Indigenous guardians

Scroll down to continue

Indigenous guardians: Metlakatla elder Franny Nelson (purple jacket) and course facilitators Elodie Button (blue jacket) and Shelly Cooper (back with glasses), pose for a photo after a two-hour hike through Metlakatla territory on April 8, 2019. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

To care, you must be connected

Twenty-four-year-old Jonas Prevost doesn’t own a cellphone. He has some social media accounts, but says he doesn't use them, and he spends most of his time in the forests on Haida Gwaii.

He said if someone wants to get hold of him, they’ll have to just walk to his house in the village, see if his truck is in the driveway and knock on the door.

Prevost lives in Masset, one of two Haida communities on Haida Gwaii, located 100 kilometers west of the northern coast of British Columbia. About 800 people live in Masset.

Haida Gwaii is an isolated group of more than 200 islands, with a total landmass of about 10,000 square kilometres.

The Haida people have lived here for at least 14,000 years — probably longer.

Prevost works for the Council of the Haida Nation, doing "cultural feature identification surveys," far from cell service, looking for medicinal plants, old village sites, canoe runs and collecting data, providing further evidence that his people have always been out on their territories, using “every last bit of it.”

“I don’t use Instagram, Facebook or all those things people have that make them stare at a screen for hours a day. Every day, I’m in the forest. We start our day with a coffee and safety briefing, then we’re out the door and don’t come back to the cabin till the day is done,” Prevost told National Observer in April.

“Everything you need is on your back. You can’t Google anything out there. If something goes wrong, you need to have the skills, self-reliance and confidence to be OK.”

Prevost is also an Indigenous guardian, which means he's one of a number of people who monitor, survey, preserve and protect their homelands, upholding the stewardship responsibilities of their nation, and the governing structures that exist within their nation. While Canadians may be more familiar with the role of a park ranger or conservation officer, guardians are first and foremost accountable to their governing structures, ones that have mostly effectively managed and preserved lands and waters for thousands of years.

Indigenous guardians are on the front lines of a battle between unfettered development and sustainability. They strive to reconcile the differences between their own Indigenous laws, values and associated responsibilities, and the policies and practices of settler societies.

Prevost spoke to National Observer in Prince Rupert after he had just completed a four-day workshop consisting of classes about strengthening stewardship and the application of Indigenous laws. The classes were designed specifically for technicians who had graduated from a training program.

Chapter 1

Eyes of the land

Scroll down to continue

Patrick Johnson, an Indigenous guardian from the Wuikinuxv nation in Rivers Inlet, has spent his entire life in his territories, minus the years he was taken to residential school. Johnson said the course, and the family he met, helped him heal and return to his homelands, work and family in a better way. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Family of guardians

Prevost travelled from Haida Gwaii to Prince Rupert, situated on the traditional territory of the Tsimshian nations, located on the northwest coast of British Columbia. The course was offered to Indigenous guardians who had graduated from the First Nations Stewardship Technician Training Program, a two-year program by Vancouver Island University and Coastal First Nations. Three cohorts have graduated from the training program since its 2017 inception.

Graduates of the first two cohorts were welcomed back for an intensive workshop, focusing less on technical skills and more on how Indigenous laws govern stewardship practices. The course was facilitated by Heiltsuk elder and knowledge keeper Hilistis Pauline Waterfall, with the support of Jana Kotaska from the Coastal Stewardship Network, Elodie Button from Coastal First Nations and Sheila Cooper from Vancouver Island University.

Law is defined in a Western sense, as a system of rules which a community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and which may be enforced through penalties. As a former colony of Britain, Canada inherited parts of the monarchy, but established its own constitution after Confederation in 1867.

Canada developed the Constitution based on French and British systems that attempted to assimilate people and create new colonies to expand their empires.

Ultimately, Canada committed cultural genocide through its policies, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the history of Canada's residential schools.

