Photo credit: Josh Neufeld
Additionally, whereas industry tends to focus on reducing harm to property, Yunesit’in people view stewardship as more than a job. For them, a lasting relationship with the land builds long-term health for the community.
With jobs, “somebody can retire in the province, someone can get fired or find another job and they lose all the knowledge,” Myers Ross says. “If you have the consciousness and the love, the community wants to continue this type of work out of their love of the land and their need to be resourced on it …[it’s] just the way that we look at the land.”
Myers Ross and Nikolakis have seen the power of cultural burning, which intertwines environmental benefits with social and cultural ones. As people heal and shape the land, it increases their connection to it, and in turn, heals them.
Nikolakis says, “We had residential school survivors engaged in it. And just from discussions with them…they felt very empowered, and they felt [it was] healing on the land.”
Sustaining the land for future generations
“This year, we went even bigger and applied cultural burning to 150 hectares of territory, just in [Tsilqhot’in lands] alone, and employed nearly 30 people…from elders to youth,” Nikolakis says.
The project is currently in the process of standardizing a methodology to make it “fully functional and financially sustainable” through cultural burning carbon credits with the goal of scaling the program up.
Fire management is only “one activity under a big umbrella,” of stewardship Myers Ross says.
In light of the climate crisis, the vision Gathering Voices Society is striving toward is greater recognition of Indigenous land rights. Nikolakis hopes to see “Indigenous people taking a bigger stewardship role over lands in BC and waters. And fire being a critical tool for [them] to use to steward land.”
Describing the pilot as a success and stressing the research that goes into ensuring its safety, Nikolakis emphasizes the urgency for governments to incorporate Indigenous-led fire management, but adds that they have been slow to grant Indigenous communities autonomy over these practices. Both Nikolakis and Myers Ross express the need for Indigenous control over stewardship and a greater dedication to reconciliation.
While there is growing interest in Indigenous guardianship at the provincial level, Myers Ross says nations are forced to jump through hoops to implement it. For example, Yunesit’in territory is on contested Crown lands, requiring the Yunesit’in to go through the government to manage their own lands; they have to pilot programs and prove their success to the government.
In the fight for a liveable future, programs like this which seek to empower Indigenous communities and make them resilient, are vital.
While Myers Ross hopes their success will inspire other Indigenous nations to undertake similar programs, he adds governments must be willing to hand over the reins to Indigenous communities to take the lead in managing their lands.
Nikolakis says, “Managing your land for future generations is a critical piece.”