Globe and Mail: Great Bear Rainforest Provides Residents with a Future

Kitasoo Xai'xais Guardian Watchmen. Photo by Meaghan Hume
The Kitasoo Xai'xais Guardian Watchmen, including Chantal Pronteau paddling at the front. Photo by Meaghan Hume.

By Justine Hunter for The Globe and Mail

 

Chantal Pronteau’s work can take her deep into the bush setting hair snares for grizzlies or leaning over the edge of a research boat surveying rockfish populations.

She grew up in Vancouver’s east side, but her Tsimshian roots brought her to the small reserve at Klemtu to live with her grandmother when she was in Grade 9. At 22, she is now a Guardian in the Great Bear Rainforest, a member of an indigenous force that patrols the region to monitor commercial activity and to gather the scientific data that guides her people’s traditional stewardship role.

She can’t imagine living anywhere else. The agreement signed earlier this year that created the Great Bear Rainforest has helped ensure that she won’t have to.

On Monday, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will visit a First Nations community in the heart of the region, and fly over the emerald expanse of 6.4-million hectares that make up the world’s largest remaining temperate rain forest. They will officially recognize British Columbia’s conservation effort to protect the forest and its wildlife.

Squally Channel on the north coast of British Columbia.
Squally Channel on the north coast of British Columbia. Photo by Brodie Guy.

The Great Bear Rainforest, formally established in legislation, is touted as the “jewel in the crown” of Canada’s protected areas.

For the mostly indigenous residents in the region, there is an important feature that is often overlooked when visitors marvel at the old growth trees and the iconic white Spirit Bears. To secure the approval of First Nations who live in the region, the proponents committed to ensure that the people who live and work in the region would not be marginalized.

“In the city, I was very disengaged from my culture. When I came here, it was difficult at first, but I believe I was meant to live in Klemtu. I’m in love with the nature, the people here. I’m still learning everything,” Ms. Pronteau said in an interview during a break from a Guardian training session.

She said she sees a huge array of career possibilities in her future, from archeologist to nutritionist. “The elders tell me, you never stop learning.”

In the city, I was very disengaged from my culture. When I came here, it was difficult at first, but I believe I was meant to live in Klemtu.

Respect the residents not just the rain forest

Members of <a href="https://coastfunds.ca/first-nations/heiltsuk-nation/">Heiltsuk</a> celebrate a Tribal Canoe Journey. Photo by Darryl Dyck, courtesy of The Canadian Press.
Members of Heiltsuk celebrate a Tribal Canoe Journey. Photo by Darryl Dyck, courtesy of The Canadian Press.

Coast Funds was set up with over $100-million to provide seed money to create employment and promote a conservation-based economy. With that fund as leverage, the First Nations in the region have already generated over $200-million in investment, providing in excess of 600 new jobs in tourism, logging, science and aquaculture.

For example, Ms. Pronteau’s Kitasoo First Nation monitors the Spirit Bear conservancy on Princess Royal Island.

Marilyn Slett is the chief of the Heiltsuk First Nation, who will welcome the Royal couple to Bella Bella on Monday. The Heiltsuk will provide a rich cultural welcome, but what she hopes Prince William will see is how her people are a holistic part of the the Great Bear Rainforest, with a long history of protecting its health.

Our peoples have been here for tens of thousands of years, and it is our responsibility to steward our traditional lands. It’s part of who we are as indigenous people on the coast.

The agreement to protect 85 per cent of the region’s old growth forests needed to respect the residents as part of the fabric, she said. “It is something we have supported because it aligned with our values and objectives. Our peoples have been here for tens of thousands of years, and it is our responsibility to steward our traditional lands,” she said. “It’s part of who we are as indigenous people on the coast.”

As part of the package, she sees youth benefiting from new training and employment opportunities and those opportunities, in turn, are providing a new generation with greater capacity to steward the land.