Over the years, Canada tried to stamp out Indigenous peoples’ way of life, cultures and legal systems by making entire governing systems illegal, like the potlatch system in the northwest, banned on the west coast until 1953. Canada declared potlatching, which authors of an amendment to the Indian Act, 1880 called an "Indian festival," illegal, perpetrators "guilty of a misdemeanor, liable to imprisonment." Even Indians encouraging the "festival or dance" were guilty of an offence.

This wiped out much of what existed thousands of years before Canada was created, when Indigenous legal systems dominated the land. The nations spread across what is now known as British Columbia have protected and managed territories' lands, waters and ecosystems for millennia. Sophisticated legal systems, different yet tethered to a profound understanding of "natural law," have governed peoples’ relationships to place, guided behaviour and helped resolve conflict for just as long.

Bob Joseph, founder and president of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., writes that potlatch ceremonies, depending on the culture, could be held to pass on a name, title and responsibilities, to distribute wealth, establish rank, mark the passing of a chieftainship or head of a house, celebrate weddings, births and other orders of business.

"The government and missionaries viewed potlatch ceremonies as excessive, wasteful and barriers to assimilation," Joseph, who has been providing training on Indigenous relations since 1994, wrote in a post from 2012. Sundances, law lodges and other forms of ceremony were made illegal across the Prairies and beyond as well, Indigenous legal traditions a threat to Canada's colonial agenda. But the strength of the spirit of those tethered to these lands for tens of thousands of years could not be wiped away so easily. Potlatches went underground, medicine and knowledge bundles hidden, languages preserved for the ones breathing life into them today.

Indigenous laws are alive and well.

In the province of B.C., programs like the RELAW program (Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air and Water), supported by West Coast Environmental Law, support community efforts to revitalize Indigenous laws. And last year, the University of Victoria launched an Indigenous law degree, the first of its kind, training students to work with and across multiple legal systems.

The students who travelled to Tsimshian territory, way north in the heart of their shared Great Bear Rainforest, spoke about their nations' laws, and the ways they are taught and enacted through ceremonies, traditions and stories.

The workshop was offered to the class, each working in monitoring, surveying, conservation work in their communities, as follow-through from their facilitator's commitment to bring the group back together again, a direct counter against the trauma of educational abandonment created through Canada’s residential school system.

Waterfall, the Heiltsuk elder, spoke with the students about her years in a residential school and how this affected her ancestral memory, Heiltsuk worldview and thought patterns. She encouraged the students to strengthen their ancestral memories, to challenge their colonial ways of thinking and to think from their hearts, not their minds.

Most of the graduates of the technician training program agreed to attend the Indigenous Laws and Stewardship course, travelling from Rivers Inlet, Bella Bella, Bella Coola, Klemtu, Haida Gwaii and beyond to further their learning and reunite with their “family away from family,” who share a sacred responsibility to protect their homelands for future generations.

“We’re family. We can be who we are around each other,” Prevost said as the students cleaned up the classroom, embraced one another, made final dinner plans and prepared to head home after four days. “We’re comfortable, we’re confident. We’re all in this together, in our own lands, doing this work for the same reasons. We’re all out there to protect.”

Prevost sat outside the Museum of Northern B.C. Longhouse on a sunny afternoon in the typically rainy port city. He had tears in his eyes, realizing that he wasn’t sure when he would see this group of guardians all together like that again. The course was more than just an opportunity for professional development, he told National Observer.

Over the four days, deep-belly laughter, stories, teachings and tears were shared. The group spoke about their families, communities and personal struggles, as well as their teachings, laws and visions for the future. Students were welcome to show up to the class carrying whatever life had presented them with, no matter how heavy or light, and the group worked together to create a space of love, healing, strength and support.

It is not an easy task, to be an Indigenous guardian in a country still grappling to understand the deadly consequences of unfettered development, let alone the value of Indigenous cultures, legal systems and worldviews. It is not an easy task to be labelled as “the eyes and ears of the land,” yet face opposition when trying to enforce environmental regulations, fishing and hunting restrictions and to protect the lands, waters and animals from the ongoing threat of industries focused on profit.

