For the twenty-six graduates of Vancouver Island University’s innovative and ground-breaking 2015—2018 First Nations Stewardship Technicians Training Program, the future is unlimited.
“What do you feel was your greatest success in the program?”
“Learning about myself, and gaining the confidence to continue my education.”
“I became more outgoing.”
“I discovered I’m smarter than I thought. I realized I have the potential to be a leader for my people.”
“Persevering to complete the program, and commit myself through it all.”
“The chance to be a mentor to the younger and less experienced students. It helped them but it also helped me in my learning and leadership skills.”
“Moving onto more post-secondary education afterwards.”
“Passing the Parks Canada legislation course! It was such a hard course but I did it, I passed.”
“Facing and overcoming my anger.”
“The fact I learned something in every one of the courses, and I passed them all and graduated!”
Feedback from students in the Stewardship Technicians Training Program, 2018
“This program was something I’ll be able to use to build on for my future, my whole life, not just whatever I am doing now,” says Cory Frank passionately.
Frank, a K’ómoks First Nation Guardian Watchman, graduated in 2017 from an innovative and game-changing stewardship program initiated in 2015 by Vancouver Island University (VIU) in partnership with Nanwakolas Council. “I encouraged everyone to take all the courses,” says Frank. “I told them, take everything! That’s the way you can become knowledgeable.”
The two-year intensive program was run twice with two separate cohorts of students: the first from 2015—2017, and a second cohort from 2016—2018. During the course of the program Frank and his fellow students from various First Nations on northern Vancouver Island studied everything from environmental assessment to how to operate and repair small marine engines. They learned hard skills such as data collection and inventory monitoring techniques, biological sampling, fish identification, archaeological inventory methodology and use of field equipment. They also acquired other skills that are essential to effective resource stewardship, including effective communication methods, management of safety protocols. Equally importantly, they learned about the relationship of indigenous governance and cultural laws to their scientific work.
In March 2018 the second cohort of students successfully graduated from the program, celebrating with their families, elders and chiefs in the Kwantwatsi Big House in Campbell River, where they proudly received their diplomas from Nanwakolas President Dallas Smith as faculty from VIU looked on and applauded their outstanding achievement.
K’ómoks graduate Kristina Brown took the microphone to tell the gathered crowd: “Everything we were taught in this program was something we could take out from the academic level into the field, and learn how to translate the data we gathered from a scientific point of view and then relate it to our cultural and traditional point of view.”
“Today,” concluded Dallas Smith as he drew the ceremony to a close, “is another significant step forward in protecting our Nations’ lands and waters. I would like to thank Vancouver Island University for recognising the importance of keeping our people here in our homelands, and understanding that is the best medicine for all of us.”
How it all began
Hereditary Chief (K’omoks member) Rob Everson attended the first graduation ceremony in 2017. As sparks crackled and flew from the burning cedar logs in the centre of the Big House, Everson expressed what was in everyone’s hearts and minds: “It’s so important for us as First Nations people to have our eyes and ears on the ground and know what is going on in the territory, to ensure our Aboriginal rights and title are protected, and protecting who we are as a people.”
Four years previously, recalled Everson, “I was on Nanwakolas Council when the Chiefs all decided to do this. We discussed it and we decided that educational training was the best gift we could give to our people. This is the outcome we wanted.”
We Wai Kum Chief Chris Roberts was working for Nanwakolas Council at the time. “Nanwakolas was hearing loud and clear from the Chiefs as well as the communities we worked for that there was an urgent need to increase the Nations’ presence in the territories,” recalls Roberts. “If we are the eyes and ears on the water and on our homelands, we have to fix this huge disconnect from those homelands. We need to have our own Guardian Watchmen, our own skilled and trained resource stewards, taking care of them for us.”
Nanwakolas staff set to work to find out what could be done. “We had a good relationship with the Coastal Stewardship Network, who were about eight years ahead of us in this work, partnering with Vancouver Island University,” says Roberts. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, we wanted to be able to build on that proven success, and they were very helpful to us in sharing their learnings. The most fundamental one was that to provide real value, to be successful as resource stewards, that training and knowledge is absolutely essential.”
“The partnership between VIU and Nanwakolas Council has been a game changer for the Nations we represent. Nanwakolas identified the need from years of land use and marine planning for getting community members back out and being active in the territory. There is no point in doing these plans if we can’t be out there monitoring what is going on to make sure they are doing what we all agreed to in the plans. We developed an educational pathway that has been truly meaningful and important to First Nations communities. This training along with practical experience has put the Nations on the map and government, industry and others are respecting the work we are doing. Fully empowered stewardship is the long-term goal and thanks to the VIU Stewardship Technician Program we are well on our way.”
