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Haida Gwaii by Kathleen McKinnell

First Nations and the BC Marine Trails

Updated October 22, 2023

The success of our marine trail network development along the coast depends on respectful engagements with First Nations guided by our First Nations liaison, the First Nations Engagement Committee (FNEC), a strong environmental Code of Conduct for visitors, and of course, the actual trail development work and maintenance through the Stewardship Program.

When we first began our engagements with First Nations communities along the BC coast, we had no templates or guidelines to direct our organization. We understood coastal peoples as the first users of marine trails, often using the same pristine sites. As paddlers and recreationists, we needed to recognize the importance of these sites to each Nation. We needed to bring together a successful program.

From 2009 to 2016/17, the BC Marine Trails (BCMT) strongly pursued recreation sites. The provincial Recreation Sites and Trails BC and the BCMT organization both thought this was a reasonable process to create a network of marine trails. It established the Sea to Sky Marine Trail and sites within the Discovery Islands, for example. While we respectfully engaged Nations during this period, our engagement was sporadic at best and aboriginal rights not fully understood. 

Creating recreation sites can be a slow, tedious process requiring partnership agreements, organizational overview, funding, infrastructure, insurance, and maintenance. Formal sites do have their place. Some sites do need to be managed, especially when overused.

Around 2018, BCMT leaders decided to properly engage coastal Nations and discuss with them the future use of sites. Concurrently, we knew the organization needed stronger environmental guidelines to complement our trail building and First Nations engagement process. The Marine Trail Code of Conduct took about three years to research, discuss, and write and acts as the visitor guidelines for paddlers and others visiting traditional territories.

In 2018/19, with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., we formed the First Nations Working Group (FNWG), which would report to and advise the BCMT Board. Shortly after we hired our First Nations liaison.

Led by its chair Norman Marcy, the FNWG created a guidebook to provide advice around: a) background and legal context; b) a general approach and a “back to the basics” methodology and system when making contact; and c) specific and situational approaches based on BCMT priorities. In 2021, the Indigenous consultants Zakary Myers and Morris Prosser of Golo Sah Consulting helped us review and improve our guidebook and reflect on our overall strategy. Our guidebook followed their recommendations. In 2022, the FNWG became a committee (FNEC).

a) Background and Legal Context

In the fall of 2019, we hired a First Nations liaison through a Real Estate of BC Foundation grant. The liaison spent the initial months of the grant researching coastal Nations’ history and building a BCMT First Nations database, as well as developing a six-step engagement process. At the same time, we identified specific sites within respective First Nations’ traditional territories.

We also needed a better understanding of the legal structure that has evolved over the last decade(s) in BC and Canada including the difference between Crown Land and Aboriginal Title. As a non-profit working in the context of obligations between the Provincial Crown and the First Nations in whose territories the Crown is trying to make a land or resource decision can be described as difficult.

Quatsino guardian vessel at Drake Island
Quatsino Guardian boat

Crown Land and Aboriginal Title

“The Crown doesn’t recognize Aboriginal title unless it’s been recognized in court. First Nations don’t always recognize the term Crown land. For both parties the recognition of the others’ interest is perceived to be a diminution of their asserted rights” (BCMT guidebook, 2021). 

Fourteen treaties were signed on Vancouver Island before 1871 – the BCMT works with some Nations in this legal context – but it wasn’t for another hundred years that Canada’s aboriginal peoples could pursue aboriginal rights in the Supreme Court of Canada. “With the exception of Treaty 8 and negotiations with the Nisga’a Nation, most First Nations had to wait until 1993 to pursue their aboriginal rights through the BC treaty negotiations process” (BCMT guidebook).

Some Nations, such as the Tla’amin defined Aboriginal title lands through a modern treaty. Treaties give more certainty. While all First Nations have affirmed Aboriginal title under the Canadian constitution (Section 35), there is some uncertainty about how and where those rights apply. 

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the  Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007.  Officially endorsed by the Canadian government in 2016, UNDRIP passed into law in BC in November 2019 . Importantly, under Article 32, Indigenous Peoples have the right to determine priorities and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources.

