Landmark Funding Announced for Training of Indigenous Guardians on Vancouver Island 

New partnership to invest $1.4 million into Guardians program at Vancouver Island University.

The Vancouver Island University Stewardship Technician Training Program (the STTP) offers First Nations students the skills and qualifications necessary to be land and water Guardians. Photo and Caption Source: VIU.

A Vancouver Island program training Indigenous Guardians at the forefront of environmental protection and coastal safety just received a landmark boost in resources. 

New funding was announced on October 4th for the Vancouver Island University (VIU) Stewardship Technician Training Program (STTP) in Campbell River that teaches prospective Guardians. Indigenous Guardians draw from cultural knowledge and modern conservation practices to steward the land and waters of their traditional territories. Their duties include everything from monitoring salmon stocks and protecting cultural sites to oil spill clean-up and search-and-rescue missions.

The Guardian program will be supported by $1.4 million from the BC Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills in partnership with Nanwakolas Council and Vancouver Island University. The Nanwakolas Council represents six First Nations of northern Vancouver Island and the South Central Coast, including the Mamalilikulla, Tlowitsis, Da’naxda’xw Awaetlala, We Wai Kai, Wei Wai Kum and K’ómoks Nations.

VIU President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Deborah Saucier and Dallas Smith, Nanwakolas Council President, sign the agreement while Selina Robinson, Minister of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills, looks on. Caption Credit: VIU. Photo Source: VIU.

The Skeena spoke with David Cliffe, a Coastal Guardian of the Wei Wai Kum First Nation and graduate of the STTP course. In our interview, he discussed the Guardianship program and the importance of the new funding initiative for the entire province.

“We’re getting all of our cultural traditional knowledge and combining it with the Western modern knowledge, putting the two together like a marriage, and building up partnerships and connections. It’s really been humbling.” 

David Cliffe, a Coastal Guardian of the Wei Wai Kum First Nation and graduate of the STTP course.

Becoming a Guardian

David Cliffe spent 35 years of his life as a fisherman until one fateful day in November 2019 when his boat was unexpectedly destroyed by fire. The unfortunate incident ended up changing his life. Cliffe had heard about the VIU Stewardship Technician Training Program (STTP) and wanted to put his marine skills and coastal knowledge to good use. He also found himself increasingly concerned about the environmental degradation he was seeing all around him and wanted to be part of the solution.

“I came home and had a pity party for a little bit, but then heard about the Guardian Watchman program here in Campbell River. I had an opportunity to put a resume in and got hired in March of 2020. So that’s where my whole life kind of took a turn around,” he said. The 52-year-old father of four graduated from the intensive program on the Dean’s list five months later.

“It really opened up the broader picture,” Cliffe told us. “We’re getting all of our cultural traditional knowledge and combining it with the modern Western knowledge, putting the two together like a marriage, and building up partnerships and connections. It’s really been humbling.” 

Working as a Guardian

Cliffe is now the Manager of a Guardian team of nine who are instrumental in the stewardship of the land and water on Wei Wai Kum territory near Campbell River. They do everything, including wetland and estuary conservation, old-growth cedar protection, environmental and spill response, search-and-rescue missions with the Coast Guard, and even salmon restoration. His Guardians are currently working on a large project at Heyden Lake with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, putting GPS tags on juvenile salmon and monitoring their numbers. 

“If I teach, I keep learning myself and then that helps the whole crew grow together – we’re growing as a family.”

David Cliffe, a Coastal Guardian of the Wei Wai Kum First Nation and graduate of the STTP course.
Guardian students gain knowledge of spill deployment equipment through collaboration with the Canadian Coast Guard. Photo and Caption Source: Times Colonist Victoria. Photo Credit: VIU.

When asked about his favourite part of the many Guardian responsibilities, Cliffe highlighted kelp harvesting. He’s interested in sharing how vital kelp farming and harvesting are not only for food and fertilizer but also as a climate change solution by absorbing carbon

“Research has demonstrated that for every dollar invested in the work of First Nations land and water Guardians… there is at minimum a ten-fold return.”

Dallas Smith, Nanwakolas Council President

“That is probably one of my favourite parts because it’s helping the environment so much,” he said. “It’s the little things that we do today that are going to make that great big difference for tomorrow. I might see the results before I’m done, and I think that’s what I like – to see the progress.”

Vancouver Island University Stewardship Technician Training students learning swiftwater rescue techniques. Photo Source: VIU.

Cliffe has also received specialized training to work with the Coast Guard and looks forward to future search-and-rescue missions. But at the end of the day, he said, it’s the teaching aspect of his job that stands out to him. 

“If I teach, I keep learning myself, and then that helps the whole crew grow together – we’re growing as a family.”

Investing in Guardians of the Future

The new funding and partnership between the Nanwakolas Council and Vancouver Island University is intended to have a widespread impact on students aged 18 to 58. 

STTP students learn hard skills such as data collection and inventory monitoring techniques, biological sampling, fish identification, archaeological inventory methodology, and the use of field equipment. Caption and Photo Source: VIU.

“Research has demonstrated that for every dollar invested in the work of First Nations land and water Guardians … there is at minimum a ten-fold return,” Nanwakolas Council President Dallas Smith said at the press conference. “The investment that our partners at VIU have made in codeveloping a training program with us is absolutely invaluable, especially for our young Indigenous men and women who are on waiting lists to take the STTP and gain the skills and qualifications they need to work as Guardians.”

“We are looking after the land, from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the sea. We are trying to improve not only our traditional territory but the environment for the whole world.” 

David Cliffe, a Coastal Guardian of the Wei Wai Kum First Nation and graduate of the STTP course.

“We’re hoping to reach more people and make them aware of what we’re doing, how important it is, and that we do need more people,” Cliffe said about the growing STTP program. “It’s just a really awesome program because if you want to become a Guardian, it’s really important to have that foundation.”

The positive impact of the Guardians’ stewardship extends beyond Indigenous communities, he told us. “We are looking after the land, from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the sea. We are trying to improve not only our traditional territory but the environment for the whole world.” 

If you are interested in becoming an Indigenous Guardian and attending the STTP course, applications can be obtained through the Nanwakolas Council at 250-286-7200 or by emailing heidikalmakoff@nanwakolas.com.

Written by The Skeena

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