British Columbia

Enhanced training, support rolls out for Indigenous search and rescue

New gear and joint training with Coast Guard are part of the federal government's commitment to support the historic role of coastal Indigenous communities in marine rescue and response, says Ottawa.

Federal government promised to create Indigenous auxiliary to Coast Guard Search and Rescue

Geoff Carrow, a search and rescue program officer for the Canadian Coast Guard, is helping to distribute emergency response supplies to Indigenous communities. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Indigenous communities on the B.C. coast have been recognized for their role in saving lives in recent marine disasters.

Now, a shipping container at the Canadian Coast Guard base in Victoria, full of search and rescue equipment and supplies, will help them to do that job.

The gear includes enough vests, searchlights, defibrillators, handheld marine radios and advanced first aid kits for about 10 communities.

It is all part of a commitment by the Government of Canada to train, equip and support search and rescue by Indigenous community members . 

That commitment followed the Ahousaht First Nation's rescue of survivors and recovery of victims in the Leviathan II whale-watching boat disaster two years ago.

Nine years earlier in 2006, residents of the Gitga'at community of Hartley Bay saved 99 survivors of the Queen of the North ferry sinking.

Gitga'at Emergency Response Team members Isiah Dundas and Johnston Reece participate in survival training during an exercise with the Coast Guard. (Pieter Romer/First Story Media)

​"Over the last hundreds of years, the First Nations communities have been doing lots of search and rescue," Tyler Brand, the deputy superintendent of the Oceans Protection Plan Search and Rescue, told the CBC's Megan Thomas on All Points West

"They were doing it long before us, and, even through modern history, the Coast Guard relied on First Nations communities."

Roger Sterritt, the manager of the Gitga'at Emergency Response team, said the community has seen a significant increase in support and lifesaving capacity.

"We've actually been working with the Coast Guard over the last couple of years on some training initiatives, search and rescue training exercise, live training out on the water," Sterritt said.

Gitga'at ERT member Stanley Robinson participates in a joint rescue exercise with the Canadian Coast Guard which simulated a fishing boat accident with three people overboard. (Pieter Romer/First Story Media)

"They also helped us acquire some advanced first aid training."

Hartley Bay was one of four locations identified for new Coast Guard life stations earlier this year. Sterritt said talks about establishing the life station are still in their infancy.

A new video produced for the Gitga'at ERT documents a challenging training exercise involving a co-ordinated rescue by local and Coast Guard personnel of three people from the water in an isolated location. 

Back at the Victoria Coast Guard base, search and rescue program officer Geoff Carrow said the first container-load of emergency supplies is just a start to fulfilling the commitment for Indigenous communities. 

Gitga'at ERT and Coast Guard participants debrief after a training exercise earlier this year. (Pieter Romer/First Story Media)

"As soon as this stuff goes out, the idea is that we restock it, and it's full again and, you know, every fiscal year we'll just keep hammering this stuff out into the communities," he said.

Under the Oceans Protection Plan, those communities will also receive supplies and training on responding to environmental accidents and spills, in addition to marine rescue resources.

Brand said response containers will be set up on community docks, with contents divided between environmental response equipment for spills and search-and-rescue gear.

With files from All Points West