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Community Well-Being: Guardian Watchmen and Regional Monitoring Programs

Kitasoo/Xai’xais Guardian Watchman Fred Brown on patrol. Photo courtesy Coastal Stewardship Network.

For thousands of years First Nations in Canada have stewarded the resources, land, and water of their territories. In recent decades, First Nations along the central and north coasts of British Columbia have continued this work through the creation of Guardian Watchmen programs to safeguard ecosystems, resources, and cultural sites for current and future generations.

Coast Funds’ conservation endowment fund was created in 2007 to provide resources to operate stewardship programs like the Guardian Watchmen in perpetuity. It has proven to be a hugely successful model for financing First Nations stewardship, exemplified by the important work of the Watchmen programs.

Guardian Watchmen at an annual gathering. Photo courtesy Coastal Stewardship Network.

Through their Coast Funds investments, First Nations have established 17 Guardian Watchmen and regional monitoring programs in the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii. These programs monitor 4.1 million hectares of land and water (as of December 31, 2020), combining traditional stewardship practices with modern science and regional monitoring.

Guardian Watchmen have often been called the “eyes and ears” of their communities. Patrolling the lands and waters of their territories, the men and women of the Guardian programs protect and monitor their Nation’s resources and cultural assets.

According to the Coastal Stewardship Network, a network of Guardian Watchmen practitioners on the central and north coast, Guardian Watchmen “carry forward the work of their ancestors to manage and respect their natural and cultural resources through traditional laws to ensure a vibrant future for generations to come.”

Arnold Clifton, Chief Councillor of the Gitga’at Nation emphasizes the importance of the Guardian work: “It’s now more important than ever to ensure that the traditional use knowledge we possess, as Gitga’at people and as Tsimshian people, is passed on so that future generations can continue to protect our natural resources.”

We aren’t just talking about traditional stewardship, we are living it, strengthening our ability to govern and watch over the territory, and ensuring that our vision for it is alive and well.

Gitga’at Guardian George Fisher with his Nation’s Guardian vessel.

Through Watchmen and other regional monitoring programs, First Nations are able to monitor environmental conditions, including the health of wildlife, track the impact of industrial and recreational uses of the area, and gather data to inform decision-making and policy development.

The Gitga’at Guardians, for example, have collected audio samples to establish an acoustic baseline for their territory. The measurements help indicate ecosystem health and can help track the impacts of industrial activity. That information can be used to guide future decisions.

“We aren’t just talking about traditional stewardship,” says Gitga’at researcher and PhD candidate Spencer Greening. “We are living it, strengthening our ability to govern and watch over the territory, and ensuring that our vision for it is alive and well.”

Watchmen also monitor and encourage compliance with regulatory requirements by users of the area and resources, and assist with the implementation of marine use plans and other resource management initiatives.

In a 2017 interview, Kitasoo/Xai’xais Guardian Chantal Pronteau says she spends her days ensuring fish catches follow regulations and preventing any illegal hunting in her Nation’s territories. Before the program began, she says, hunters, fishers, and tourists “came and went as they pleased.”

Culturally, the Guardian Watchmen programs have a role to play as well. Mamalilikulla Guardians worked with archeologists to identify and asses more than fifty archeological sites in Mamalilikulla territory. Guardian Watchman Darren Puglas says he enjoys safeguarding his Nation’s cultural assets: “We’re working hard to protect those sites from further damage and loss and taking care of them.”

A Guardian Watchman from the Heiltsuk Nation examines herring roe on kelp.

Whether it’s collecting DNA from the genetically unique Spirit Bear, working closely with Elders to pass on traditional knowledge, creating jobs for community members, or protecting species from illegal poaching and over-harvesting, the Guardian programs of the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii play an integral role in strengthening community well-being.

Visit our Project Stories page, the Ha-ma-yas Stewardship Network, or the Coastal Stewardship Network, to learn more about Guardian Watchmen and regional monitoring programs in the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii.