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 Port Alice Community Centre opened its doors to the public Wednesday through Friday morning, offering coffee, tea, hot soup, meals and warmth. Cots were available for overnight stays. The centre had a generator, so people were able to charge their devices. Approximately 75 residents passed through during the three-day outage. (Debra Lynn photo)
Port Alice residents talk three-day power outage

The Port Alice Community Centre opened its doors to the public Wednesday through Friday morning.

Emma Garriott is releasing her second album titled ‘Sad White Girl Angst.’ (Emma Garriott / Facebook photo)
North Island musician releases second album titled ‘Sad White Girl Angst’

“When you hear it, I want you to feel like your best friend in the whole world is sitting beside you’

Environment Canada has issued a special weather statement forecasting windy weather Sunday and Monday. (News Bulletin file photo)
More windy weather on the way for Vancouver Island

Environment Canada issues special weather statement for Victoria, east coast of Island, north Island

Jay Vaughn, Brian Pohto and Janet Pohto opened up the Island Sun’s tuna freezers for anyone worried about food thawing over the four-day power outage on Malcolm Island. (Christopher Hurst photo)
Community shines bright during power outage

Hardest hit areas on the North Island stepped up to keep neighbours warm and fed

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest weekend of COVID-19 pandemic with 46 deaths; more than 2,300 cases

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides COVID-19 update

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Christy Jordan-Fenton is the co-author of the book Fatty Legs, which has been mentioned amid the controversy of an Abbotsford school assignment on residential schools.
Fatty Legs co-author responds to Abbotsford class assignment on residential schools

Children’s book mentioned amid controversy at W. A. Fraser Middle School

Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka takes over as energy and mines critic for the B.C. Liberal opposition. Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick (right) moves from health critic to assistant deputy speaker. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals pick critics to take on Horgan’s NDP majority

Interim leader Shirley Bond takes seniors, long-term care

Left to right: A screenshot of NTC nurse navigator Lesley Cerney, FNHA regional mental health manager Georjeana Paterson and Island Health’s medical health officer Dr. Charmaine Enns addressing Ehattesaht community members from Ehatis reserve in a Facebook live update. (Ehattesaht First Nation/Facebook)
Medical team sent to Ehatis reserve near Zeballos to guide community through COVID outbreak

17 cases, eight recoveries and no hospitalizations as Island Health praises First Nation’s response

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland listens to a question from a reporter on the phone during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Spending too little worse than spending too much, Freeland says as Canada’s deficit tops $381B

‘The risk of providing too little support now outweighs that of providing too much’

Still from a video surveillance camera of a man alleged to have stolen from several people at knife-point in Chilliwack (Rosedale) early on Nov. 28, 2020. (Facebook)
B.C. man defends his family against intruder, saves neighbour while wielding hockey stick

RCMP looking for footage that captures violent crime spree in Chilliwack

Harbour seals rest on log booms at Flavelle Mill in Port Hardy. With recent announcements the mill will be getting rid of the log booms, Dr. David Rosen sees an opportunity to study how the disappearance of this highly-frequented refuge for the seals will alter their behaviour in Burrard Inlet. (Photo supplied by David Rosen)
What the heck is going on with marine mamals in Vancouver waterways?

UBC researcher asks why they’re returning, and what role we’re playing

Jim Neufeld, 55, was last seen leaving his home in Penticton Jan. 21, 2009. (RCMP photo)
Human remains found off U.S. coast in 2009 identified as Penticton man

Jim Neufeld, 55, was last seen leaving his home in Penticton Jan. 21, 2009

Most Read