Coastal Stewardship Network: Collaborative Monitoring and Protection of First Nations’ Lands and Waters

Coastal Guardian Watchmen of the Kitasoo Xais Xais Nation

The Coastal Stewardship Network helps Guardian Watchmen and stewardship techs from nine First Nations share environmental intelligence, and continues a long tradition of caring for coastal environments. How did it come about?

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Coastal First Nations holds annual gatherings of the Coastal Stewardship Network at Hakai Institute on Calvert Island.

At A Glance

First Nations in British Columbia have effectively managed the rich resources of their territories for millennia. But the balance they had maintained with nature has been threatened with increasing pressure from industry, high-impact tourism, and climate change, while unsustainable resource extraction has reduced opportunities for First Nations in fishing and forestry.

This is the story of how several disparate Guardian Watchmen programs on the Central and North Coast and Haida Gwaii came together to form a network that strengthened all of them—and how, during a critical build-out period from 2009 to 2012, its nine member Nations formalized collaborative working relationships among their stewardship offices and Guardian Watchmen programs. Participation in the Network is helping all member Nations power up monitoring efforts and the quality of analysis on environmental and resource management decisions—and generating interest from many quarters.

Coastal Stewardship Network members confer
Guardian Watchmen, community Elders, and stewardship directors share stories, knowledge and common concerns during the Coastal Stewardship Network’s 2017 Annual Gathering at Hakai Institute in April. From left to right: John Sampson, Roger Harris, Charles Saunders and Ernie Tallio of Nuxalk First Nation. COURTESY OF Coastal First Nations / Bessie Brown

The remarkable story of how—in less than a decade—several distinct Guardian Watchmen programs became part of a nine-Nation network of resource stewardship offices, supported by stable funding and operating a robust regional monitoring system, has been making waves far beyond the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii. Now known as the Coastal Stewardship Network, it inspires Indigenous peoples from across Canada and beyond. Researchers partner with Network members to tease out best practices in stewardship training for indigenous youth and fisheries monitoring. And the Network was recently cited in a recent New York Times feature about indigenous communities across North America forging new alliances to protect traditional territories. People who played major roles in the Network’s startup and critical build-out years from 2009 to 2012 have generously shared its history and lessons learned.

Funded Guardian Programs, Version 1.0

Although First Nations in B.C. have been involved in resource management and environmental stewardship for millennia, funded Guardian Watchmen programs took root in the early 1990s. That was when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans—responding to Sparrow, a Supreme Court decision that recognized First Nations’ right to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes—began hiring people from a handful of First Nations along the coast and Haida Gwaii to “observe, record, and report” possible violations of environmental regulations in their traditional territories.

But funding for these early Guardian programs was sometimes scaled back over time for First Nations that wouldn’t sign agreements placing new limitations on their Aboriginal title and rights. Newly trained Guardian Watchmen were frequently lured away to DFO positions, which offered permanent work that Guardian programs couldn’t. The programs were also playing out in the increasingly charged political context of B.C. in the 1990s, when the “War In The Woods” raged between forest companies and conservation groups and First Nations were too often seen as one more stakeholder interest that could be traded off.

Kitasoo/Xai'xais Nation Chief Councillor and Resource Stewardship Director Doug Neasloss
Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation Chief Councillor and Resource Stewardship Director Doug Neasloss leads an integrated stewardship program in Klemtu, B.C. that manages protected areas, conducts a wide range of conservation science projects, and operates a Guardian Watchman program. PHOTO BY Brodie Guy

In 2000, far-sighted leaders in First Nations formed potent new alliances: the Na̲nwak̲olas Council, which comprised six Nations from BC’s South-Central Coast and Vancouver Island, and Coastal First Nations – Turning Point Initiative (later renamed Coastal First Nations – Great Bear Initiative), composed of nine Nations from the Central and North Coasts and Haida Gwaii. Together, they re-imagined the coastal economy as one that would empower First Nations to thrive while protecting the environment on which their cultures and quality of life depend.

