The protectors of British Columbia’s coast

In the Great Bear Rainforest, Indigenous guardians enforce tribal and environmental laws.


Although gauzy clouds often smother British Columbia’s coastal rainforest, they’re nowhere to be seen on this brilliant September afternoon. The sky is stretched wide open; the ocean flickers with light. On a ragged scrap of land called Calvert Island, the beach is threaded with tracks left by people, shorebirds — even wolves.

At the end of the trail of human footprints, 11 students are gathered around a smattering of white blobs in the sand. Cyndi Peal, a member of the Nisga’a Nation who works seasonally on a commercial fishing boat, stares down at one with her hands on her hips.  

“How do you tell when it’s ready?” she asks. 

Another trainee shrugs. “I don’t know. I’ve never done this before!” 

Cyndi Peal cleans off a plaster cast of a logging spike that she found on the beach during the Coastal Guardian Watchmen training.
Krista Langlois

Peal and the other students are part of a two-year training program to become Coastal Guardian Watchmen — a network of First Nations people who monitor, patrol and enforce tribal and environmental laws in a 250-mile-long puzzle of islands and fjords known as the Great Bear Rainforest. The blobs they’re examining are made from the same inexpensive plaster used to make dental castings. Now, however, the plaster has been poured over footprints and washed-up flotsam — the kind of evidence the trainees might encounter on future patrols.

Peal has poured her plaster over a rusty metal spike, used by loggers to drag timber across the beach to ships. She imagines a hypothetical scenario: Working as a Guardian Watchman, she stumbles onto an illegal logging operation. If the spike has initials or other identifying marks, maybe she can use her plaster cast to help convict the perpetrator.

It may sound like an episode of CSI, but it isn’t outside the realm of possibility. The instructor leading this training, a retired Fishery and Conservation officer named Greg Klimes, once caught a man illegally dumping drywall in the ocean by making a cast of the man’s four-wheeler tracks. He hopes arming Coastal Guardian Watchmen with similar skills will help them promote environmental stewardship and protect their traditional territories from poachers, illegal loggers, and well-meaning tourists who don’t understand the rich cultural heritage of a place that looks, at first glance, like untouched wilderness.

Stretching from north of Vancouver to the Alaskan border, the Great Bear Rainforest has gone by many names. Loggers call it the Mid-Coast Timber Supply Area. The 27 First Nations who call it home have their own names for its islands and rivers, passed down in dozens of languages for 10,000 years or more. The Great Bear Rainforest, in comparison, is a relatively new moniker, coined during decades of negotiation between environmentalists, timber companies and First Nations that culminated in 2016 with legislation to protect 85 percent of the region from logging and development. It’s a name born of compromise, belonging to no one people. And after decades of government-sanctioned clear-cutting and other environmental degradation, it’s tailor-made for the ecotourism that many First Nations have invested in as the foundation of their economic future.

Technically, most of the traditional territory claimed by First Nations and now patrolled by Guardian Watchmen falls under the jurisdiction of the provincial or federal government. But tribes never ceded that land through treaties, and in recent years there’s been a push by First Nations to re-assert their authority over the land and waters they were once forced off of. 

Their efforts were emboldened by a groundbreaking 2014 Canadian Supreme Court case that granted the Tsilhqot’in Nation in British Columbia’s interior “aboriginal title” to 650 square miles outside the tribe’s reservation. The case set a precedent for other First Nations — including those in the Great Bear Rainforest — to take a greater measure of control over natural resource management in their traditional land and waters.

Two Coastal Guardian Watchmen from the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation patrol part of their traditional territory by canoe.
Krista Langlois

Despite this progress, however, tribal authority isn’t always recognized by provincial or federal governments. Although nine First Nations banned sport hunting for black and grizzly bears in 2012, for instance, the British Columbia government issued trophy hunting permits for grizzlies until November 2017, and continues to allow hunters to kill black bears for just their heads or fur.

Even when Indigenous and provincial laws do align — as with the Great Bear protections — such protections “mean nothing without monitoring and enforcement,” says Doug Neasloss, elected chief of the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation and a former watchman. And with provincial budgets shrinking, Coastal Guardian Watchmen are taking over monitoring and enforcement in corners of the Great Bear Rainforest too remote for provincial officials to regularly reach.

The Guardian Watchman model began on a British Columbia archipelago called Haida Gwaii in 1981, but only in the past decade or so has it spread across Canada. Although Watchmen are employed by their own tribes or communities, the network has proven so successful at curbing crime, creating jobs and reconnecting people to their ancestral homelands that, in 2017, the Canadian government pledged $25 million to help fund it.

In the Great Bear Rainforest, watchmen jobs offer well-paid, long-term employment in a region with few such opportunities. They also strengthen First Nations’ ties to forgotten parts of their homeland. And, just as importantly, their mere presence helps deter illegal activity.

The watchmen lack the legal authority to make arrests. But they’ve found that it’s often enough simply to teach the people they encounter about Indigenous laws — which may not be recognized by provincial or federal governments — as well as new protections put in place by the Great Bear legislation. As they walk, boat or paddle canoes through the rainforest, they also record observations about salmon runs or bear activity that are later used by tribal resource managers. “The work Coastal Guardians engage in is work that First Nations people have been committed to since time immemorial,” says Elodie Button, a training coordinator with the network. “That’s why these resources are still here.

Mostly, the work is peaceful. But occasionally — like the time Doug Neasloss came across a headless grizzly carcass — Guardian Watchmen may need to collect evidence or mitigate a conflict; perhaps with people who insist they have the right to take salmon from a river that a tribal government has closed to fishing.

Cyndi Peal once thought she was too shy for such work, but two years of Guardian Watchmen training have convinced her otherwise. “Women are more able to get people to relax, to just talk,” she says. And in Nisga’a culture, women are the keepers of certain kinds of knowledge, especially related to wild foods. “This is the same thing,” she adds. “A passing on and sharing of knowledge.”

Peal also likes the fact that work as a Guardian Watchman would allow her to be closer to home, or at least offer more stability than the commercial fishing she currently does. But that’s in the future; now, Peal decides her plaster casts are ready. She watches several classmates extract theirs, then digs the spike from the sand with a piece of driftwood. The casting comes up cleanly, and she rinses it with salt water and puts it aside.

Next, she lifts another blob, one she poured over her own footprint in the sand. Briefly, she holds it to the blue sky, the ephemeral shape of a human footprint captured permanently in plaster. 

This story was made possible in part through the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

Krista Langlois is a correspondent with High Country News. She writes from Durango, Colorado.

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