—Feedback from Nanwakolas staff on the Stewardship Technicians Training Program, 2018
How VIU became involved
VIU’s Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement representative Sheila Cooper was working with the Coastal First Nations-Great Bear Initiative (CFN-GBI) when Nanwakolas Council staff let CFN-GBI know they would be interested in a similar program for the Nanwakolas First Nations. “CFN-GBI undertook a training needs analysis to determine the skills set needed for Guardians, and the initial pilot was 7 courses which increased to the current 14 courses delivered to Nanwakolas, recalls Cooper.
The objective of the program was not only to provide the necessary skills and knowledge to work as resource stewards in their respective territories, but to enable work opportunities following graduation in fields such as Guardian Watchmen, fisheries technicians, heritage surveyors and environmental monitors. By offering industry-recognized certificates and university credits that could be applied to further post-secondary studies, the program would provide previously un-dreamed of opportunities to its participants.
But there was far more to the approach to consider than the courses themselves. “We knew we would have potential participants with not much confidence in themselves,” observes Chief Roberts. “Some of them never thought they could go to university. They would think of themselves ‘just a kid from this First Nation,’ or ‘just a worker.’ We knew we had to set this up in a way that was supportive of their situation and helped them realize that in fact they are capable of higher education, of achieving these goals, and succeeding.”
The cohort and community-based model proved to be an effective way of encouraging group learning across communities. It provided students with an opportunity to learn both from instructors and one another. Each course provided an opportunity for different students to share their knowledge alongside the teachers. The success of the group was prioritized over and above individual successes, which ultimately led to greater success rates over all.
—STTP Final Report, 2018
Community driven, cohort based
The graduation rate of those who enrolled in the program, says Sheila Cooper, was extraordinarily high. She thinks there are several reasons for that. “Firstly, it was so important the communities told us what they were looking for, rather than VIU telling communities what the program should be,” says Cooper. “It was critical that we worked together and collaborated on the approach to make this educational experience work for the students.” One of the key messages to VIU was the need to make it easy for the students—many of whom were in full time employment already—to take the courses close to home rather than having to travel to a VIU campus.
“That on-location model was ideal,” says VIU instructor Greg Klimes. The students were comfortable and on familiar ground. “That model kept students closer to home, and allowed the host students to welcome the others into their traditional territory. There was so much sharing and camaraderie in the classrooms as a result,” says Klimes.
The second success factor was running the program with cohorts of students rather than on an individual basis. “Those cohorts became like families,” says Cooper. “They included a wide range of ages and experience to bring to the table and share with the others.” Instructor Tania Smethurst observes: “There was an amazing bonding that happened between the students as a result of spending so much time together.”
Former Nanwakolas staff member Greg Johnson, who spent a great deal of time providing in-classroom support, says: “The work was very challenging, and so was the schedule, because it was hands-on learning for a week, then a week in the field, while some of these students were working at the same time. They also had to get or maintain other standard prerequisite certification at the same time, like wilderness first aid and swiftwater rescue. It was a lot to ask of people.”
What made it work, he says, were the students themselves. “The students talked a lot about how they were gaining confidence in themselves and their skills in dealing with technical methods and systems and so on, but they also talked constantly about the huge side benefit of learning alongside each other.”
Johnson agrees with Klimes about the benefits of sharing in the community-based classrooms. Participants who struggled in one area typically received a helping hand from someone who found it easy, and vice-versa in another area: “It seemed there was a real balancing out, and the students appreciated each other’s support and knowledge.”
Getting to know participants from other parts of the coast was a huge plus: “Mixing with each other that way, they were learning about how things are done elsewhere and building strong relationships that they could carry out in the field with them,” says Johnson. That’s powerful: “It’s building this strong network of people all working as stewards in their respective areas, who now know who to call when they see something that affect someone else’s area. That collaboration and coordination is good for them, and for the environment they are all working to protect.”
“For me the best part has been meeting and working with all the other First Nations. We don’t often have a chance to do that. I’ve made some great friendships that are going to continue past the end of the course. We’re all working for the same goals and I see this as having been the best start for getting there.”
—Harry Alfred, ‘Namgis First Nation, 2017
“It’s made all of us stronger working together rather than as individuals. We’ve been able to learn from each other and we’re going to keep learning from each other through this great bond we’ve made.”
—Ian McDougal, ‘Namgis First Nation, 2017
A unique cultural approach
Cultural awareness training, working with elders from different communities, was offered as part of the program. “That was a very exciting aspect of the work,” recalls Chris Roberts. “Cultural awareness training was uniquely designed for us by elders from different communities. It’s such an important course. Knowledge of customary ways of working and an understanding of the environment from that perspective can’t be taken for granted.”
“The title of ‘Cultural Awareness’ for the course didn’t do it justice,” continues Roberts. “It was such an important aspect of the work that had to be done—knowledge of how things are supposed to be done, the history and tradition behind certain customary ways of working, and an understanding of the environment from a cultural perspective—you can’t take that for granted. It’s so important.”
