The federal government plans to establish Indigenous Canadian Coast Guard auxiliary units to expand its marine emergency response, according to a senior fisheries official.
"Our plan as it stands at the moment is to build an Indigenous component to the auxiliary," Jeffery Hutchinson, the deputy commissioner of strategy and shipbuilding with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said Thursday.
Hutchinson said Indigenous auxiliary units will receive the same funding and training as Coast Guard members to handle search and rescue as well as environmental incidents on the water.
The official's comments add detail to the promise of a greater role for coastal First Nations in marine safety in the $1.5-billion national Oceans Protection Plan, announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week.
The importance of formally including coastal First Nations in marine emergency response is clear from their "outstanding" work in recent incidents, Hutchinson said.
"I'm thinking of the Leviathan II at Tofino where the Ahousaht saved a lot of lives," he said. "I'm thinking about the people who got out on the water and helped out at Bella Bella and they're still on the water. They're still working hard.
"And we're looking at that and we're thinking, 'we've got to partner with those folks'," Hutchinson said.
The plans for expansion of coast guard auxiliary services, including in remote Indigenous communities, is welcome news for the head of British Columbia's Coast Guard auxiliary.
Pat Quealey, CEO of Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue, said coast guard auxiliary stations are already integrated and four of them — in Hartley Bay, Kitkatla, Kincolith and Lax Kw'alaams — are in predominantly Indigenous communities.
"As volunteers with limited resources but excellent training and people, I think we can make an additional impact." Quealey told On the Island host Gregor Craigie.
Alec Dick, the emergency co-ordinator for the Ahousaht First Nation, helped organize local boats to rescue people from the Leviathan II. He said the announcement contains "nice words" about supporting aboriginal search and rescue services.
"Whether the action is going to happen, I don't know," Dick said. "We'll sit by and see what they have to offer to the coast First Nations."
With files from CBC Radio One's On the Island.