Indigenous leaders ask for $500M from feds for guardian program

The nonprofit Indigenous Leadership Initiative, with support from an MP and a former premier is pushing for the federal government to bring in a 1600-member 'guardians' program.

The program would be modelled in part after Haida Nation's Watchmen program

A watchman at work in Tanu, an old Haida village in Gwaii Haanas National Park in southern Haida Gwaii. (Submitted by Jane Thomson)

A nonprofit group, the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, is asking the federal government for $500 million over five years for a new nationwide monitoring program.

The proposed national "Guardians" program would send around 1,600 First Nations people out on their traditional lands. 

"There's no enforcement in it, it's kind of ambassadorial; our peoples' eyes and ears on what's happening out on the lakes and rivers, our lands," says former N.W.T. premier Stephen Kakfwi. 

"We do that anyway. We do it all the time. Our people are out hunting, they're checking out the rivers, the lakes, the mountains. We're constantly monitoring the lands. We want to do it in a little more organized way."

Haida Watchmen

It's modelled in part after the Haida Nation's Watchmen program, which has been running for over 30 years. 

Some members of that First Nation are employed as stewards of the islands and waters that make up their territory, keeping an eye on visitors, protecting sensitive environmental and cultural locations, and helping in case of emergencies. 

Just south of Haida territory, the Heiltsuk First Nation has a guardian program that has a major role in monitoring fisheries like the contentious herring industry. Both assert their respective First Nations' control over their territory, just as the Canadian Rangers projects Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic.

In Australia, the Working on Country program employs around 780 Indigenous people to do environmental work on their traditional territory; an economic analysis conducted by the country's environment ministry found it was also hugely successful in bringing lasting employment to remote areas.

Just south of Haida territory, the Heiltsuk First Nation has a guardian program that has a major role in monitoring fisheries like the contentious herring industry. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

The new Guardians program would attempt to do something similar across Canada.

"There's not enough wildlife officers and parks officials to do an adequate job in many parts of the country, including the Northwest Territories," says Kakfwi. 

"The territory's just too huge. Many times it's our own people that find things, find spills, that find accidents like plane crashes long before anybody else does."

Support in Ottawa

Michael McLeod, MP for the Northwest Territories, spoke in favour of the program at a press conference this week.

Like Kakfwi, he says the program is a good place to start rebuilding the relationship between Canada and First Nations. 

"I really think it's time that we started looking at expanding that approach, that nation-to-nation basis for the relationship, and focusing on areas such as responsible stewardship of our territories our lands and waters, between Indigenous peoples, nations and Canada," said McLeod.

The program is being touted as a way to rebuild relationships between Indigenous youth, elders and the land.

"Today's guardians are tomorrow's educators, lawyers and leaders," says Kakfwi. 

"In addition to offering hope to our youth, I believe this proposal offers hope and a path to true reconciliation between the government of Canada and Indigenous peoples."