Art Sterritt, the influential First Nations leader who co-founded Coastal First Nations, remembers how momentous changes in land-use planning at the time seemed to promise change for industry and conservationists while leaving First Nations strapped for resources and capacity to ensure that territories are properly managed. “We need to challenge [environmental organizations] to come up with some resources … a program whereby we can steward the resources in the territory in perpetuity,” he remembers thinking. “So we challenged the environmental community to come up with that … to put their money where their mouth is … And they accepted the challenge!”

After more than a decade of negotiations, First Nations, the Government of B.C., environmental groups and forest companies stood together in February 2006 to announce the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements. These agreements were the basis to secure investment of $120 million from philanthropic donors in partnership with the provincial and federal governments to create Coast Funds in 2007 (read more about the origins of that Agreement, and Coast Funds, here). It included more than $56-million for an endowment fund that would generate funds for First Nations’ ongoing stewardship work—forever.

Great Bear Rainforest

In this video–which includes some stunning footage of the Great Bear Rainforest–representatives from coastal First Nations, the Government of B.C., Sierra Club BC, and Coast Forest Products Association share perspectives on the significance of establishing ecosystem-based management in the region.

Province of B.C. (2016)

Guardians Power Up

As Coastal First Nations developed new land-use protocols with the B.C. government to implement ecosystem-based management, one thing was clear: long-running Guardian Watchmen programs had an important role.

Guardian Watchman from Nuxalk Nation (in Bella Coola) educates visitors to the Great Bear Rainforest
A Guardian Watchman from Nuxalk Nation (in Bella Coola)
educates visitors on applicable regulations, Indigenous laws, and First Nations stewardship. PHOTO COURTESY of Coastal First Nations / Sandra Thomson

“[Guardian Watchmen] are our eyes and ears,” explains Sterritt. “They report back to the community, and get their mandate from the community. Their job is to make sure that our territories are protected.”

What better way to explore their collective potential than to bring them together? In 2005, Coastal First Nations convened a meeting in Port Hardy of people working as Guardian Watchmen and in Guardian-like technical roles. Claire Hutton, who helped organize the meeting while working with the Sierra Club, recalls it as transformative.

“When people came together, it was like fireworks went off,” she says, remembering “so many synergies” at that first of many such annual gatherings. Guardians affirmed their deep connection to their work in the face of unceasing pressures on their territories. They voiced their shared desire for recognition of their unique responsibility and comprehensive training, and identified and resolved overlaps in areas that they’d been monitoring. A new Network—the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network—was born.

[Guardian Watchmen] are our eyes and ears. They report back to the community, and get their mandate from the community. Their job is to make sure that our territories are protected.

During the Network’s early years, member Nations conducted Guardian Watchmen activities through a patchwork of funding sources—like BC Parks, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Sierra Club BC, Nature United (formerly TNC Canada), the Rainforest Solutions Project—and volunteer effort. But that changed in 2009, when Coastal First Nations accessed a stable source of funding through Coast Funds’ conservation endowment. It also secured more than $1.3 million of investment from Coast Funds into Coastal First Nations efforts to develop a model for First Nations stewardship departments, to develop community-based Guardian Watchman programs on a regionally integrated basis, and to support establishment of integrated stewardship offices in each member Nation–a key element of which supported the crucial early phase that helped establish the Coastal Stewardship Network.

Coastal Guardian Watchman logo and flag
Logos on uniforms, flags, boats, and vehicles help announce the presence of Guardian Watchmen, supported by the Coastal Stewardship Network, in the territories of its member Nations. PHOTO COURTESY of Coastal First Nations / Sandra Thomson

“That was a pretty radical change,” remembers Hutton, who was hired as the Network’s first coordinator. Finally, Guardian Watchmen got uniforms, flags, and logos to display on trucks and boats to announce their presence and ensure resource users understand the legitimacy of their work. Essential groundwork on governance development, funding strategies, communications, and strategic planning could get done. A short documentary was produced to raise awareness and interest in the work of Coastal Guardian Watchmen.

Eyes and Ears on the Land and Sea

The short video Eyes and Ears on the Land and Sea is about the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network, a coalition of First Nations on the North and Central Coast of British Columbia who are working together to protect and monitor the lands and waters of their ancestral territories.