The group came together, not only to further their learning on how their own Indigenous laws shape their work as stewards, but to seek strength from one another before returning home more fully equipped for the daunting tasks ahead.

Chapter 2

Assertion of Indigenous law

Scroll down to continue

Heiltsuk elected chief councillor Marilyn Slett and hereditary chief λáλíyasila Frank Brown hold their notice of civil claim and adjudication report at a news conference on Oct. 10, 2010. Photo by Michael Ruffolo

Inherited responsibilities

Over the course of four days, the students heard from various guest speakers working to revitalize their own Indigenous laws. They heard from Christina Gray, a Ts’mysen, Dene and Métis research fellow with the Yellowhead Institute, who's pursuing a master's degree in law at the University of Victoria. She spoke to the students about her work navigating the different systems.

Ross Wilson, Heiltsuk, works as stewardship director for Metlakatla First Nation. He spoke to the class about the nation’s involvement in a sustainable scallop farm, which claims to turn science into profit while upholding Indigenous worldviews around preserving the environment. Coastal Shellfish Corporation grows its own algae in a hatchery to feed the shellfish in a greenhouse before putting them out on the water to grow to market size, attempting to cause as little disruption to the natural environment as possible.

Representatives from the Gitxaala Fisheries and Marine program spoke about the RELAW program, funded through West Coast Environmental Law. Through the program, the nation is creating a harvester’s handbook to guide future harvesting practices, grounded in Gitxaala laws, based on extensive interviews with past and present harvesters in the community.

The students took a boat to Metlakatla First Nation and joined elder Franny Nelson on a traditional plant walk as she shared knowledge on medicinal plant uses, while the students took turns to see who could find CMTs (culturally modified trees — trees culturally used for canoes, totems, house posts and more) fastest.

Waterfall spoke about Heiltsuk laws, known as Ǧviḷás (g-vee-las), and the ways her community is currently asserting traditional laws through a recent court case filed against the government, "on behalf of their nation, the coast and all Canadians." In 2016, over 23,000 litres of diesel poured into Heiltsuk waters, destroying clam beds and significantly disturbing the coast and their people’s way of life. After months of poorly organized government-led response, the nation formed a committee to determine whether Ǧviḷás were breached in the disturbing event, Waterfall explained to the students, and decided to sue Canada.

The committee determined that, without a doubt, its own legal orders were breached by the Kirby Corporation whose tugboat and barge ran aground, and the federal and provincial governments for inadequate responses. While land claims have been considered by many cases in Canadian courts, few directly consider the existence or scope of Aboriginal water rights. This case, which is still before Crown courts, will be precedent-setting for the nation and all First Nations facing similar situations.

"The source of our laws lies beyond the Canadian state, beyond the courts and beyond their legislation. We need to remember that," course facilitator and Heiltsuk knowledge keeper Hilistis Pauline Waterfall said in class April 9, 2019. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Students discussed ways in which their own communities dealt with the violation of legal systems and cultures, with histories of blockades, marches, rallies and court victories. Students also spoke about past and present relationships between each of their nations, through marriages, wars or treaties, like the historic peace treaty made between the Haida and the Heiltsuk to unify the strong communities around a similar vision to protect the coast.

Chapter 3

Future generations

Scroll down to continue

Nicole Morven works with the Nisga'a Fisheres Wildlife Department and said she loves her job, being out on her land and waters, learning something new from the people who live out their love for their lands and waters every day. Photo provided by Morven.

Law of respect

Nicole Morven’s work changes with the seasons.

She comes from the Nisga’a nation, she’s Nisga’a and Hailsa, and has been working for the Nisga’a Fisheries and Wildlife Department for the past 11 years. In the winter, she co-ordinates the harvest monitoring, interviewing hunters about moose, marten, goats and other animals they hunt, tracking animal populations, locations and health conditions.

