Jump to content
  • Wanted and needed: Guardians in every watershed

    Stephen Hume

    A proposal for Indigenous “guardians” to act as the eyes and ears on the land provides a dramatic win-win for resource management.


    BRITISH COLUMBIA TAXPAYERS are probably on the hook for a $100-million bill to clean up an abandoned copper mine on the northwest coast that for 67 years has been leaching acid runoff into a rich trans-boundary salmon river critical to the Douglas Indian Association of Alaska and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in BC.

    And that’s just the start. The public cost of remediating the environmental impact across the province of similar abandoned mines with environmental liabilities is going to run as high as $3 billion according to Mining Watch Canada, which surveyed unfunded taxpayer liabilities.

    Then there are potential liabilities from pollution that deprive First Nations of resources guaranteed by treaty. First Nations also suffer the depletion of resources, their use of which was understood to be guaranteed in perpetuity.

    Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. A new proposal from the BC First Nations Mining and Energy Council suggests that one solution could simultaneously satisfy calls for greater protection of the environment for all British Columbians, take a major step towards mutual reconciliation between indigenous and settler societies, provide economic benefits to small indigenous communities, and save taxpayers’ money by preventing resource development from morphing into costly liabilities in the first place.

    The organization is urging the governments of Canada and the Province to collaborate with First Nations in establishing a network of Indigenous “guardians” with power to monitor and protect the lands, waters and wildlife within the boundaries of their traditional territories by applying traditional knowledge as well as modern science.

    They wouldn’t supplant mainstream obligations for monitoring and enforcement, but would instead enhance them by serving as the “eyes and ears” of First Nations themselves, contributing to an emerging capacity as co-managers of resources on their land.



    Industry is inflicting great harm on the environment, much of it unseen and unacknowledged. Above, the mine tailings pond washout at Mt Polley near Quesnel, the largest environmental disaster involving a mine in Canadas history.


    Guardian programs supply jobs, data and prevent environmental destruction

    BC’s government has already acknowledged that lands and resources should be managed in ways that find congruency for both provincial and Indigenous law, and the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission urged for the respect and revitalization of First Nations laws. Both judicial scholars and the courts have long said Indigenous laws were never simply extinguished and replaced by British common law but, in fact, were subsumed into and became part of it.

    Indeed, the proposal offers a way to pragmatically realize the ideals expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act passed unanimously by the BC legislature last November.

    “Guardians [would] monitor the activities of resource users, enforce federal, provincial and indigenous laws, gather data on the ecological health and wellbeing of traditional territories, compile data to inform First Nation resource decision making, and engage in community outreach and education about conservation of cultural and natural resources,” the proposal says.

    Researched by law students at the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, the proposal notes that there are 70 such Guardian and Guardian-type programs already in place and thriving around the world from Australia to Africa.

    They include a number of successful systems in Canada, perhaps the best-known being the Canadian Rangers, in which volunteers from remote Indigenous communities provide the military with remarkable reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering and patrol capabilities relying on their traditional knowledge and skills on the land which require minimum resources.

    Other examples within Canada range from “Watchmen” employed to safeguard important cultural and historic sites on Haida Gwaii, to fisheries and game management in the Arctic, on the Prairies and in BC’s rugged interior.

    One major benefit of the programs would clearly be economic. They would provide local jobs and enhance community capacity for everything from mounting search and rescue operations and managing wildfire hazards to rehabilitating mismanaged fish stocks, monitoring environmental compliance in forestry, mining and other development and enforcing fish and game regulations to prevent poaching.

    In addition to growing both individual and community capacity, though, a Guardian program has benefits that are less tangible but no less valuable. For example, they can help amplify the intergenerational transfer of traditional knowledge, a process that was severely damaged by the residential school system which intentionally separated children from their parents and grandparents for reeducation with another’s culture’s values, history, language and belief sets.

    This, too, offers important spinoffs. It helps revitalize self-government and contributes to community health by instilling the cultural pride that enhances community wellbeing.


    Costly environmental destruction not being addressed by government

    Many studies, the UVic Environmental Law Centre research team discovered, report that public investment in Guardian programs generates returns of up to $10 in returned value for every dollar spent. At least one study indicated that there were $20 in benefits for every dollar invested.

