Support for Indigenous Guardians can be the key to meaningful reconciliation

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Frank Brown is a Heiltsuk hereditary chief, senior adviser to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative and a professor in resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University. Calvin Sandborn is the legal director of the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre. They collaborated on a recent report, The Case for a Guardian Network Initiative, for the BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council.

A powerful reconciliation opportunity is within reach for any government in Canada that has the vision to grasp it. That opportunity can produce vast net positives for Canadians: wildfire-risk mitigation, environmental and cultural protection, the building of healthier Indigenous communities and job creation. That work is even happening right now – it just needs our support.

Indigenous Guardian programs have quietly become an essential part of our environmental fabric. Guardians patrol their territorial lands and waters, enforce environmental laws by reporting violators and educating the public, and watch for issues such as overfishing, poaching, illegal logging, damage to cultural sites and pollution. For example, on the coast of British Columbia, Heiltsuk Guardian boats monitor fisheries; Kitasoo/Xai’xais Guardians fend off grizzly poachers; and Haida Watchmen halt souvenir collection at their World Heritage Site. In the Interior, meanwhile, Tsilhqot’in Rangers regulate wild-mushroom harvesting, while northern Guardians protect endangered caribou from both industry and predators. And in Alberta, Mikisew Cree Guardians patrol the oil sands, while Athabasca Chipewyan Guardians watch over the RVs and mining activities that imperil Canada’s wood bison populations.

Guardians bolster their communities. By documenting trends in fish and wildlife populations, stream flows, water quality and forest health, Guardians collect information Nations need to make informed decisions on development and land use planning. Guardians provide Indigenous youth with jobs in their own homeland, as well as training in law enforcement, biology, computer skills, GPS, boat and ATV mechanics and archeology, contributing significantly to a sense of community self-governance, well-being and pride.

By safeguarding and managing traditional food harvesting sites, they improve community nutrition by enhancing access to country foods and medicinal plants. And such programs can dramatically enhance local tourism industries, as has been seen in Australia, where its equivalent Indigenous ranger programs have been flourishing since 2007. In B.C., Nuu-chah-nulth Guardians who already maintain the West Coast Trail and rescue hikers also introduce tourists to culture; Coastal First Nations Guardians give advice and insight to visiting boaters; and Kitasoo Guardians are building a vibrant bear-viewing industry as an alternative to the trophy hunt.

And with the devastating fires in the Western U.S. still top of mind, Indigenous-prescribed forest burning offers a way forward, creating more biodiverse, fire-resistant and resilient forests. Australia’s Indigenous rangers use traditional planned burning to prevent runaway wildfires and enhance wildlife – an ancient strategy that Indigenous stewards in B.C. are reviving to reduce fire risk and restore bison and elk. Indeed, in March, Australia committed more than $650-million to Indigenous rangers, with Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt calling them “instrumental in protecting Australia’s environment and heritage assets.”

Recent UN and Scientific American studies confirm that such traditional management of natural resources has proved extraordinarily effective, especially when Guardians combine Western science (GPS and computers) with the wisdom of traditional laws. For example, careful monitoring of fish and wildlife populations has maintained species over time; herring spawn-on-kelp fisheries are more sustainable than the industrial kill fishery; and traditional clam gardening is an enviable model of sustainability. It’s efficient, too: Cost-benefit analyses have shown a return on investment of $2.50 or more for each dollar invested in Guardian programs.

Guardians are central to the renaissance and application of such traditional resource management – not to mention the preservation of such efforts. Guardian work inherently builds connections between knowledge-keeper elders and youth, building relationships and passing on traditional ecological information in a way that strengthens communities.

Significantly, Guardians can also help provide certainty to resource industries. Guardian-gathered ecological information can assist First Nations in providing the legally required “informed consent” to proposed development by helping communities distinguish between a beneficial development and a bad one. In doing so, they lay the groundwork for an equal, reconciliation-oriented economic relationship that is needed for long-term Canadian prosperity and stability.

Guardians can also be part of some of the big, necessary projects to come, such as remediating the damage caused by resource extraction. Across B.C., there are 1,200 old mines, 10,000 non-operating oil and gas wells and countless degraded streams and forests. Who better to fix this damage than the original landowners?

Australia has proved there is great sense in expanding the current investment in Indigenous Guardian programs. Governments in B.C. and Ottawa would be wise to do so, enabling Indigenous communities – and all Canadians – to reap the enormous benefits.

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