Protecting the park: A First Nation's fight to preserve its ancestral lands

Ed Thomas's motorboat revs in preparation for his daily trip up the waters of Burrard Inlet into Say Nuth Khaw Yum Provincial Park, also known as Indian Arm Park.

Limited funding prevents Tsleil-Waututh from changing the way Say Nuth Khaw Yum Provincial Park is protected

Ed Thomas talks about how working in Say Nuth Khaw Yum connects Tsleil-Waututh to their traditional territory. (Sophie Gray and Anya Zoledziowski)

Ed Thomas's motorboat revs in preparation for his daily trip up the waters of Burrard Inlet into Say Nuth Khaw Yum Provincial Park, also known as Indian Arm Park, just outside of Vancouver.

But the time he spends on his ancestral lands is more than just a pastime — Thomas has devoted his career to it.

For 20 years, he's tended the inlet's salmon-bearing streams and rugged islands that sheltered and sustained his Tsleil-Waututh relatives, including his mother.

"Up here they could eat," said Thomas, pointing towards the northwestern bank of the inlet where his mother grew up. "They ate the resources. The salmon, the deer, the berries, the vegetables."

BC Parks contracts Thomas and his four-person crew to clean campsites and report anyone who breaks park rules at Say Nuth Khaw Yum, courtesy of a hard fought co-management agreement between the provincial government and Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

That arrangement was groundbreaking for First Nation collaboration with government over land use, but also exposed how many challenges remain for Indigenous communities that want control over parklands.

Setting a precedent

The agreement was sparked after the government created the provincial park on Tsleil-Waututh Nation traditional territory in 1995, without consulting the community.

The First Nation demanded a decision-making role in management of Say Nuth Khaw Yum. Today, TWN has equal say with the province over the park.

Map showing Say Nuth Khaw Yum Provincial Park inside of Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s consultation area, just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia.

The formation of the park marked "the beginning of [the government's] understanding of the need to be proactive in including First Nations in land use decisions," says Vicki Haberl, the planning section head for BC Parks.

And the call for First Nation influence over park lands has intensified across Canada since.

Last month, Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna voiced her support for increasing the role of Indigenous communities in protecting new parks and managing old ones.

When the government collaborates with local Indigenous communities, it's setting a precedent for other nations across Canada, says Say Nuth Khaw Yum maintenance crew member Raelene Esteban.

"Other communities should follow what Tsleil-Waututh Nation is doing," she added.

'Our people on the ground'

While co-management highlights First Nations' governing roles over traditional lands, the work that people such as Esteban and Thomas perform is anything but glamorous.

They clean up charred firewood, empty overflowing pit toilets and remove the garbage that's been left behind by thousands of Say Nuth Khaw Yum visitors.

The team also reports back to BC Parks whenever visitors break park rules, but have no authority to enforce them.

Thomas stands in front of the boat that takes the crew up the inlet to the park. (Sophie Gray and Anya Zoledziowski)

"We try and report what we see. Some days we report to [BC Parks] by 10 in the morning," said Thomas. "That's the best we can do."

"Putting our people on the ground to do the work that they do gives us that much more voice," said Michael George, cultural and technical advisor for TWN and a member of the Say Nuth Khaw Yum governing board.

On top of their BC Parks contract, Thomas's crew works to restore and rehabilitate Burrard Inlet's ecosystem. They help clean up clam beds and increase salmon and elk populations, and even rescue injured eagles.

Ongoing degradation

Despite conservation efforts, overuse of campsites and facilities has led to land degradation in and around Say Nuth Khaw Yum.

The three campgrounds overflow with visitors in the summer who regularly ignore fire bans and chop down young trees for firewood, says Thomas.

"If you go out there any weekend you'll see smoke," said Thomas. "You'll see people just cutting things down for firewood."

When the team gets to work on Mondays, Thomas says they see remnants of campfires and dead trees.

Remnants of a fire made from the wood of chopped-down tress in the area. (Sophie Gray and Anya Zoledziowski)

"The vegetation is now disappearing out of the little islands."

Plus, there aren't enough facilities to accommodate the number of visitors, with only a handful of toilets, no garbage cans, and few information boards.

"We've had a lacrosse team from Fort Langley come down and put down 17 bags of garbage," said Thomas.

"There needs to be a reservation system so that there's some way of controlling the number of people using these campsites," said John Konovsky, senior advisor for Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

Too little funding

But TWN estimates it would require "a few million dollars" to curb campsite use, and a lack of funding makes it difficult to implement changes.

The First Nation devotes $10,000 per year to the co-management plan, while BC Parks contributes $15,000. According to Konovsky, these funds "don't even pay for all the time and materials" necessary to maintain the park.

Increasing the accessibility in Say Nuth Khaw Yum is a huge priority, added Konovsky. By extending trails, park use would disperse over a wider area.

"It's definitely a slim and trim operation," he said. "We got $5,000 from BC Parks two years ago to put up signage. That's really about it."

'It's not just the job, it's his traditional territory'

Despite the co-management plan's constraints, Thomas loves protecting Tsleil-Waututh traditional territory.

"I don't call it work," said Thomas. "It's like taking a walk in the park."

Islands covered in trees dot the waters of the park. (Sophie Gray and Anya Zoledziowski)

Yet decades of hard work have taken a toll on him. Now 65, Thomas is preparing to retire, but his crew says they'll still turn to him for his "immeasurable" knowledge.

Shawana Michalek, another crew member, doesn't take his retirement seriously.

"There is talk of retirement, but honestly I still see Ed coming up here. It's not just the job, this is his traditional territory."

The series "tem:éxw — Stories of Land" is produced in partnership with the reporting in Indigenous community course at UBC's graduate school of journalism. Read more at