In the new year, she works with campers harvesting for ooligan, or candlefish, as well as working on the "non-salmon project," which involves monitoring crab, halibut, cockles and clams. She also does juvenile coho weir and salmon catch monitoring, working with four different communities in the region. Morven’s department works with LGL Consultants, an ecological research company, who help with “the science side of it.”

Nisga'a Fisheries Department technician Timothy Angus (left) operated the boat as Nicole Morven and her team, Destinee Clayton (middle) and Peter Taylor Clayton (right) went to check out the hunting grounds and conduct a sea lion study in summer 2018. Photo courtesy of Nicole Morven.

What she loves most about her job is working with her people and learning from their traditional knowledge.

“I love it all. Being out on the land, listening to their stories about how they got to where they are today and how they learned what they learned about hunting and fishing,” Morven said, sitting in her truck on break outside the museum longhouse classroom on April 8. “Some of my co-workers will drive to the water, get out of their truck, hop in the boat and drive the boat to fish… to me, that’s amazing.”

Over the past two to three years, she has noticed big changes in the water, as well as warming salmon temperatures and fish with strange gashes or marks. There hasn’t been a drastic change in numbers, she said, but there definitely has been an impact from a warmer climate.

Jordan Jones is Haida, and works seasonally in the Council of the Haida Nation’s mapping department. He surveys proposed cutblocks, measures the monumental cedars (used for canoes and longhouses), looks for CMT, old village sites, doing “everything he believes in,” he said in an interview after class one day.

In his personal life, Jones is a gatherer for his two kids. He harvests octopus as one of his main incomes throughout the winter. He also harvests razor clams, crabs and halibut. He learned how to get octopus, crabs and dig for razor clams from his chinaay (grandfather), father and other villagers.

“It took me three to four years to get good at harvesting octopus. I do my own technique, not the traditional style,” Jones said. “Octopus are so beautiful. Once you pull them out of the hole, take the sticks out with the hooks, if you watch them, they’ll swim around. If they catch sight of you, they’ll roll into a little ball and turn all different colours. They’re beautiful, amazing creatures.”

Jones said the course reminded him of the importance of passing traditional Haida laws on to the next generation, including his own children.

“We gotta share our laws and culture more with our people and our people have to get back into our traditional knowledge,” Jones said. “I’m 33 years old and of all my friends, I’m the only one that harvests. It breaks my heart because they’re all Haida, and they’re really good people and when they ask me for seafood, I just wish I could teach them to harvest their own.”

Jones says there’s nothing like sharing traditional knowledge with other Indigenous seafarers. He loves hearing what other guys are dealing with in their territory, such as invasive crab species he worries might come up his way.

Roger Harris agrees. He’s with the Nuxalk nation, based in Bella Coola, and works as a coastal guardian watchman for the nation. He does patrols on the land and water, looking for infractions, making sure fishing regulations are respected.

“I protect our territory for the future of my kids,” Harris, who has two young daughters, said in an interview after class one day.

Deborah Parker, from Kitsumkalum, will start working for the fisheries department for her band this summer. She thinks it’s important that Indigenous people do this kind of work, and has herself previously surveyed the marine environment, malls, birds and CMTs.

“I was taught when I was younger that you always respect your elders. Respect is one of our laws. I always felt connected to the land, and I’m so thankful for where I am and where I live,” Parker said. “There’s no way I could live in the city. I need the trees, the rain, the winter. I’m looking forward to protecting our resources.”

Parker said the course, especially learning from Heiltsuk elder and knowledge keeper Waterfall about how the Heiltsuk nation upholds and protects their traditional laws, has inspired her to speak to knowledge keepers in her own community.

Fred Guno also works for Kitsumkalum, in the fish and wildlife department, as a part of its enforcement team. Guno patrols the lands, making sure band members comply with regulations on hunting, fishing and trapping.

“During fishing season, it can get really aggressive out there,” Guno said, taking in a little sunshine on break from class. “This course has helped me learn how to talk to people. Being able to effectively communicate with my fellow band members is very important.”