Our BC (and Canadian) government has not fully worked out how UNDRIP will affect crown relationships and consultations, however, First Nations expect government to live up to free, prior and informed consent. The BC Marine Trails sits in the middle of this. Without a clear roadmap from both federal and provincial governments, and their respective ministries, it’s difficult for a non-profit to find its own roadmap – the partial purpose of our guidebook and engagement program. 

b) Back to the basics

Why engage with a particular Nation? Do we need help from the government at times? 

We certainly begin by acknowledging a Nation’s interests and use of lands and waters. We may be seeking help for a Marine Trail (Cape Scott) or specific sites on a trail (that is, pullouts on either side of Quatsino Narrows). We provide data based on a traditional territory. In some instances, sites are removed from our map to protect archaeological or historical locations.

Our Marine Trail Code of Conduct is a type of visitor guideline which recognizes traditional lands and the importance of stewardship and conservation. Our Code sits front and centre on our map and website. It’s important that recreationists respect a territory as part of an engagement process.

Safety is another pillar of our organization. In our negotiations of a protocol or agreement, the emphasis on marine traveler safety becomes important. 

Our guiding principles encompass working proactively with Aboriginal Peoples to build mutually beneficial relationships based on a shared understanding of our respective rights and interests. We respect existing and asserted Aboriginal treaty rights. We respect communities’ assertions regarding their traditional territories. We also want to emphasize early and timely discussions with local Aboriginal communities.

In 2018/19 we went back to the basics. Like most organizations we had to establish our guiding principles and follow some key rules about being consistent, ‘do what you say you will do’, and adapt and look for synergies that emerge during engagement. As we move into 2022, we can apply our general approach and guiding principles to assist with specific and situational approaches.

c) Specific and Situational Approaches

In 2020/2021 we worked with nearly 30 First Nations groups. We did reach some agreements; we are still in the process of reaching additional agreements, or we simply could not get started on a process of engagement for a variety of reasons. Each engagement is specific and depends on the unique situation of priority issues. 

The Cape Scott Marine Trail (CSMT) and North Brooks Extension history started in 2011 with the announcement of the West Coast Vancouver Island North trail. The name was later changed to CSMT. Some archaeological work was conducted in 2014/15 with an attempt to establish recreation sites in Quatsino Sound (the current BC minister does not want to establish more recreation sites at this time (2022)). Important contacts were made with people of the Quatsino Nation. In 2021 we worked on the same 3 rec sites with the Quatsino Guardians and surveyed additional sites for safety on the CSMT. At least one important site was removed from our map to protect an archaeologically significant location. 

2023 – 2025

Fortunately, we received funding in mid-2023 to increase our First Nations principal liaison to full time with support from a communications officer for half time work helping to support engagement. Our goal will be eventually engage 74+ Nations along the BC coast. Our program through and beyond 2025 will be built upon principles of respect, cultural preservation, upholding Indigenous rights and title and building safe and contiguous trails.

In late 2022 we began engagement with the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations on the west coast of Vancouver Island. We are knowledge sharing key resources curated from the paddler community.

Paddlers visiting BCMT’s map can access up to date information to plan trips and research new places to explore. As a key resource within the kayaking community, this map holds the power to direct recreational traffic to specific areas of the coast. “Through a data review process with First Nations, we can ensure that the live data displayed on our maps accurately reflects Nation’s management directions. By closing or removing sites from our public facing layers, we can divert paddlers away from sensitive sites and towards sites with appropriate considerations in place. Going through this process upholds Indigenous rights to decision making over their lands and waters as per the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” (2023 – 2025 BCMT paper on First Nations engagement).


Paul Grey

Paul has been a kayaker for over twenty years and has paddled a number of locations around Vancouver Island, Thailand and Hawaii. He has his Paddle Canada I and II and level 1 kayak guide training and certification. He has worked for the BC Marine Trails as a volunteer for approximately ten years in a number of capacities including being the president of the association. He is also the co-author of Easykayaker: A guide to laid-back paddling and Kayaking Vancouver Island. Paul is a fourth generation islander with his roots in the Nanaimo-Extension area. He also enjoys hiking, traveling and reading. He has received awards in 1993 and 1996 from the Prime Minister of Canada for his work in education; Paul is a recipient of a Royal Bank of Canada fellowship to Queen's University.