Roberts is delighted that VIU supported including a course like Cultural Awareness in the program: “It’s not part of a typical technical skills delivery system, so this was ground-breaking. With the combination of the traditional western technical scientific skills as well as the First Nations approach to the methodology and experience, the credibility of the program was very high as a result.”
Sheila Cooper says another unique aspect of the program was what she describes as “Indigenous portfolio development” for the students. “We helped the students document their qualifications and their experience, whether that has been obtained through non-traditional educational pathways or simply through the work and experiences they have had. The portfolio is intended to be a valuable asset in applying for courses or credits that usually rely on more traditional educational qualifications, so we were excited about that, too.”
Tania Smethurst instructed the Indigenous Portfolio Program. She adds: “It was such a pleasure to watch the students complete their other courses, then check back in with my course to update their portfolios—I could see them all growing and being more and more proud of the work they were doing and what they were accomplishing.”
I’ve seen a massive growth in pride in the students over time. Most of them never expected to be taking university courses, especially the more mature students. You see this real bloom of confidence when they realize what they are doing, and that the teachers are even learning from them! They acquire confidence in speaking in public, first with each other, and then out in the field; they see this whole new array of employment opportunities opening up for them; and for some of them, it’s the first time they have had a real chance to reflect on their cultural identity, and they all talked about how important that was as part of the program.
—Sheila Cooper, VIU Office of Aboriginal Education and Engagement, 2018
Putting learning into practice
The courses included compliance training, involving role-playing scenarios out in the field. “Having that kind of experience, even just through scenarios, really builds your confidence to talk to people and deal with real life situations,” says Da’naxda’xw graduate Stanley Beans.
It’s a huge tribute to the designers of the program that Stanley feels that way; when he first started the course, it was difficult to get two words out of the diffident young man. Today, he is proud of what he does and he is not shy about saying so: “It feels really good to be out there in the territory taking care of it, and knowing how to do that.”
Together with fellow graduate and Guardian Harold Glendale, who is also Da’naxda’xw, Stanley has been putting his knowledge and skills to work for several years now, including building cabins on Knight Inlet to house themselves and two up-and-coming Da’naxda’xw junior Guardians, monitoring hunters and their catch, assisting with the annual eulachon catch, helping bear-watching guides and educating the public.
Both Gina Thomas and Brandon Wilson are also now fully-fledge certified Stewardship Technicians, graduating in March 2017. After boasting in 2017 that they planned to “dive into” the next season, they also both literally did just that—obtaining their open water and dry suit dive certification with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) in May 2018.
When Tlowitsis decided to engage marine biologist Don Tillapaugh to work with the First Nation on a two-year shellfish research project near Port Neville, on Johnstone Strait, Thomas and Wilson were ready. “The idea is to study what kind of environmental characteristics are required to be successful, what causes die-off, the frequency of fouling and predation issues,” says Thomas. The information gleaned from the study will help Tlowitsis determine the feasibility of farming different types of shellfish and the infrastructure required.
Mamalilikulla Guardian Watchman Darren Puglas, who graduated from the program in 2018, has enjoyed all of his newfound knowledge coming into play. Among the many other projects he has undertaken, Puglas and his colleagues have worked with archaeologists to identify and complete assessments of more than fifty archaeological sites on islands throughout Mamalilikulla territory. “I really liked that work,” remarks Puglas. “We’re working hard to protect those sites from further damage and loss and taking care of them.”
The First Nation’s once-thriving village sites and sacred burial locations also happen to be popular with twenty-first century tourists, who like to camp on the islands and enjoy the spectacular scenery. “Part of our work was to find places they can go and camp that won’t disturb these archaeological sites,” explains Puglas. “It’s a win-win that way, because they are happy to be directed to good places to go and we know our sites are being protected from harm.”
“I loved the training I had to do to be out here doing this,” says Puglas of the stewardship program. “I love that I get to be out here with that knowledge and those skills, doing the testing work, helping people who need it, operating independently. I really love that I am getting a chance to take care of the territory. It’s our turn to do that, the younger ones. It’s where our people used to live, where our parents lived. Now it’s our turn.”
“You have to be committed to the course and to finishing it. That was easy with the classmates we had. They kept me coming back to it, all these new friends I made.”
—Stanley Beans, Da’naxda’xw /Awaetlatla First Nation
“Meeting all the people, that was the highlight for me.”
—Shane Pollard, Wei Wai Kum First Nation
“I did fifteen different courses in two years. It was hard work, but they were all good. The Environmental Technician course was the highlight for me.”
—Antonio Billie, K’ómoks First Nation
“If you enjoy the outdoors, and you love the water, you’re going to love doing this. But you have to dig deep. You have to put all of yourself into it. This is not all for you, remember, it’s for our people.”
—Ian McDougal, ‘Namgis First Nation
These stories and many others about graduates of the VIU stewardship training program, and the work of the Ha-ma-yas Guardians over the last few years, can be found at www.hamayas.com.