Ahousaht First Nation Guardian Program: Increasing Capacity and Reviving Traditional Knowledge

In March 2017, the Government of Canada recognized the value of Guardian Watchmen programs by earmarking $25 million over five years for them in the federal budget. A 2016 study (Analysis of the Current and Future Value of Indigenous Guardian Work in Canada’s Northwest Territories, November 2016) of similar programs showed that every dollar invested generated $2.50 in social, economic and environmental wealth, and that sustained funding would augment this worth to $3.70.

“[Indigenous Guardians programs] provide jobs, lower crime rates, and build healthy communities,” said Keith Atleo, manager of the Ahousaht First Nation’s Resource Stewardship Guardians. “We’ve been the guardians of our sacred land and waters for millennia,” added Atleo. “Through this program we’re reviving that.”

Along with bringing health and economic benefits into communities, Ahousaht guardians uphold ecological and cultural principles espoused by the Maaquutusiis Hahoulthee Stewardship Society that runs their Resource Stewardship Guardian Program. These guiding principles are Iis?aksta? (respect one another), Haa?uupsta? (teach one another), ya?aksta? (care for one another), and Huupii?’a? (help one another). Mandated by Ahousaht Chiefs in partnership with Chief and Council, the guardians help to manage The Nation’s resources by acting as the eyes and ears of their Ha-houlthee (chiefly territory). The program was started with funding from The Nature Conservancy prior to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement in November 2016 of a 1.5 billion dollar national Oceans Protection Plan to protect Canada’s marine environment, and offer new opportunities for Indigenous and coastal communities.

The Ahousaht Stewardship Guardian Program patrols the coast for illegal activities such as poaching, gathers scientific data, and provides search and rescue support. From this program, Ahousaht also draws caretakers for Maquinna Marine Park in Clayoquot Sound, which has a boat for patrols of their Ha-houlthee and staff trained in environmental stewardship. While running a tourism operation that issues permits to visitors for access to hiking, kayaking, camping, fishing and wildlife viewing, guardian program staff also maintain trails, and welcome and educate tourists and other visitors, including responding to distress calls. Ahousaht has a 10-year contract with BC Parks to manage and maintain the 2,600-hectare park and hot springs. Atleo said the contract has generated pride in the community, and opportunities for its members to grow their skills at trail building, park maintenance, and engaging with visitors from around the world.

“It was a natural fit for the guardian program to take over operations at Hot Springs Cove in Maquinna Marine Park,” said Atleo. “They’ve got the technical expertise for maintenance, such as trail building, are trained in wilderness First Aid and marine rescue support, and have experience interacting with visitors throughout the territories. It was another opportunity for continued stewardship and management capacity of our Ha-houlthee.”

Ahousaht First Nation has worked closely with BC Parks in the past, notably on the Wildside Trail on Flores Island, home to Ahousaht’s community of Maaqtusiis. The Nation is eager to take on additional projects with BC Parks, such as replacing the boardwalk at Maquinna Marine Park and developing another wilderness trail connecting to Strathcona Provincial Park. The Nation continues to work with DFO, RCMP, the Coast Guard, Parks Canada and Provincial Parks, and to seek further opportunities to increase capacity for its communities.

“Having our Guardians in force in Hot Springs Cove means a lot in terms of moving forward as an organization and as a community,” said Atleo. “Our ultimate goal is sustainable employment opportunities for our young people, connection for them to our ancestral lands, waters, and ways, and continued stewardship over our entire Ha-houlthee.” He added that, considering the Nuu-chah-nulth philosophy of hishuk’ish ts’awalk (everything is one), this is also important for the survival of the “whales in our ocean, the bears in our forests, and the salmon in our rivers.”

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