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

Premier John Horgan with drawings of replacement bridge for the Pattullo during a February 2018 presser. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Surrey city staff want to act on council’s behalf for ‘minor’ changes to new Pattullo

The old bridge’s replacement is expected to be open for traffic in the fall of 2023

Marchers in support of Indian farmers walk along King George Boulevard in Surrey on Sunday afternoon, March 7, from Bear Creek to Holland Park. (Photo: Tom Zillich)
‘It won’t end’: Protesters march for Indian Farmers at another Surrey rally, with more to come

Across Surrey, more and more vehicles are seen with ‘No Farmers, No Food’ stickers and flags

The emergency department at Peace Arch Hospital in White Rock, B.C., in July 2020. (Black Press Media)
Peace Arch Hospital Foundation reaches $12 million goal

New operating suites to open this fall

(The Canadian Press)
‘Worse than Sept. 11, SARS and financial crisis combined’: Tourism industry in crisis

Travel services saw the biggest drop in active businesses with 31 per cent fewer firms operating

Health Minister Adrian Dix, front, B.C. Premier John Horgan and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrive for a news conference about the provincial response to the coronavirus, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, March 6, 2020. Pandemic emergency measures have been in place for almost a year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. officials plead for patience as 1.7 million COVID-19 calls flood in

Vaccine registration for 90-plus seniors opened Monday

A West Kootenay man died in an avalanche on March 4 while snowmobiling near Mount Payne, which is indicted by the red flag. Illustration: Google Maps
B.C. father of 3 dead after avalanche in West Kootenay

The man was snowmobiling with a group when incident occurred March 4

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Vaccine hesitancy decreases in B.C. as mass immunizations set to begin: poll

Two-thirds of British Columbians, and Canadians, would get the vaccine as soon as possible

Software engineer Shaimma Yehia, 40, has been forced to re-skill during the COVID-19 pandemic after more than six years of unsuccessfully applying for jobs in B.C.’s tech industry. (Submitted photo/Shaimma Yehia)
Why skilled immigrant women continue to be shut out of B.C.’s booming tech sector

Experienced software engineer Shaimma Yehia, 40, hasn’t found a job since she migrated to Canada 6 years ago

Ron Sivorot, business director at Kennametal’s Langford site, the Greater Victoria facility that made a component being used on NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars. (Jake Romphf, Black Press Media)
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover digging in with B.C.-made part

Kennametal’s Langford plant’s tooth blank is helping the rover’s drill collect rock cores

A woman walks through Toronto’s financial district on Monday, July 30, 2018. A new poll suggests most Canadians believe there’s still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in this country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
Canadians, especially women, say gender equality not achieved in Canada: Poll

Poll results themselves underscore the challenge, with more men believing equality had been achieved

This image provided by Harpo Productions shows Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex, left, in conversation with Oprah Winfrey. (Joe Pugliese/Harpo Productions via AP)
Race, title and anguish: Meghan and Harry explain royal rift

Meghan said she struggled with concerns within the royal family about her son’s skin colour

Most Read