Guardian Watchmen Network

To meet the Coastal Guardian Watchmen-identified need for training in conservation work, partnerships were struck with academia, including a long-running collaboration with the Hakai Institute—which also provides space for annual Network gatherings and other meetings. The University of Victoria produced a field guide to environmental law for use by Coastal Guardian Watchmen in the field. Watchmen programs, through the Network, worked with Northwest Community College and later Vancouver Island University to develop a highly successful First Nations Stewardship Technicians Training Program (more on this below). It delivers university-accredited training to Indigenous people for work as Guardian Watchmen, and in other stewardship and resource management-related jobs.

Stable funding from the endowment helped leverage funding from many other entities (see ‘Partners’ below) to realize another Coastal Guardian Watchmen-identified priority that was fleshed out in multiple community workshops and conferences between 2009 and 2011: a regional monitoring system (see ‘Getting a high-level view’, below). It also created an outreach and regional monitoring system coordinator position and a Stewardship Network coordinator position.

Coastal Stewardship Network gathering at Hakai Institute on Calvert Island
This April 2017 gathering of the Coastal Stewardship at Hakai Institute on Calvert Island is one of many that bring Guardian Watchmen and stewardship technicians together to share experiences, learn new skills, and collaborate on projects. PHOTO COURTESY of Coastal First Nations / Fraser Los.

“That was the shift to [renaming the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network as] the Coastal Stewardship Network—still focusing on the Guardians, but also bringing everyone in the stewardship office on board,” says Hutton. The name change took place in 2012. For Sterritt, the change also reflected the inherent right of Guardian Watchmen to go beyond “observe, record, and report”, and addressed an arbitrary separation of water and land in planning. “We went away from ‘Guardian Watchmen’ [to Coastal Stewardship Network] simply because it wasn’t just the watching. It wasn’t just fish,” he remembers. “It was looking after the whole thing. Stewardship of the whole territories was how everybody was looking at it.”

Garry Wouters, who served as Coastal First Nations’ Senior Policy Advisor during this period, elaborates: “Over a period of time, First Nations leadership really wants [Guardian Watchmen] to take over, legally, the enforcement of stewardship plans that are done in the conservancies, particularly,” he says, referring to the areas set aside for conservation by members of Coastal First Nations when the Great Bear Rainforest was established.

Over a period of time, First Nations leadership really wants [Guardian Watchmen] to take over, legally, the enforcement of stewardship plans that are done in the conservancies, particularly

In the meantime, the Coastal Stewardship Network continues to amplify the work of Guardian Watchmen from nine Nations, and their respective stewardship offices—involved in everything from research and training to evaluating and responding to land- and marine-use proposals from government and industry.

Kitasoo/Xai'xais Guardian Watchman on patrol
A Kitasoo/Xai’xais Guardian Watchman is on patrol, monitoring environmental conditions, helping to implement marine- and land-use plans and interacting with visitoris in the Great Bear Rainforest. PHOTO COURTESY of Coastal First Nations / Sandra Thomson


Key Challenges & How They Were Overcome

Overcoming doubts

According to Sterritt, proponents of nascent Guardian programs sometimes “get some pushback, because people don’t quite believe that you can actually do this.” To bring people on board, he’s brought them to see successful First Nations-operated projects—like the hatchery run by the Gitga’at in remote Hartley Bay. “We have people that have a Grade 5 education that are amazing hatchery managers,” says Sterritt. “We knew, because we’d done it before, that we could transfer all of the technology we needed over to any of our people, to do any job that has been done by DFO or anyone else in our territory.”

Reducing impact on trainees

The first iteration of Guardian Watchmen training required people to spend up to four months away from home. Guardians, who range in age from 18 to 50+, found it tough to be away from home and family responsibilities so long. Now training has been re-arranged into shorter modules that rotate around students’ communities. Hutton feels this benefits everyone, and the Network as a whole. Students spend less time away, and get to see other Nations’ territories. There’s been an “incredible development of personal relationships between people from different Nations,” observes Hutton, noting that technical and “Guardian-esque” people across Nations are now “relating to each other in a way they didn’t before.” Today, grads of the First Nations Stewardship Technicians Training Program get so much more than university credits and new and highly marketable technical skills. They come home inspired and enriched by new connections.

