Becoming a Guardian Watchmen was not a straightforward journey for Roger Harris. But the job, which involves everything from enforcing conservation rules on the water to responding to search and rescue calls, has become a deeply meaningful one.
He was raised away from his culture and community by a Norwegian family in Hagensborg in the Bella Coola Valley. Growing up, he says, he didn’t understand the vital role Indigenous people played as protectors of the land: “I didn’t know they were protecting our forests from people logging” and our remaining fish stocks from overfishing.
A former Mountie, he joined the Nuxalk Guardian Watchmen nearly a decade ago and says they taught him “the stuff I lost as a child because I was raised in a non-Native home.”
Harris spoke to West Coast Now about his work as a Guardian from the All Native Basketball Tournament in Prince Rupert, where he was with fellow Guardians representing the Nuxalk Nation.
The Coastal Guardian Watchmen is a collaborative program where Indigenous coastal peoples manage, protect, and monitor their traditional territories along the coast. They are responsible for a host of duties, including compliance checks, search and rescue, research and monitoring, data-collecting, and data-sharing with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
As part of his training, Harris did a two-year university course through Vancouver Island University alongside other Guardians from Nations across the coast. The knowledge exchange between Guardians of different communities has been important. “Becoming a Guardian really taught me a lot,” he says. “We shared a lot of information from all Nations. People who grew up how I wished I grew up.”
Nine years into being a Guardian Watchmen, Harris is the ‘go-to guy’ in the Bella Coola community for compliance checks, particularly keeping an eye on sports fishers. “I love talking to people, greeting them on their territory, and educating them while we are out in the field,” he says.
“We run these coast trackers on our tablets that keep all the data,” he explains. For example, when he runs across a sports fisher out on the water, he enters the boat name, the number of people on board and their catch, and then shares it with the Guardians around the province. Last summer, Nuxalk Guardians travelled a whopping 38,000 kilometres patrolling their water and land.
“This year, we just got approved to do prawn surveys on our territory. We are just taking measurements to check if the commercial [fishers] are hitting our territory. If numbers are low, we work with DFO and get those areas closed,” he shares.
As part of the job, he is also available 24/7 for on-call rescues: “Last year, we did 38 rescues. We work closely with the local SAR team in Bella Coola, and we get called quite a bit because of our knowledge of our land and waters.”
Notably, the Nuxalk and Kitasoo/Xai’xais Guardian Watchmen will soon have the same authority as BC Park Rangers as part of a historic memorandum of understanding with the B.C. government announced last year.
Harris and the Guardians have undoubtedly had a significant impact on the Bella Coola community and surrounding area. He’s just excited that word of their important stewardship is getting out there.
“We get a good response from the people who love to see us do what we are doing,” he says.