Arctic Bay one day as well. These exchanges make a huge positive difference.”