The diversity that makes coastal British Columbia so intriguing to so many also makes it so difficult to manage sustainably. With 40,000 islands ranging from rocky outcrops to demi-continental monoliths and spanning over 25,000 kilometers of shoreline, keeping a finger on this multiplicity of landscapes can feel akin to dipping your toes into the Strait of Georgia to determine the water temperature of Haida Gwaii.
Thankfully this diversity is present not just in the land but also in the communities who care for and depend on it for their wellbeing. Over 70 First Nations have traditional territory in these waters and have served as stewards over them since time immemorial.
Recognizing the need to work together to ensure the success of various marine sustainability plans, a handful of First Nations from the Central Coast to Haida Gwaii joined together in 2005 to create the Coastal Guardian Watchmen program. The Haida Gwaii Watchmen protect their lands and waters according to the traditional laws of their Nation. This work brought forth, in part, the rise of the Guardian Program across BC and Canada. Through this partnership of Nations, they’ve been able to develop collective systems for data gathering and standardized training programs which have since facilitated the growth of similar programs farther south. One business study commissioned by Coastal First Nations found that for every dollar Indigenous communities invested in Guardian programs resulted in tenfold value.
Whereas Parks Canada and BC Parks are constrained by vast areas and limited funding, First Nations’ Guardians have been able to focus on issues affecting their territory and community, all the while collecting data needed to inform landscape conservation strategies such as the Marine Area Partnership Planning. The federal government, recognizing the critical role of Indigenous Peoples as stewards of their territory, committed $25 million in 2017 to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Guardian programs across Canada. According to Chief Richard Sumner of the Mamalilikulla, their Guardians have been integral in everything from monitoring sensitive ecosystems such as eelgrass, to surveying clam beds and recording sea level temperatures.
We at BC Marine Trails are actively working to do all that we can to ensure that future generations can paddle the same waterways we’ve come to know and love, but we also understand that our efforts are part of a much larger effort. We will continue to do all that we can to support and work with First Nations Guardians throughout the coast to ensure sustainable and thoughtful stewardship of these waters.
This work has been made possible by the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., who has played a key role in funding our efforts to establish collaborative stewardship with First Nations.
 Sebert, L.M., and M. R. Munro. 1972. Dimensions and Areas of Maps of the National Topographic System of Canada. Technical Report 72-1. Ottawa: Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, Surveys and Mapping Branch.
Liam Ragan is the First Nations liaison for BC Marine Trails.