By Kieron O'Dea & Dawna Friesen Global News
Published November 13, 2021
16 min read
As long as anyone can remember, the rivers and streams on British Columbia’s central coast have pulsed with salmon this time of year.
It’s something the Heiltsuk people have tended to and depended upon over countless lifetimes.
With a watchful eye, Josh Vickers wades carefully through the spawning beds.
“Salmon are the heartbeat of my people,” he says.
He lists off the various species of salmon as they thrash and thread their way around him on their way upstream.
“We have pinks, and here we have cohos, and here we have sockeye and a little bit of chum so far.”
Vickers is part of a team of Indigenous Guardians from the Heiltsuk Nation, carrying out vital fieldwork that combines science with traditional knowledge.
“When we’re up the creek walking, what we’re looking for is live salmon and dead salmon and what species are at what place,” he tells Global’s current affairs program, The New Reality.
He and his team are monitoring one of nature’s great wonders: the salmon run. Millions are on a journey from the deep ocean saltwater to their spawning grounds up in the coastal watersheds.
The Heiltsuk territory lies within the Great Bear Rainforest — the planet’s largest remaining tract of temperate coastal rainforest.
Here, the life of the land and sea meet with an intensity like few places on Earth, a vast wheel of life that turns on the keystone species of salmon.
But something’s gone wrong. These rivers and creeks once teemed with salmon. Today, their numbers are in steep decline.
“Now we see maybe about 7,000 pinks,” Vickers says. “Whereas before they saw 700,000.”
Salmon populations have been declining for years, diminished by a range of pressures from overfishing to climate change. But Kelly Brown, director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department, says an even more sudden and profound drop occurred not long ago.
“We’re not sure what happened, but in 2014 the salmon return collapsed…. And that happened for every system throughout our territory. And so something phenomenal happened in the ocean.
“It would have been nice to have our grandchildren here and be able to be fish for food for the community. And we’re hardly even able to do that now.”
It’s why, Brown says, the Guardians program is so vital.
“We have Guardian Watchmen that will come into every salmon system-bearing stream and see whether or not their salmon (are) running in those systems, for an idea of how much we might have return next year and to inform whether or not we’re comfortable with opening up a commercial fishery or even a food fishery for our people.”
In Bella Bella, where most of the Heiltsuk people live, the livelihood and way of life is at risk.
“It’s like anything else: without the salmon, our culture is lost. Our way of life will be forever changed. And so we have a huge responsibility to make sure that we do carry out the ways of our ancestors,” Brown says.
Over millennia, the Heiltsuk moved among permanent and seasonal villages, following the harvests of the sea.
Frank Brown, a Heiltsuk hereditary chief, has spent his whole life navigating the same waters as his ancestors.
“We travelled according to the seasons, starting with the herring, and then we would move into salmon and bottom fish and we moved all throughout our entire territory,” he says.
As marine agriculturalists, they tended to the sea that in turn tended to them. From the water, you can clearly see one of the many ancient salmon traps engineered long ago to harness the tides this time of year.
The trap is like a stone wall, extending a few hundred metres out along the mouth of a river; when the tide rolls out, the incoming salmon are caught inside the trap. It was a design that gleaned the fish that were needed, allowing for the release of the rest.
“There were many, many villages throughout our whole territory, and almost every river system in our territory was utilized by our people,” Frank Brown says.
“But when the newcomers arrived, they put us on these little plots of land known as Indian reserves. There was a premeditated plan to sever our relationship from the land so that they could get access to the resources and the bounty of the land and the sea.”
In pre-colonial times, there were an estimated 20,000 Heiltsuk people spread across 50 villages on their territory. The arrival of Europeans brought waves of smallpox and influenza. Harrowing losses of life brought their people to the brink. At one point, fewer than 200 remained.
And there continued the horrors and injustices of the colonial era: families separated, their children sent to residential schools, the destruction of the big houses, the Potlatch Ban. What survived of their culture and language was forced underground.
