In June 2018, on National Indigenous People’s Day, representatives from 14 First Nations gathered near Prince Rupert, along with officials from Canada’s Federal Government, to announce a landmark agreement for working together to protect and manage the North Pacific Coast.
The Reconciliation Framework Agreement for Bioregional Oceans Management and Protection, often referred to simply as the Oceans RFA, charts a way forward in collaborative marine management. The planning region covers a vast coastal area, extending from roughly Campbell River to the Alaska border, which is split into four sub-regions for effective planning – Northern Vancouver Island, Central Coast, North Coast and Haida Gwaii.
Based on a nation-to-nation governance structure, the framework is designed to enhance two critical aspects of marine planning in the region. First, it provides a model for collaborative stewardship of marine ecosystems, aiming to preserve important natural and cultural resources through the creation of marine protected areas. It also strives to ensure safety in all coastal communities by enhancing emergency response capabilities and improving local and regional management of shipping traffic.
The framework formalizes a more rigorous and collaborative process for federal officials to work with coastal Nations, ensuring their interests will be considered in management decisions. In other words, it reduces the number of unilateral decisions from external agencies affecting the long-term future of coastal communities.
“It is clear that to be successful, oceans management and protection must be Indigenous-led and must support coastal First Nations’ vision for a marine safety regime that will ensure the protection of our coastal communities, economies and ecosystems.” Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett
“This agreement is an encouraging and positive step forward in our journey toward nation-to-nation collaboration and reconciliation,” said Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett, who spoke to assembled representatives during the Oceans RFA announcement. “It is clear that to be successful, oceans management and protection must be Indigenous-led and must support coastal First Nations’ vision for a marine safety regime that will ensure the protection of our coastal communities, economies and ecosystems.”
On paper, such frameworks may seem somewhat pie-in-the-sky. But since the historic collaborative agreement was announced, several tangible projects are already underway that could have positive impact on coastal lands and waters, specifically along the Central Coast. These include two pilot projects seeking to establish effective coastal management at a regional scale – one project focused on emergency response planning and the other on proactive vessel management to ensure safe shipping through coastal territories.
“The goal of the Regional Response Planning initiative is for all four sub-regions to work together to develop integrated plans for the entire region,” says Diana Chan, who represents the Heiltsuk Nation on the Central Coast sub-regional technical working group and on the overarching regional technical working group. She says each pilot project follows the governance structure set out by the Oceans RFA, and both involve several levels of planning – from a high-level executive committee to technical working groups for conducting on-the-ground work.
The Oceans RFA will have an impact on everything from making articulated barge traffic safer on the Central Coast to making our Nations more prepared to respond to marine emergencies and spills. First Nations will continue to play a lead role in this process.
The regional response plan will clarify roles and responsibilities for agencies that need to respond in a coordinated way to inevitable marine spills and accidents, including the kind of equipment and resources marine managers would need and where they will be stationed. Chan says project participants hope to finalize their integrated plan by the end of 2019.
Central Coast Nations are also engaged in another pilot program focused on proactive vessel management, which will offer recommendations on how to better manage shipping traffic in coastal waters. The project will involve information sharing and discussion with other federal and provincial agencies, non-signatory First Nations, the shipping industry and other marine stakeholders in achieving solutions to marine vessel traffic issues.
As with regional response efforts, the vessel management plan will occur within the governance framework established by the Oceans RFA, including high-level coordination of sub-regional steering committees and technical working groups. “Those working groups have already been established, and the sub-regional pilot projects are being carried out,” says Chan. “Now, it’s a matter of collective discussions, stakeholder engagement, and evaluations that will ultimately lead to final recommendations.” Planners hope to present their findings, including lessons learned, best practices and recommendations for the national framework, to all interested parties by late 2019.
Although much of this planning is happening behind the scenes and at a high level, it will have an impact on everything from making articulated barge traffic safer on the Central Coast to making our Nations more prepared to respond to marine emergencies and spills. And the Oceans RFA recognizes that First Nations will continue to play a lead role.