Emaciated bears and dwindling salmon stocks have prompted the Mamalilikulla First Nation to push forward with a conservation plan to protect part of its traditional territory.
It has declared an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) in the Gwa̱xdlala/Nala̱xdlala (Lull Bay/Hoeya Sound) area — located up Knight Inlet.
The inlet off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island near Campbell River is home to a unique sponge and coral reef, estuaries and salmon bearing streams.
Frances Roberts, the Mamalilikulla marine and lands co-ordinator, says about a year and a half ago, the First Nation hired a bear biologist to assess grizzlies in the area.
She says the findings were stark.
"[They] alarmed us to the point that we knew we needed to get something done, needed to protect them and needed to help them because they were dying."
Roberts says the reef has also been damaged by fishing activity and they want to ensure they're able to protect what remains.
The Mamalilikulla say the IPCA declaration is intended to help it take the lead when it comes to planning and use of the area as it works to restore its traditional governance.
Chief John Powell linked the establishment of the protected area to larger issues of climate change and reconciliation.
He says in the mid-1990s there were about 150,000 fish in the three watersheds within the IPCA, but this year they counted just 26.
"One bear could not live on all 26 fish that are in all three rivers. This is exactly the reason why we need to protect the bears. We need to protect the salmon."
Powell says the declaration itself is a "constructive challenge" to the provincial and federal governments to work together with his nation.
He wants to establish protocols between his nation and the provincial and federal governments that would be similar to the protocols among individual First Nations that recognize each other's sovereignty.
"So that's the basis that we want to make these agreements with the government. Not under memorandums of understanding but under protocols which hold us responsible and the government as well."
Summit with province planned
Powell says a summit between B.C. cabinet ministers and First Nations leaders was planned for this week but cancelled because of flooding. He hopes meetings can be set up quickly with both the province and the federal government to discuss the Mamalilikulla's plans for the protected area.
"What we save, saves everybody. We don't just talk about the Mamalilikulla, we talk about saving our neighbouring tribes … and all the people of British Columbia. Because if this is lost, it's not going to be regained."
Meetings with Interfor and commercial fishers have also been set up to discuss use of forest tenures and the waters within the IPCA.
On Monday, a ceremony was held at the Royal B.C. Museum to celebrate the declaration and Roberts says she is proud to have worked on the project and excited for it to move forward.
"Super proud of the chief and all the hard work that we've all done to get to this point. Actually seems kind of surreal to be honest."
The Mamalilikulla is currently in the process of finding a permanent home base for its nation. Its traditional territory is in the Broughton Archipelago and parts of Knight Inlet, but its members are now spread out across Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and the United States after many left in the 1970s due to a lack of economic opportunities.
Powell says the Mamlilikulla ownership of Gwaxdlala (Lull Bay) has recently been returned to them and the First Nation is in the final process of having Nalaxdlala (Hoeya Bay) returned, after those areas were excluded from their reserves by the McKenna McBride Royal Commission, which held hearings between between 1914 and 1918.
"They literally, at the stroke of the pen, excluded Gwa̱xdlala and Nala̱xdlala from the Mamalilikulla territory because there were logging tenures there. And so we lost this land for over 100 years."
In a statement, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development says it is aware of the IPCA declaration and it is engaging with the Mamalilikulla through "established forums and protocols" to review it.
The ministry says it is working with the Mamalilikulla "to conserve and protect environmentally and culturally significant areas surrounding Knight Inlet but did not comment on a timeline for those discussions.