“The cornerstone of our society is the potlatch system, and that was our system of governance and how resources and wealth was redistributed through the community,” Frank Brown explains. “The chiefs had the responsibility to look after the resources and to look after the people.
“The idea to separate us from our place was devastating. It’s created all kinds of social issues, health issues, mental health issues and even impacting our spirits. And that is why it’s so important to support back-to-the-land programs, to reconnect our young people to their culture and their history and their practices in their language to strengthen them in who they are and where they come from, as Indigenous place-based people.”
In addition to being a hereditary chief, Frank Brown is a senior advisor to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, which is cultivating a network of Indigenous Guardian programs across Canada.
“I believe that we as native people of this land have been the voice of reason around the devastation of natural resources,” he says. “We have been a witness to the boom and bust cycles of western industrialization. And it really goes down to values. If your value is only to liquidate the natural capital, the natural resources and deplete it just to make money, then it won’t take long for those resources to be devastated.
“The Guardian programs were established to address the concerns that we had based on witnessing the destruction of the natural resources that we depend on for our own sustenance.
“We’ve always felt a deep sense of responsibility to be the stewards of the land, and the Guardian program is the modern manifestation of that responsibility to look after the land and the water.”
Wearing hip waders, Vickers and the team of Guardians move between the many river systems on the territory. They measure water quality, temperature and salinity; they count and track the migration of each salmon species, gathering all the information needed to create new land and marine-use plans.
For Kelly Brown, conservation and self-determination are deeply connected.
“In order for these salmon here to continue to return every year, we have to make some tough decisions. And some people might not be happy about this, but we will make them,” insists Kelly Brown, the director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department.
“We’re at that place now where we know as a nation, as a tribe, as an Indigenous people, in order for us to survive in the land that we live in, that we will have to make the decisions regardless of what other people say.
“I say this not only for the future of our own people, but for the world.”
Kelly Brown’s team is just one of a growing alliance of 70 Indigenous Guardians programs across Canada. Their formal network is only five years old, but the work they do goes back hundreds of generations: monitoring, managing and caring for land, water, plants and animals on their territories.
On the eve of the 2021 election, the federal government announced $340 million in new funding over five years to support Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship. About half of that will support Guardians programs on First Nations across Canada. The rest will be invested in Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) — specially designated lands and waters in which local First Nations play a leading role in protecting and preserving.
Much of Guardians’ work is similar to that of governmental agencies, like the Department of Natural Resources or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans: actively patrolling lands and waters, monitoring wildlife populations and migratory patterns, and recording the varied ways in which climate change is impacting their territories. The information the Guardians gather is shared with other levels of government.
A key difference is that Indigenous Guardian programs are established and run locally, as distinct as the First Nations they represent and the issues they face. Animated by an interconnectedness with the lands they monitor and patrol, they carry out their fieldwork in a manner consistent with Indigenous culture, laws and values.
In that way, Indigenous Guardians stand at the crossroads of two great challenges facing Canada today: climate change and reconciliation.
Across the country, Indigenous Guardians are contending with the varied and unpredictable fallout from climate change.
In the barrenlands of the Tlicho (Tłı̨chǫ) Nation of the Northwest Territories, Indigenous Guardians are urgently monitoring the near-total collapse of the Bathurst caribou population. Just 30 years ago, the herd numbered more than 400,000. Now, it’s fallen by 98 per cent.
“The elders said there used to be so many caribou, the land would look as if it was moving,” says researcher and executive producer Tyanna Steinwand in a documentary called Kǫ̀k’etì, which was produced in cooperation with her people.
“Tlicho people have been coming here forever. The land has always protected us. Now it’s our turn to protect this land,” she says.
She hopes the Guardians program can serve as witness to alert the world to the rapid onset of climate-related events.
“I’ve seen it with my own two eyes … and I can share it with other people.”