Deeper roots and more control in Haida Gwaii

Member of the Haida Nation raise a totem pole in Hik'yah (Windy Bay) in 2013. Photo by Jeffery Gibbs.
Member of the Haida Nation raise a totem pole in Hik’yah (Windy Bay) in 2013. Photo by Jeffery Gibbs.

The islands of Haida Gwaii, although not inside the official boundaries of the Great Bear Rainforest, are inextricably linked to the region and the Haida Nation is part of the governing council that guides land use planning and policy. The Haida have accessed Coast Funds to buy logging rights, a seafood-processing plant and to buy out licenses to shut down the bear-hunting industry.

Leslie Brown was born and raised on Haida Gwaii, but lived in Vancouver for 12 years. She returned 10 years ago with her newborn son and no plan for her future. But she no longer had to search out her culture. With the safety net of her family surrounding her, she has built a new life. She is Xylang Jaad Xyla (Thunderwoman Dancer), a member of the St’langng Laanas clan, with three sons, a husband and a full-time job with Haida Wild Seafoods. The company is a former mom-and-pop operation which has expanded into a boutique-export company owned by the Haida Nation.

Her job comes with a sense of security because the company is now rooted deeply in the Haida community. It specializes in local, indigenous seafood harvested in the wild. Ms. Brown knows where the harvest comes from and she knows the commercial salmon fishermen who supply the plant – they sail in small, often-handmade boats and are known locally as the mosquito fleet.

“We have to have a sustainable economy,” Ms. Brown said. “Future generations – my kids – should be able to go to the beach and get the razor clams and go fishing. … Our nation is treading gently.”

Peter Lantin, president of the Haida Nation, said cash investments were essential to allow his people to develop the skills and systems to manage the land.

We are trying to effect how industry happens on Haida Gwaii. We are not against logging or fishing, it is all about how you do it.

“These monies have allowed us to purchase control,” he said. “We are trying to effect how industry happens on Haida Gwaii. We are not against logging or fishing, it is all about how you do it. In this journey we had to show how it would be done.”

When the Royal couple visits Haida Gwaii on Friday, Mr. Lantin hopes to enlist their support in the Haida’s battle to keep the development of new oil pipelines at bay.

“I agree there needs to be a balance between economics and the environment, and it applies to most places in Canada. But it doesn’t apply to places like the Great Bear Rainforest. You have to keep the resource extraction out.” He hopes to have a chance to explain the risk of proposed oil pipelines that could put the region at risk. “The Royals’ visit can help bring awareness to that.”

From bear watching to cultural immersion

Homalco tour guides greet visitors in a welcome canoe in Bute Inlet. Photo by Tricia Thomas.
Homalco tour guides greet visitors in a welcome canoe in Bute Inlet. Photo by Tricia Thomas.

During the 20 years that environmentalists, forestry executives, politicians and indigenous leaders negotiated the pact to preserve the Great Bear Rainforest, Calvin Hackett left the Vancouver Island reserve where he was born and the grandparents who raised him. He moved between foster homes, learned to play rugby and soccer, became the first member of his family to graduate from high school, completed his basic military training and became a father.

Today, at 26, he is back with his Homalco First Nations community, working as a cultural ambassador and on a daily quest to learn his people’s traditional laws and stewardship roles. It is because of the Great Bear Rainforest agreement that he can make a living providing wildlife and cultural tours in Bute Inlet.

Homalco Wildlife Tours used to offer bear-watching trips but now has trained a string of young cultural ambassadors to offer a greater variety of tours that showcase the Homalco First Nations’ culture and history.

For Mr. Hackett, the injection of funding turned a brief seasonal job into one that extends from spring to the end of fall. He is generous in sharing credit for his success, thanking the strict elders who raised him to the foster parents in his life. “I had an army of support … I’m grateful for everything I have encountered and everything I have overcome.”

It was First Nations leaders who insisted that the well-being of the human residents of the Great Bear Rainforest had to be part of the package. Now the changes are starting to bring their people home.

“I’m ecstatic about the future and what it holds,” said Mr. Hackett.

> Read the article on the Globe and Mail.