It’s 11:20 PM on Monday, May 30. I’m nestled in my tent on the west beach of Calvert Island, my clothes smelling like cigar smoke and driftwood fire, listening to the waves casting themselves ashore the same way they have since the time of our First Generation stories. I don’t blame the sea. Here, where I am, burrowed amid the old logs dragged up by storms and historic tides – at the very edge of the treeline, in that beautiful limbo where the ground beneath you cries “land” while the sea sings you swimming into sleep – there is no place more beautiful and balanced. Here, the land and water lean against one another in the same way they have since time immemorial.
But why am I here? I’m on Calvert Island as a very blessed participant in the 4th annual gathering of the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network. I’m not here to tell the story of the Network. For that, I urge you to explore their website, and in particular to watch their video introduction. It tells a powerful story – in the voices of the Guardian Watchmen themselves, as it should be. What I will tell you is that this is an incredible gathering of Nations, and a chance for the stewards of our lands and waters – of our shared and respective territories – and by extension, of our way of life as indigenous people – a chance for them to build bridges and share strength, and to empower themselves and one another by creating opportunities to work in unison.
My role at the gathering this year is a little unusual. This is my third time joining the Guardian Watchmen at their annual meeting, and in past years, I’ve acted as a note-taker, recording the proceedings for the facilitators and participants. This year, my role seems much simpler on the surface – though personally, I find it to be a complex honour. I’m attending the gathering as a designated witness. Since I don’t have a personal or professional agenda that brings me to the conference, I am a step removed from these conversations. I’m here to observe, to reflect, and to communicate. To do so is, I feel, a great privilege. I’m in a unique position, external to the Network but sharing its values – able to celebrate the things that have become second-nature and take a long vision on the progress and challenges. I hope my perspective will prove welcome and useful!
Tonight, at the opening of the gathering, what struck me most was the incredible solidarity. Andrew Johnson and William Housty, from the Wuikinukv and Heiltsuk Nations respectively, stood together to welcome the participants to the shared territory. From the moment everyone converged at the dock in Bella Bella to travel to Calvert Island, old friends found occasion to catch up, new participants were welcomed with sincere enthusiasm – and by the time we got to Hakai Beach Institute, we’d all mapped out our family trees and figured out how we were connected across our tribes. The beauty of gatherings like this is the opportunity to make each other family. When the participants were asked to volunteer their thoughts on why it’s important that we gather like this, one of our Nuxalk cousins made the clearest statement: we’re here “to erase boundaries and work together”.
The natural and cultural values that we map on to our coast are common across our territory lines. The threats to those values are clear. And as we all develop strategies to protect, manage, monitor and celebrate the incredible beauty, history and ecological integrity of our homeland, it’s clear that our greatest progress will be rooted in partnerships. There are no lines drawn on the land, no lines on the water. The cetaceans that navigate our waters and the bears that cross watersheds in search of salmon – the seabirds that swim through the coastal air – our own history of travel, trade and exchange – all these things set a powerful example. What this gathering accomplishes is the opening of a new channel for exchange – a means by which policies, protocols, data and information are moving along the coast. Whether humpback or grizzly or our own ancestors, we see a model whereby critical needs are met by seeking out the places where the resources are strong. The Guardian Watchmen are creating an incredible model of becoming resources for one another.
I look forward immensely to witnessing the dialogue that will span the coming days – and to sharing my reflections, and the strength I know I’ll take away, even one step removed as I am, from a gathering of people whose collective strength grows visibly each time they come together.