Far away, dawn arrives in Unama’ki — translated as “Land of the Fog” — where a rite of fall is underway.
Mi’kmaq hunters are setting out on the annual moose harvest in the highlands of Cape Breton.
We join them on a trek by truck up logging roads into the boreal forest. Our guides are Keith Christmas and Clifford Paul, both with the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources.
“Just as the buffalo is important to the plains Indians,” Paul says, “so is the moose to the Mi’kmaq.”
Much like the Heiltsuk, the Mi’kmaq traditionally moved with the seasons, following the harvests of land and sea. The spring and summer were spent by the fishing grounds on the coasts, and over the fall and winter, they moved inland to hunt. Colonialism devastated the Mi’kmaw way of life, forcing them into lands a fraction of the size of their traditional territories, severing vital connections to their environment.
There was a period lasting more than a century where the Mi’kmaq didn’t hunt Moose here. The struggle to restore their way of life was hard won over decades in the courts. That was until they won a major victory in 1999, when the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the primacy of their hunting and fishing rights in accordance with 18th-century Peace and Friendship Treaties.
Tracking moose requires patience as they’re elusive by nature. But the signs are there if you know where to look. Paul is quick to spot the branch tips where moose have been feeding.
Today, there are an estimated 2,400 moose in the highlands of Cape Breton.
“From a Mi’kmaw perspective, a healthy herd is dependent on a healthy ecosystem,” Paul says. “So 2,400 is good because the carrying capacity of the ecosystem serves the population better than having a hyper-abundant population.”
Moose weren’t always so plentiful here. More than a century ago, the population in Cape Breton was wiped out, as were their natural predators — wolves. In the 1940s, Parks Canada introduced another species from Alberta. With no natural predators left, it flourished.
“In the boreal forest, there’s a relationship between the wolf and the moose, and they keep the population in check. Today, in the absence of wolves in Unama’ki in Nova Scotia, what’s going to keep the population in check is human interaction,” Paul says.
Here, conservation means managing the abundance. Without hunting, moose would overrun the highlands and overfeed on the saplings that regenerate the boreal forest.
That’s where the Guardians come in.
“It’s a really important time for us as Mi’kmaq people to be on the land here in Unama’ki and harvesting this resource,” Hannah Martin with the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq tells Global News. “It’s more than just a harvest. It’s everything for us.”
When a moose is harvested, hunters are encouraged to report to the moose checkpoint station, which is set up on the roadside leading into the highlands. Here, the antlers are measured, organ samples are collected and details from the hunters are recorded — critical information to track and monitor the health of the population. While the work is scientific, it is carried out with great care and attention to detail.
Although it remains a pilot project, Paul hopes to see it expanded to become an integral part of the moose harvest, where Indigenous Guardians work alongside the province to ensure the ongoing health of the herd.
“As Mi’kmaq, let’s provide the best of our capacities, the best of our jurisdiction, the best of our traditional knowledge and blend that with science and work with our partners.
“I have my traditional teachings, my traditional understanding, everything that makes me as a Mi’kmaw person, the traditional knowledge passed down from the elders to me. There’s a lot of scientific merit within that.”
“(As a Mi’kmaw) I have the right to do this. But more importantly, I have the responsibility.”
It’s a worldview built on thousands of years of ancestral knowledge.
Down from the highlands and along the sweeping coast of Cape Breton, we set out by boat to visit a sacred place for the Mi’kmaw people.
Surrounded by crystal blue water and tucked into white limestone cliffs is Kluscap Cave. For Paul, as a Mi’kmaw, it’s the centre of the universe.
“The rocks are the grandfathers, they’re the keepers of the stories and through the rock, stories are told and the energies of our ancestors are told.”
Paul vividly recalls his first time visiting the cave: “I couldn’t believe the light that was shining through me, the spiritual connection. The stories, the landscape, the seascape, the legends — they all come together here.”