    Compare returns on investment like that to the inflating long-term liability costs from resource extraction projects that weren’t properly managed and it looks like a dramatic win-win alternative to the short term gain, long-term pain models of the immediate past.

    In BC we are discovering the public penalties are very long-term indeed and will likely have unforeseen consequences that extend far beyond the tax burden of even the simplest remediation.

    For example, an abandoned copper mine west of Victoria still leaches fish-killing toxic metals into the Jordan River at a site where the Pacheedaht people, now reestablished at Port Renfrew, locate their creation story. Think of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mecca or the Temple Mount repurposed as toxic waste dumps and then having devout Christians, Muslims and Jews told to, like, just get over it and move on.

    Spiritual and moral dimensions aside, acid leachate into the Jordan River also has an economic cost. It has for a century deprived the Pacheedaht of access to a traditional fishery they own and have always owned.

    Another abandoned copper mine on Mount Washington straddles the headwaters of the Tsolum River. It operated for three years and required a 40-year effort and massive public expenditure to reduce acid drainage that is finally—for now, anyway—back below levels lethal to salmon and trout stocks which should be worth, by the accountants’ estimate, about $3 million a year.

    The toxicity of the metals basically killed the main stem of the Tsolum, a rich salmon-bearing tributary of the Puntledge River at Courtenay, once famed for its now-extinct race of giant chinook. Anglers who came from around the world to fish for them nicknamed the massive, deep-shouldered salmon “Puntledge Torpedoes.”

    And a dam supplying power to coal mines in the vicinity put paid to a sockeye salmon run that spawned in Comox Lake.

    So add another $150 million to that overall cost just in foregone value from lost salmon returns. One might calculate the costs of foregone recreational angling too, but let’s leave that for some grad student in economics. It’s sufficient to say the cost-benefit of the abandoned mine does not look good.

    Whether the Mount Washington remediation is permanent—it involved putting a gigantic synthetic raincoat on the exposed acidifying rock—only time will determine, although common sense suggests that it won’t last forever and constant monitoring will be needed.

    At the long-abandoned Britannia Mine on Howe Sound south of Squamish, the initial public cost of controlling acid drainage from the site was $46 million but there’s an ongoing annual cost of $3 million to maintain the treatment “in perpetuity.” My dictionary defines “in perpetuity” as forever, which is a long time for everyone to pay for something that profited a few shareholders for a few years.

    Then there’s the aftermath of the Mount Polley accident, the worst environmental mining disaster in Canadian history, in which a tailings dam failed and spewed 24-million cubic metres of mine waste into the Quesnel watershed which provides habitat for one of the richest and most abundant sockeye runs in BC.

    There are thought to be at least 84 abandoned mines and industrial sites in BC, a number with insecure tailings dams and ponds, some—similar to the notorious Tulsequah Chief—possibly leaching acid into ground and surface water from seldom-monitored tailings fields.

    That’s in addition to hundreds of abandoned and leaky oil wells. Scores of unlicensed dams associated with oil and gas development pock the northern landscape.

    Forestry infractions range from shoddy road construction and subsequent erosion, to encroachment upon the riparian zones of fish-bearing streams, to inadequate or improper reforestation of logged lands. In 2018, about 4,000 forestry infractions alone were recorded.

    There is habitat degradation from agricultural runoff.

    Near-industrial scale poaching strips abalone and clam beds, while undersized crabs, endangered rock fish sanctuaries and salmon streams closed to commercial and recreational fishing for conservation reasons are pillaged. Recent estimates for poaching run to 8,000 tonnes or more of shellfish and thousands of tonnes of rockfish which is peddled to restaurants on a backdoor blackmarket. The Vancouver-based news website Tyee several years ago cited one ministry of environment report that in BC it’s now estimated that poachers may steal as much fish and game as is taken legally.

    And the fact is that these are all merely indicators. Many more environmental problems remain unknown and uninvestigated. That’s because for decades cash-strapped government agencies have been downsizing investigation and enforcement abilities.

    Since 2013, BC’s Forest Practices Board has complained about a reduction in forestry inspections and in 2014 it reported that the provincial forest branch’s ability to enforce the law no longer deserved the public’s confidence.

