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

Delta North MLA Ravi Kahlon was sworn in as minister of minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation by B.C. Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin and Premier John Horgan during a virtual ceremony on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. (Province of BC/YouTube screen shot)
Delta North MLA named minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation

Ravi Kahlon was sworn in by Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin during a virtual ceremony on Thursday, Nov. 26

The City of Delta is receiving $77,250 from Natural Resources Canada’s Zero-Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Program for the installation of 20 electric vehicle charging stations at public facilities in the community, like this one outside the new North Delta Centre for the Arts. (James Smith photo)
Delta to receive $77K for more electric vehicle charging stations

The federal funding will help expand Delta’s network of public charging stations by 20 in 2021

Surrey city Councillor Brenda Locke. (File photo)
Brenda Locke trying to breathe life into Surrey’s defunct Public Safety Committee

Surrey councillor’s motion will be up for debate at a future council meeting

Steve ‘Elvis’ Elliott performs for residents of Amica White Rock. Exercise-to-music programs that led to a threat of city fines due to a noise complaint are to resume next week. (Contributed file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak declared at Amica White Rock

Peace Portal Seniors Village outbreak declared over

Wickson Pier in Crescent Beach is closed to the public, as work to replace and repair piles continues. (Susan Richards de Wit photo)
PHOTOS: Repairs to Crescent Beach pier complete

$180,000 Wickson Pier project included pile replacement, says City of Surrey parks manager

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry update the COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Nov. 23, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. sets another COVID-19 record with 887 new cases

Another 13 deaths, ties the highest three days ago

Arthur Topham has been sentenced to one month of house arrest and three years of probation after breaching the terms of his probation. Topham was convicted of promoting hate against Jewish people in 2015. (Photo submitted)
Quesnel man convicted for anti-Semitic website sentenced to house arrest for probation breach

Arthur Topham was convicted of breaching probation following his 2017 sentence for promoting hatred

Langley School District's board office. (Langley Advance Times files)
‘Sick Out’ aims to pressure B.C. schools over masks, class sizes

Parents from Langley and Surrey are worried about COVID safety in classrooms

The baby boy born to Gillian and Dave McIntosh of Abbotsford was released from hospital on Wednesday (Nov. 25) while Gillian continues to fight for her life after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
B.C. mom with COVID-19 still fighting for life while newborn baby now at home

Son was delivered Nov. 10 while Gillian McIntosh was in an induced coma

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

B.C. Premier John Horgan, a Star Trek fan, can’t resist a Vulcan salute as he takes the oath of office for a second term in Victoria, Nov. 26, 2020. (B.C. government)
Horgan names 20-member cabinet with same pandemic team

New faces in education, finance, economic recovery

A new ‘soft reporting’ room is opening inside the Ann Davis Transition Society offices on Dec. 1, 2020 which is thought to be the first of its kind in B.C. (Ann Davis Transitional Society/ Facebook)
New ‘trauma-informed’ reporting room opening next week in Chilliwack

It’s a space for reporting domestic violence, sexual assault, or gender-based violence to police

The corporate headquarters of Pfizer Canada are seen in Montreal, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. The chief medical adviser at Health Canada says Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine could be approved in Canada next month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Health Canada expects first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved next month

Canada has a purchase deal to buy at least 20 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine,

Most Read