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

A fire Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020 about 5 p.m. at the Canoe Forest Products plywood plant was extinguished quickly. (File photo)
Fire at Canoe Forest Products plywood plant quickly extinguished

Fire started in veneer dryer during afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 22

RCMP Cpl. Cory Lepine pictured at BC Livestock Producers Co. in Kamloops, Nov. 16. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Meet B.C.’s only cowboy cop; a voice for the livestock industry

Cpl. Cory Lepine serves as a bridge between the law and those who make a living off the land

Revelstoke Mountain Resort was voted Best Ski Resort in Canada in the 2020 World Ski Awards. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)
Revelstoke Mountain Resort voted best in Canada

The World Ski Awards announced the 2020 winners

Métis carver and elder John Sayer works at the Storefront School in Salmon Arm on Thursday, Nov. 19, helping students learn to carve and sharing his culture, while, in background, student William Dicer hones his carving skills. The masks pictured will be placed on trees in Little Mountain Park as part of a student project. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)
Video: New faces to emerge from the forest in Salmon Arm’s Little Mountain Park

Students at Storefront School join Métis elder in project that will add small carvings to trees

Kyle Charles poses for a photo in Edmonton on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Marvel Entertainment, the biggest comic book publisher in the world, hired the 34-year-old First Nations illustrator as one of the artists involved in Marvel Voice: Indigenous Voices #1 in August. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
VIDEO: Indigenous illustrator of new Marvel comic hopes Aboriginal women feel inspired

Kyle Charles says Indigenous women around the world have reached out

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

Penticton RCMP are looking to speak to this woman who allegedly spat on an employee at Skaha Liquor Store as well as dropping his phone on the ground. (Facebook)
WATCH: Unmasked Okanagan woman allegedly spits on employee, drops his phone

Penticton RCMP are looking for the woman who was refused service for not wearing a mask

Jason Townsend, wearing his Kelowna prospect patches. (Jason Townsend Facebook photo)
Trial dates set for two alleged Kelowna Hells Angels associates

Jason Townsend and Colin Michael Bayley will each stand trial on separate matters in May 2021

This 2019 photo provided by The ALS Association shows Pat Quinn. Quinn, a co-founder of the viral ice bucket challenge, died Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, at the age of 37. (Scott Kauffman/The ALS Association via AP)
Co-founder of viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge dies at 37

Pat Quinn was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in 2013

Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti speaks with the media following party caucus in Ottawa, Tuesday, January 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Exclusion of mental health as grounds for assisted death is likely temporary: Lametti

Senators also suggested the exclusion renders the bill unconstitutional

Claudio Mastronardi, Toronto branch manager at Carmichael Engineering, is photographed at the company’s offices in Mississauga, Ont., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. As indoor air quality becomes a major concern in places of business, HVAC companies are struggling to keep up with demand for high quality filtration systems. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Business is booming for HVAC companies as commercial buildings see pandemic upgrades

‘The demand right now is very high. People are putting their health and safety ahead of cost’

Bank of Montreal, located on Burrard Street in downtown Vancouver. (Google Maps)
Heiltsuk man files human rights complaint against Vancouver police, BMO after bank arrest

Pair remains distraught after employee falsely reports fraud in progress leading to their arrest

LeAnne Jakubeit, a prominent Penticton business woman and wife of former Penticton mayor Andrew Jakubeit, has died after a battle with cancer. Her death was announced Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020 on The Grooveyard’s Facebook page. (The Grooveyard / Facebook)
Prominent Penticton businesswoman dies after battle with cancer

LeAnne Jakubeit opened iconic Penticton record store The Grooveyard 30 years ago

Most Read