    Right now, to enforce fish and game regulations and resolve human conflicts with wildlife, about 165 conservation officers are expected to patrol an area which is larger than 164 of the world’s countries. BC’s Compliance and Enforcement Branch was not long ago down to about 150 staff, which included the 83 natural resource officers expected to make inspections, patrols and investigations. It’s hard to get accurate counts because government agencies tend to bury the data, perhaps because numbers change so rapidly and on the penny-pinching whim of who’s in power at the moment. Nevertheless, the arithmetic is compelling—each natural resource officer is responsible for policing 11,386 square kilometres.

    A Sierra Club report in 2010 said that the provincial forest service had reduced field inspections for compliance and enforcement by 46 percent and that what inspections are done now go for the low-hanging fruit—those infractions that are easy to spot and don’t require expensive travel to remote regions or complex investigations.


    Guardian program an answer to the erosion of governmental monitoring

    More than half a century ago when I was still physically fit enough to hike and wade up the small salmon and trout streams that once teemed with coho and late summer steelhead, it wasn’t uncommon to run into a stream walker contracted by the federal government to count spawned-out salmon carcasses, which gave a pretty exact accounting of returns.

    These fish counters were often local, knew the land like the back of their hand and could report poaching, habitat damage and the apparent health of fish populations year to year.

    I would occasionally encounter them when I was exploring ephemeral Vancouver Island streams that showed up only after the first rains in October when coho would slither up the beach in rivulets little deeper than a hand span, then disappear with a flip of the tail to spawn in sloughs and marshes behind the beaver dams higher up. I’ve met them on unnamed streams in the northern Interior where little runs would spawn after their 1,000 kilometre ascent from the sea and in trickles deep in the outer coast rain forest, jotting down notes about a couple of tenacious steelhead, and on the distant Stellako where spawned out sockeye would form stinking drifts on the bars.

    On one small creek on the rain-sodden West Coast of Vancouver Island, I went out with just such a stream walker. Every morning, downpour or not, she shrugged into her chest waders and walked the creek from estuary to the impassable falls above which there wasn’t really any fish habitat. Then she’d slog back again.

    She counted migrating salmon, resident trout, marked and observed the movement of gravel bars and logging debris as it flowed slowly downstream. She knew immediately when a run came in and whether is was late or early, bigger or smaller than previous years, what the timing for different species was, where the cutthroat and rainbows lay in wait to feast on stolen eggs and where the fingerlings hid out from other predators.

    But that was then. Those days are long gone in the aftermath of relentless rounds of downsizing under successive Conservative and Liberal federal governments. It’s become like that old proverb about the weather; everybody talks about the pillaging of the environment but nobody ever does anything about it.

    Moreover, as an article in the Globe and Mail pointed out almost 20 years ago, the problem now afflicting us is the arrogance of a kind of science that prefers statistics and mathematical models to the old-fashioned data-gathering of sloshing through the rain with a pencil, a notebook and an eye cocked for bears in the willows.

    As it pointed out: “Today, fisheries managers know more and more about fewer and fewer stocks. They look at a limited number of rivers, gathering detailed information through tagging programs, test fisheries and hydro-acoustic counting stations. Then they apply mathematical models to estimate the overall status of stocks. But they may not know when a tiny stream that usually had a run of 500 salmon now has none.”

    A number of dedicated fisheries managers never lost sight of feet on the ground and helped organize volunteer stream watchers. But they aren’t the grizzled old-timers who used short-term fish counting contracts to supplement incomes largely earned in the outdoors. They are householders, parents, part-timers with full-time jobs and they tend to monitor streams close to home, not those that require running a tinny up on a remote beach, serious bushwhacking, coping with bears come to feed on the spawners and camping out in the rain.

    Putting to Indigenous Guardians the renewed task of monitoring salmon streams and their health at first hand seems blindingly obvious in its merits. This is especially true for those streams apparently beyond the scope of fisheries science that’s focused on big, high-value salmon runs, to the detriment of all those small runs that contributed so heavily to the diversity, abundance and richness of life on this coast.

    The proposal from the BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council seems such an indisputable win for everyone that we should all nag our provincial and federal governments to act swiftly and vigorously to put Guardians in every watershed and to do it sooner rather than later.

    Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.

    User Feedback

    Recommended Comments

    There are no comments to display.

  • Create New...