Road-testing training

Students appreciate in-class and scenario-based training, but find there’s no substitute for road-testing it—with real-time guidance. A one-on-one component now brings trainers out to communities to work alongside Guardians. Students benefit from instructor feedback and evaluation, and instructors can offer additional, place-specific recommendations to improve safety.

Getting a high-level view

With vast territories to care for, Network members saw the need for monitoring that was regional in scale, standardized, but also adaptive. They wanted better tools to collect and analyze coast-wide data, and to cooperatively monitor things important to all of them. Between 2009 and 2010, the Network developed and launched a regional monitoring system. It allows Guardian Watchmen and others involved in stewardship activities to use tablets in the field to collect data offline, feed it into a coast-wide system for deeper analysis, and learn from all member Nations in the Network. It’s recently undergone an independent review and upgrade.

Jana Kotaska, the Network’s current program manager, emphasizes that the Network “continually evolves” to keep pace with changes in data management, the internet, and broader developments in planning—like implementation of the Marine Plan Partnership for the North Pacific Coast. She says the hiring of a regional monitoring system coordinator has been pivotal. “The Nations now get regular reports [from the system coordinator], and they’re getting more ideas,” says Kotaska. “We’ve been having data going into the system for a long time. Having data coming out of the system and being used is huge—I feel like we’ve turned a corner on that.”

We’ve been having data going into the system for a long time. Having data coming out of the system and being used is huge—I feel like we’ve turned a corner on that.

What Do Guardian Watchmen Track In The Regional Monitoring System?

Patrol effort * Sightings of wildlife, boats, prawn and crab traps * Tourists & their activities, including boating, fishing, and hunting * Impacts to cultural and ecological sites * Suspicious activities * Spawning salmon * Tsunami debris * Stream habitat * Evidence of climate change impact * Implementation of land and marine use plans, like the recently completed Marine Plan Partnership for the North Pacific Coast

Coastal Guardian Watchmen

This video titled Coastal Guardian Watchmen is an introduction to history and present of First Nations stewards caring for the coast.

‘A Sight to Behold’

Innovations notwithstanding, the Coastal Stewardship Network’s ongoing challenges are significant. Vast territories to monitor, unceasing new pressures on them, and comparatively few staff can strain the best-made plans and budgets. And although provincial and federal governments embrace reconciliation in principle, enforcement and decision-making power are ongoing topics of negotiation.

Hutton says it’s easy to get so enmeshed in the day-to-day that you forget how far you’ve come. But the National Indigenous Guardians’ Gathering in Ottawa in Fall 2016 helped her remember. She says attendees there “look to the Guardian Watchmen programs of Coastal First Nations, and how they’ve been supported by the Coastal Stewardship Network. They see folks on the coast as leaders in that regard.”

Sterritt’s pride in the Guardian Watchmen, and the accomplishments of the Network more generally, is evident: “You’ll find in our communities that we’ve got some pretty qualified people who work for us, and that was the exact intent of it,” he says. “When I go out and see people flying the flag, monitoring the area, and making sure that everything is running properly … That really is quite a sight to behold. It really is our presence out there on the land and the water.”

When I go out and see people flying the flag, monitoring the area, and making sure that everything is running properly … That really is quite a sight to behold.

Through the Coastal Stewardship Network, member Nations share data and experience to help them keep an eye on the big picture -- including the keystone species -- in the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii. PHOTO COURTESY of Coastal First Nations / Phil Charles
Through the Coastal Stewardship Network, member Nations share data and experience to help them keep an eye on the big picture — including the keystone species — in the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii. PHOTO COURTESY of Coastal First Nations / Phil Charles

Keepers of the Coast

This 2016 documentary, Keepers of the Coast, looks at how the Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, and Wuikinuxv Nations are stewarding their marine territories.