It’s why much of the cape where Kluscap’s Cave is located has been designated an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area.
Joining us on the trip to Kluscap Cave is Albert Marshall, a revered Mi’kmaw elder.
“What have we done to this very source of life in which we all depend upon even as we speak?” Albert asks. “Water, air and soil have no protection whatsoever. It is considered a commodity.”
The Mi’kmaq have a word narrowly translated as the duty to live sustainably.
“Netukulimk is actually a guiding principle as to how we go through life. Yes, you have a privilege to harvest the gifts from the creator. But most importantly, it constantly reminds you that you don’t have the right to compromise the ecological integrity of the area, nor do you have a right to compromise the cleansing capacity of the system. And you’re always making sure that every action that you take has to be in harmony with nature.”
Marshall speaks of the connection between the Indigenous values and the work of Indigenous Guardians and others trying to tackle the problem of climate change.
“With all the knowledge that we have, we are drowning in all this knowledge. But I think, in fact, we are starving in wisdom. I think if people were that intelligent and with all this knowledge that is before us, why can’t they really think about this idea: if a group of people in this hemisphere for thousands and thousands and thousands of years can coexist in harmony with nature, shouldn’t we be smart enough to think there’s got to be some lessons in there?
“Nature has rights, humans have responsibility. And that is something I believe and I truly, honestly believe that is very much inherent in the Aboriginal ways of thinking.”
It’s a philosophy that is mirrored on the West Coast, where Frank Brown shares with us the depth of history in Heiltsuk territory.
“Our people were here in deep time back when the earth was covered by ice. We now know based on this western science that our people have been here for the last 700 generations, or over 14,000 years.”
Heiltsuk oral traditions tell of a place where, long ago, the Heiltsuk found refuge beyond the reach of the ice.
In 2017, those stories drew a team of archeologists from the Hakai Institute and the University of Victoria to Triquet Island, among the outermost coastal islands of the Heiltsuk Territory. There, they unearthed one of the oldest settlements ever discovered in the Americas — dating back into the last ice age.
A trove of artifacts suggests those here were highly skilled hunters of sea mammals who later turned to fishing. Layered in the earth, across ages, a story of resilience emerges. Through the ice age, through tsunamis and collapses in resource availability, they persevered — an adept and adaptable people who survived and thrived in the extremes of time.
“This place on the central coast is known to be the gathering place for all the northern and southern and eastern nations — and they all come together,” says Elroy White, a Heiltsuk archeologist. “So it could have been the place where everything started and it was all open and expansive. And then everything could have spread out from there.”
Among the oldest finds: a fragment of charcoal from a 14,000-year-old hearth.
In 2019, the Heiltsuk opened their Big House, the first on their territory in more than 120 years. It’s a place of gathering that was destroyed in the colonial era.
To mark the occasion, 2,000 guests from as far away as New Zealand attended five days of celebration.
For Frank Brown, this shining moment is just the beginning of a great cultural revival.
“We are a resilient people. We did stand on the abyss of near extinction and an annihilation, but our generations now are the ones that are gaining strength. It’s through our young people that are students of the culture, working with our elders and our knowledge keepers that are leading the way going forward to empower our communities to ensure certainty that we will continue to exist on our lands for the next 14,000 years.”
One of those young people is Frank’s daughter, ’Qátuw̓as Brown.
“There’s a lot of intergenerational pain and there’s a lot of intergenerational brilliance,” she says.
“We’re working really hard to connect all those dots back. And that it exists within our beings, within our blood, and that if we call it back, it’ll come,” she says, her eyes shining with emotion.
’Qátuw̓as is with Heiltsuk Climate Action. Her job is to rally the community to take action against climate change, a task made easier by the age-old values that unite them.
“We can exist as Heiltsuk people in the modern world, but also using values that have been here since time immemorial. I see there’s a lot of opportunity with climate action to tie in all of our teachings because really it’s about that original existence.”