First Nations guardians gathering aims to grow movement and lobby for sustained funding

Efforts to expand the number of Indigenous guardian groups across the country are the focus of a gathering in downtown Vancouver this week.

Federal government committed $25M in 2017 over 5 years for national pilot project

Valérie Courtois, right, leading a panel about guardians and nationhood at the First Nations National Guardians Gathering on Tuesday. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC )

Efforts to expand the number of Indigenous guardian groups across the country are the focus of a gathering in downtown Vancouver this week.

There are more than 40 guardian programs across the country that have Indigenous people working as the eyes and ears on their territories when it comes to things like conservation planning, wildlife management and environmental monitoring.

Their stewardship work is diverse, just like the landscapes and nations within Canada. But what they hold in common and what can be strengthened collectively, according to people like Miles Richardson, is their own respective definitions of nationhood.

"We're just beginning to pull our common vision together," said Richardson, former president of the Haida Nation.

He is also a senior advisor to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, a group that has taken the lead on creating a national network of Indigenous guardians.

The hope is to strengthen existing guardian programs that act as the "moccasins and mukluks" on the ground, and that every Indigenous community that wants to create its own similar program will have a place to go for support.

For people like Richardson, these programs are a way of asserting sovereignty on the land and strengthening nations.

"If we can define our nationhood, defining our people and our territory and our laws, and stand in that truth ourselves ... and ask other people to respect that, I believe everything will change," Richardson told those at the First Nations National Guardians Gathering on Tuesday.

Voices of experience

Some groups at the gathering, like the Haida and the Innu, have long-established guardian programs. The Haida Watchmen program was formalized in 1981 and for more than a decade has been working within a regional network of guardians from First Nations along the central and north coast of British Columbia.

Others at the conference don't have formal guardian programs at home and have come to see how they might benefit from participating in the network and if they might qualify for pilot funding from the federal government.

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

In 2017, the federal government committed $25 million of funding over a five-year period to support the creation of a national Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program. Nearly 30 individual groups have already received a round of funding and a joint working group has been working on establishing a framework for distributing the remaining pilot funds.

While this week's gathering in Vancouver is focusing specifically on First Nations groups, the guardians pilot program also includes Métis and Inuit.

During Tuesday's gathering a joint working group laid out the criteria for the next round of funding.

The goal for the emerging national group is to make the case to Ottawa for sustained, permanent funding for First Nations, Métis and Inuit groups across the country.

Making the case to Ottawa

Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, has been working for years to make the national guardians network a reality. She knows all about making the case to Ottawa for funding.

"We've done a number of return on investment analyses that have shown how investments in these programs actually have a value and return. So for every dollar that's invested in these programs right now, we've been able to measure a 2.5 return," she said.

But she said the programs also bring value to individual nations.

In her own nation, the Innu Nation, she said the guardians program has brought an increased sense of pride and has also offered people employment opportunities that are aligning with traditional definitions of success.

Valerie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, ran the Innu Nation's conservation guardian program for a decade. (Submitted by Valerie Courtois)

The Innu guardians have taken on a whole host of roles on their lands.

"They do everything from monitor the largest nickel mine in the world to currently monitoring and making sure that the newest hydro development, Muskrat Falls, is being done in respect of the environmental protection plan that was negotiated under the environmental assessment process," she said.

On top of that, they're also monitoring caribou populations and leading on forest management plans.

Courtois said she knows what has worked for the Innu may not be the way forward for other nations and said the network isn't about being prescriptive — every nation will have its own distinct needs and interests.

"This is a new way of thinking about the futures of our societies and how we build our communities up and make sure our people have a place within that society that is rooted in who we are and rooted in our lands," she said.