Guno said his whole community works together to monitor the land as well. If any band members see anything suspicious, like logging companies breaking any rules, they inform his department right away.

“We make sure everyone has permits to be there, and that they’re not destroying the land,” Guno said. “One of our laws is to leave the land the way it was when they arrived. Our resources — our moose, fish, goats, ooligan — they’re important to me. I’d like them to be there for my children and grandchildren.”

Guno said people take advantage of the resources and hunt and fish “just for sport.”

“I’d like to get more guardians, more eyes and ears on the land, including getting our youth involved,” he said.

Alec Willie, known by friends as "Little Willie," grew up in Bella Coola, but works in Wuikinuxv (Rivers Inlet, population around 60 people), as a coastal guardian watchman, also monitoring compliance of environmental law, doing bear studies, crab surveys, bird and seaweed surveys, too.

Little Willie likes to share information on Facebook about native plants in his homelands, taking photos, sharing their name origins and traditional uses. Photo after a rainy Metlkatla hike on the boat back to Prince Rupert on April 8, 2019. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Willie carries a lot of knowledge he learned from the old people in his community and in Wuikinuxv. Willie has the kind of heart the world needs. One class, he showed up with a handful of flowers and handed them out to each classmate. Another night, he took another handful of flowers to a local pub, ready to share them with anyone he met.

Chapter 4

Listen and follow

Scroll down to continue

The Indigenous Laws and Stewardship cohort makes its way through a trail on Metlakatla, taking photos, pointing out CMTs and screaming like kids on a playground. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

So much to learn

Sheila Cooper has worked at Vancouver Island University for 29 years, including the past seven as Indigenous community engagement manager at the Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement.

Upon assuming that role, Cooper started working with Coastal First Nations, which had approached the university’s Resource Management and Protection Program seeking more technical training for Indigenous guardians and watchpeople.

“Bringing these grads back together has been amazing. Students become even more engaged with their culture and land and more passionate about it through the course. They’re budding leaders,” Cooper said as the students cleaned up the classroom at the end of the last class. “They’re going back home more inspired and ready to speak out on behalf of their community.”

When I asked Cooper what she learned while working with the Indigenous students over the past years, she said, “I always get out way more than I put in.”

“I think most non-Indigenous Canadians, which I am, haven’t had the opportunity or haven’t taken the opportunity to explore the wealth of Indigenous cultures and laws within communities,” Cooper said. “Indigenous peoples were rich, vibrant, fully functioning societies prior to contact, and we have so much to learn about the environment from the Indigenous peoples here. For me, I look to the people in this room as they’re paving the way for all Canadians, if we will only take the time to listen and follow.”

Prevost was the last to leave the classroom when the four-day course had come to an end.

It made him sad, he said, to not know whether his friends — who feel more like family — would ever sit in a room together like that again. Prevost said he’s nearly impossible to get a hold of, but he would make it a point to visit the others in their home territories, no matter how long the ferry, boat or car ride, no matter how deep in the bush they were working.

“Only a few generations ago, our great-uncles and great-grandparents were fighting each other, but now we’re fighting the same fight and we’re unified in that,” Prevost said. “Our Indigenous laws are different, but similar in the sense that they’ve been instilled in us for thousands of years and now we’re working to have them recognized in the eyes of the Canadian government.”

Prevost said the course empowered him to enforce Haida laws in his conservation work. He can’t imagine doing anything else. For him, working in his ancestral homelands awakens an instinct in him that he knows comes from those who walked before him.

“Indigenous people have a deep-down memory, an intuition. But it can get jaded, like anyone else, with the distractions of society,” Prevost said. “But like Pauline Waterfall said throughout this week, we need to remember to think with our hearts, not our minds. Our intuitions are deeply rooted and that’s an important part of this work.”

Prevost said he hopes the younger generation feels inspired to learn their own Indigenous laws, to let them intuitively speak through them again, connecting back to the land rather than to the distractions of society.