Numuch Keitlah, left, and Jake Thomas, centre, participate in a Coastal Nations search and rescue exercise off the coast of Vancouver Island in this undated handout photo. The recently operational Coastal Nations Coast Guard Auxiliary has more than 50 members from five Indigenous territories who are trained in marine search and rescue. They are on call day and night to respond to emergencies along some of B.C.’s most rugged and remote coastal areas. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Jordan Wilson *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Numuch Keitlah, left, and Jake Thomas, centre, participate in a Coastal Nations search and rescue exercise off the coast of Vancouver Island in this undated handout photo. The recently operational Coastal Nations Coast Guard Auxiliary has more than 50 members from five Indigenous territories who are trained in marine search and rescue. They are on call day and night to respond to emergencies along some of B.C.’s most rugged and remote coastal areas. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Jordan Wilson *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Canada’s first Indigenous-led coast guard auxiliary patrols B.C.’s rugged coast

Auxiliary is part of the feds’ $1.5 billion plan to improve marine safety and protect the environment

The winds were gusting at 110 kilometres per hour and huge waves were ripping boats from their moorings in Bella Bella, B.C., as a report came in of an overturned vessel with at least one person missing.

Robert Johnson says volunteer members from one of Canada’s first Indigenous-led coast guard auxiliary teams were out on the water at the height of one of the season’s first big storms just days ago, rounding up boats cast adrift and successfully rescuing a fisherman from a remote beach.

“It’s quite interesting up here,” Johnson said in a recent interview from Bella Bella on the province’s central coast.

“We had multiple call outs. Vessels were breaking loose down at the government dock. We had the sea bus shelter down at the government dock losing its full structure. We had one vessel trying to tow another vessel but had to let it loose.”

The 39-year-old member of the Heiltsuk Nation said helping people in distress on the water is something he’s done most of his life, but the opportunity to lead a trained team of volunteers as an auxiliary zone co-ordinator is a chance to help people and bring pride to his community.

The recently operational Coastal Nations Coast Guard Auxiliary has more than 50 members from five Indigenous territories who are trained in marine search and rescue. They are on call day and night to respond to emergencies along some of B.C.’s most rugged and remote coastal areas.

The auxiliary is part of the federal government’s $1.5 billion plan to improve marine safety and protect the environment.

Johnson said the area’s often treacherous waters will be safer with the presence of Indigenous auxiliary members who know the territory intimately and have received Canadian coast guard search and rescue training.

“It’s a real good thing for everybody up and down the coast,” he said.

READ MORE: Two B.C. Indigenous Coast Guard auxiliary units receive big financial boost

Conrad Cowan, the auxiliary’s executive director, said he believes the 2015 sinking of a whale-watching vessel near Tofino and the rescue of 21 people by fishermen and others in boats from the nearby Indigenous village of Ahousaht helped provide the genesis for the program. Six passengers died.

In 2006, Indigenous people from the Gitga’at First Nation near Prince Rupert got into their boats in the middle of the night to rescue passengers when the BC Ferries vessel Queen of the North ran aground and sank with 101 people on board, killing two passengers, Cowan said.

He said the Indigenous units will work with the coast guard and Victoria’s Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre, which dispatches rescue teams, but their advantage is location and knowledge of the areas.

“They are right there to respond,” he said. “That’s the key point. We have people now, crews in community who are well equipped, have the best equipment, the safest of equipment and have the highest level of training appropriate for what they are doing.”

Ahousaht and Nisga’a have received federal grants to provide specialized boats for their units while the other teams will use their members personal vessels, which have been certified by the coast guard as suitable for patrols and rescues.

Ahousaht zone co-ordinator Stephen Keitlah said his community has a marine rescue culture and having the auxiliary unit is a matter of pride.

“Everyone in Ahousaht has a radio at home,” he said. “It’s just one of the ways people communicate here in Ahousaht is by VHF radio. It’s more than likely everyone is going to hear someone in distress. That’s one of the greater parts of living in Ahousaht is everyone is always willing to drop what they are doing and go out and help.”

Keitlah, 24, said the team is still getting used to receiving calls from the coast guard and the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre after years of responding to emergencies heard over local radio.

Some Bella Bella residents are also looking to the Indigenous-led auxiliary program as a initiative to build a successful working relationship with the government, Johnson said.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Canadian Coast GuardIndigenous

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The University of the Fraser Valley Peace and Reconciliation Centre
UFV students hold online forum on peace and reconciliation

Two online sessions on Feb. 25 include student research

The south side of the Bellevue Hotel in its current state. Council photo.
Facelift for Mission’s Bellevue Hotel around the corner

Revised facade, landscaping improvements presented to council

web
MORE PHOTOS: Pink Shirt Day in Mission

Mission residents wore pink today to help send out the anti-bullying message

A new Fraser Valley food hub in Abbotsford will include shared kitchen space that can be accessed by small and medium-sized businesses. (Stock photo by Robyn Wright from Pixabay)
Almost $2M to support new Fraser Valley food hub in Abbotsford

Project being developed by District of Mission and Mission Community Skills Centre

Nietzsche, the ginger cat who worked at The Book Man, poses for a photo on Sept. 7, 2017. He died on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Famous Chilliwack bookstore cat, Nietzsche, dies

‘Every single thing you could want in a cat, Nietzsche embodied,’ says Amber Price

Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.'s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
456 new COVID-19 cases in B.C., 2 deaths

Since January 2020, 78,278 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in B.C.

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Vaccinating essential workers before seniors in B.C. could save lives: experts

A new study says the switch could also save up to $230 million in provincial health-care costs

The late Michael Gregory, 57, is accused of sexually exploiting six junior high students between 1999 and 2005. (Pixabay)
Former Alberta teacher accused of sexually assaulting students found dead in B.C.

Mounties say Michael Gregory’s death has been deemed ‘non-suspicious’

A woman boards a transit bus through rear doors, in Vancouver, on Friday, March 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
TransLink slow to reveal crucial details about ransomware attack, says union

Union says company took months to admit what info was stolen, including SIN and bank account details

According to a new poll, a majority of Canadians want to see illicit drugs decriminalized. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Majority of Canadians think it’s high time to decriminalize illicit drugs: poll

More than two-times the B.C. residents know someone who died from an overdose compared to rest of Canada

Photograph By @KAYLAXANDERSON
VIDEO: Lynx grabs lunch in Kamloops

A lynx surprises a group of ducks and picks one off for lunch

(Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. residents can reserve provincial camp sites starting March 8

B.C. residents get priority access to camping reservations in province

Travis Selje with Rex, the family dog he got to enjoy for the final six months of his life. (Submitted photo)
Defence says evidence ‘compelling, overwhelming’ to acquit Surrey woman in deadly crash

Epileptic seizure caused fatal crash that killed Travis Selje, lawyer argues in final submissions

Most Read