Paul Sieber of the Ditidaht First Nation spent 16 years hiking the West Coast Trail. His steps along the rugged Vancouver Island route, typically 20 kilometres each shift, would almost take him around the circumference of the Earth. "Within our territory, I know where to step, I know where every root is, it is burned into my memory."
Working for Parks Canada, he has done trail maintenance and helped with countless medical emergencies along the way – about 75 hikers will be evacuated each year off the challenging trail. But most of all, he has served as an ambassador for the First Nations who have called this region home for thousands of years.
The West Coast Trail Guardians have been teaching visitors their history for 20 years in a program that has developed into a welcome cultural experience.
Last week, the B.C. government announced it will, in the name of reconciliation, ensure First Nations history is part of the school curriculum – including the difficult legacy of Canada's residential school system. The province marked National Aboriginal Day on Sunday with a funding announcement for the Canadians for Reconciliation Society to lead public dialogues.
B.C. is inching toward a more productive relationship with First Nations. The province charts progress with the 150 non-treaty agreements it has signed with aboriginal communities in the past two years. But to make any kind of significant leap forward, the public has to embrace the need for change.
Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister John Rustad marked National Aboriginal Day in Prince George at a ceremony to rename a city park as a memorial for one of the local First Nations, the Lheidli T'enneh, whose village was burned down to make way for the city's expansion. It is a controversial move and he acknowledged that these changes are easier when the public has been brought along.
"Reconciliation isn't just about aboriginal people, it's about all of us having an understanding of our history," Mr. Rustad said. "It's much more than signing an agreement; it's a conversation that needs to be had," he said.
The Guardians have been a part of the conversation.
The 75-kilometre trail was established more than a century ago to help shipwrecked mariners reach safety. Today, about 6,000 hikers each year tackle the route between the communities of Port Renfrew and Bamfield, perched on the southwest edge of Vancouver Island.
Hikers traverse through the traditional territories of the Pacheedaht, Ditidaht and Huu-ay-aht First Nations. In the 1990s, as the trail gained popularity, those communities were concerned that sacred and sensitive areas, including a graveyard, were being blithely trampled by backpackers. They were unhappy, too, that they had been mostly shut out of the Parks Canada jobs doing maintenance on the trails in their communities.
Wally Samuel Jr. from the nearby Ahousaht First Nation managed the Guardian program for a decade. He said the program had its roots in conflict: "It was a clash of two cultures," he said. "There was an evolution to respect and understanding."
He ensured the Guardians were not just cleaning latrines and repairing the trail. They are trained in the art of communication, so they can share their stories, their connection with the place, with the visitors who come from around the globe. "That was the best part for me – teaching them to be proud of who they are, that they are valuable, that they know something."
Jim Morgan was appointed the First Nations program manager for Pacific Rim National Park in 1995, and the trail's Guardian program was launched that year. Each of the three aboriginal communities has trained staff to patrol and maintain the trail throughout the hiking season. They also provide orientation crews who meet backpackers at the trail heads to help prepare them for the gruelling hike ahead.
"We were ahead of the curve, to build better relationships with the First Nations," said Mr. Morgan, who is now superintendent of the national park. Happily, Parks Canada discovered that trail users loved it.
"We get continuous positive comments from the hikers – it is so exciting to meet up with one of these Guardians around the campfire, to have them tell stories or sing songs. The visitors love it; it gives them a sense of the cultural part of the experience," he said. "People are starving for that."