The members of this First Nation in British Columbia, in western Canada, carry out coastal surveillance missions. They make up for the shortcomings of the State in terms of environmental protection. Their role is proving to be vital, and they are gradually gaining ground. This reporter followed them on their patrols.
The boat does not look like much: an aluminum structure, cracked windows, two good engines and a cabin not quite large enough to accommodate three people who are trying to stay away from each other. The slightest ripple makes it rock, and the biggest waves make the hull vibrate.
The craft is certainly no match for the mighty Coast Guard ships [canadienne], which are expensive and are fully crewed. But she’s there, and that’s the most important thing.
Help where needed
The boat is where it is needed, unlike the ships of government agencies, which have neither the capacity nor the human resources to regularly travel each of the indentations of the indented coastline [de cette portion de côte de la Colombie-Britannique]. And he is on the move, covering some 120 kilometers daily, almost every day.
Soon, within a few months, the two young guardians wuikinuxv [du nom de la Première Nation à laquelle ils appartiennent] who are at the helm will have traveled, only by boat, some 2,000 km2 of coast, according to the data they communicated to The Narwhale. Their counterparts in neighboring communities, the Heiltsuk and the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais, will have patrolled across even larger areas, nearly 3,000 and 8,000 km2 respectively.
Crew members are on the front lines of conservation efforts on this stretch of coast. They go out to sea and stay on the lookout for any problems that may arise. They help where needed and collect data, allowing the wuikinuxv First Nation to assert its power over the significant portion of the coast that is part of its territory.
They are not alone. North and south, along the coast, from the southern tip of Vancouver Island to Alaska, Indigenous Guardians are leaving their mark on the traditional territories of their respective nations. The idea has spread inland, and now in Canada there are Guardians in every province and territory. They have come to play a decisive role in the management of national parks, natural resource projects and land rehabilitation, as well as in many other sectors of activity.
Discreet presence of authorities
The Wuikinuxv Nation Coast Guard has been patrolling their marine territory for more than a decade. Adam Nelson and Corey Hanuse, who have been in the business for seven years and a month respectively, say they don’t often see provincial or federal government officials on territorial waters. “In general, we see maybe once a month the people from Fisheries and Oceans Canada [l’agence fédérale chargée des affaires maritimes] or Coast Guard, or conservation officers [des écosystèmes] – maybe twice a month, when they are around”, said Adam Nelson.
In coordination with two 43-meter vessels belonging to the Coast Guard, the Captain Goddard and the Mr Charles, Fisheries and Oceans Canada monitors the coastline to crack down on fishing violations. The agency can also count on a modest network of agents established in the main towns on the coast, such as Prince Rupert, Bella Bella and Bella Coola. These agents have at their disposal Zodiacs with which they can patrol locally.
The Coast Guard has also established a few lifeboat stations along the coast, but none are found in smaller communities like Wuikinuxv. This means that when an emergency occurs there – or in virtually any other small coastal village – the cavalry takes a long, long time to arrive.
The sun was sinking behind the mountains that overlook the narrow valley of Wuikinuxv. Elder George Johnson was returning home [en bateau] after taking a ride up the river [la Wannock River, un petit cours d’eau qui débouche sur le fjord Rivers Inlet, en territoire wuikinuxv]. As he rounded the wharf floating in the current, his lines caught on it. He wanted to grab an ax to free himself, but, before he could do anything, the stern of the boat began to sink into the water and the rest followed.
The man was swept away in the current, floating helplessly in freezing meltwater. He couldn’t wait for the Coast Guard to come to his rescue from Port Hardy, nearly 150 kilometers away. “I was so tired. I was trying to swim, but I felt like I was about to give up”, he says.
He managed to make it back to shore, where first responders joined him and gave him blankets. Adam Nelson believes the story would not have ended the same way if the community had to depend on outside help. “Help would have come too late”, he concludes.
An ancestral function
Before the Creation of Guardian Programs [des Premières Nations]and even before the profession became an option for many Aboriginal peoples across Canada, the office had long been central to the culture of many coastal peoples.
For millennia, the people of Haida Gwaii, a lush archipelago off the north coast of British Columbia, maintained trade and cultural ties with the mainland’s First Nations, with whom they also at times waged war. . It was crucial for them to know what was going on along the coast all the time.
“In each of the villages [de l’archipel]we can find a place from where the guards operated”, explains Guujaaw, a Haida chief and artist. By posting themselves on a promontory offering an unobstructed view of the ocean, the guards saw