Twyla Roscovich

Economic Outcomes

First Nations—especially those in more remote communities—participating in the coordinated stewardship staff training programs of the Coastal Stewardship Network realize economies-of-scale benefits, like lower training costs and access to a wider pool of skills. Participation in Guardian Watchmen activities and regular network meetings assists information-sharing among Nations, which enhances everyone’s decision-making with respect to management of economically valuable resources and engagement with industry. For example, Guardian Watchmen’s use of the cabin in Mussel Inlet supports protection of the Fiordland Conservancy in Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation territory from poaching and recreational over-use. This helps preserve the healthy ecosystem that is the economic basis of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais bear-viewing business at Spirit Bear Lodge.

Learn more about Partnerships.

Social Outcomes

Between 2009 and 2012, investment in the Coastal Stewardship Network created two new full-time jobs: an outreach and regional monitoring system coordinator and a Stewardship Network coordinator. Investments to Coastal First Nation stewardship offices provided five full-time/seasonal jobs for Guardian Watchmen (all held by First Nations), and at least 9.5 months of full-time equivalent contract work shared among five contractors.

The Coastal Stewardship Network has grown considerably over the years. Today it supports nine First Nations with at least 70 permanent employment positions, 80% of which are held by First Nation members. These include 22 Guardian Watchmen jobs. Other stewardship positions include stewardship directors, GIS technicians, researchers, marine-use planning coordinators, and more.

The First Nations Stewardship Technicians Training Program created by the Coastal Stewardship Network in collaboration with Vancouver Island University imparts new technical skills (such as monitoring, data collection, communications, safety and rescue training), professional development opportunities, and university credits to Indigenous students, most of whom are employed as Coastal Guardian Watchmen by Coastal First Nation communities. Guardian Watchmen and other stewardship office staff also get additional training, and develop and enhance relationships, through regular Coastal Stewardship Network conference calls, meetings, workshops, and annual gatherings.

Learn more about Skills Training.

Environmental Outcomes

By working together through the Network, member Nations are better positioned to effect positive change. The network brings together Guardian Watchmen and other stewardship staff from member Nations to develop relationships, collaborate, and learn from each other—thus expanding the breadth and depth of the member Nations’ environmental monitoring efforts. It supports a more regional, holistic approach to environmental monitoring and provides a venue in which First Nations can share concerns and solutions and collaborate on stewardship projects. The regional monitoring system developed between 2009 and 2012 has been refined and upgraded to improve utility both to Coastal Guardian Watchmen in the field and to other stewardship staff analyzing and using the regional data. Guardian Watchmen are now directly involved in implementation of regional plans, such as the Marine Plan Partnership for the North Pacific Coast.

Learn more about Guardians.

Cultural Outcomes

The time-honoured contribution of First Nations to stewardship is institutionalized through Coastal Guardian Watchmen positions in First Nation stewardship offices. Coastal Guardian Watchmen uniforms, flags, and logos on boats and vehicles, and brochures raise the profile of this role and current work across the coast. The greater visibility and monitoring work of Guardian Watchmen on the coast helps maintain the integrity of critical cultural resources, like cultural and sacred sites that can be vulnerable to theft or vandalism, culturally significant or endangered species like grizzly bears and abalone, and access to traditional foods that are vulnerable to poaching. Guardian Watchmen also collect valuable seasonal data for their Nations, such as when a traditional food is ready for harvesting, (as with the Gitga’at Nation), and support traditional food use studies, as with the Heiltsuk Nation. Cultures are strengthened as member Nations enhance relationships with each other through the Network. A 12-minute documentary video about Guardian Watchmen produced during this phase serves as an effective tool for recruiting Guardian Watchmen and raising awareness of the cultural significance of First Nations stewardship.

Learn more about Stewardship.


Paul Kariya

Paul Kariya

Senior Policy Advisor

Coastal First Nations

Between 2009 and 2012, Coast Conservation Endowment Foundation Fund approved funding for three separate projects totalling $1,088,511 and Coast Economic Development Society approved one project of $271,791 towards Coastal First Nations’ efforts to develop community-based Guardian Watchman programs on a regionally integrated basis and to establish the Coastal Stewardship Network.

Indigenous Guardians, Caring for the Land

In this video, Indigenous Guardians, Caring For The Land discuss their work and what it means for their communities—better conserved lands, stronger ties to culture, healthier people—and for planet.

Indigenous Leadership Initiative

Online Resources