Stories / Blog Posts / OBC partners with the SFU Mitigating Wildfire Initiative & Indigenous Firekeepers to create a resilient future

OBC partners with the SFU Mitigating Wildfire Initiative & Indigenous Firekeepers to create a resilient future

The scars of the unprecedented 2023 wildfires are still visible across Canada’s landscapes, serving as a stark reminder of the ever-growing threat of wildfires. The frequency, scale and severity of the blazes devastated culturally and ecologically significant landscapes, threatened lives and livelihoods, shrouded British Columbia and surrounding areas in smoke and destroyed ecosystems. Now, as we approach summer and another wildfire season, a critical question arises: how can we mitigate these risks and strengthen our resilience for the future?

Outward Bound Canada (OBC) is proud to be part of the answer through a groundbreaking partnership with the Centre for Dialogue’s Mitigating Wildfire Initiative & Indigenous Firekeepers this summer. This innovative collaboration, which launches in July 2024, goes beyond traditional fire suppression. It reconnects Indigenous youth with cultural fire stewardship practices and fosters a deeper understanding of the role of fire in creating and stewarding healthy ecosystems.

A pioneering partnership for a fire-resilient future

Yolanda Clatworthy
Yolanda Clatworthy (source: SFU website)

The inspiration for this unique partnership with the SFU Centre for Dialogue program came from FireKeeper Joe Gilchrist’s vision to create an opportunity for Indigenous youth to actively participate in revitalizing fire stewardship practices on their traditional lands.

Numerous conversations between OBC instructors and Yolanda Clatworthy, the Centre for Dialogue’s Associate Director for Mitigating Wildfire, cemented the partnership. Her expertise in climate risk and outdoor education made her the perfect collaborator. The innovative program aims to seamlessly blend these areas and provide a highly relevant and meaningful learning experience for Indigenous youth living in fire-prone areas. The ultimate goal? To scale up opportunities for youth to connect to land based learning in coming years 

The program, which takes place July 8-14, is a canoe journey through the heart of Secwépemc territory along the South Thompson River in British Columbia. Together with elders, firekeepers, SFU facilitators and OBC instructors,10 Indigenous youth will paddle through fire-impacted territories to learn about cultural firekeeping practices and their critical role in effective wildfire management. This immersive experience goes far beyond the breathtaking scenery and offers participants a chance to connect with their heritage and become active stewards of the land.

The wisdom of Indigenous Fire Stewardship

Indigenous communities in the interior have always coexisted with fire and used good fire to steward healthy ecosystems Yolanda Clatworthy highlights the important role that cultural fires plays: 

– Interior BC landscapes rely on fire to generate new growth and prevent large-scale, high-intensity wildfires. For thousands of years, Indigenous Peoples in the region have stewarded these lands using fire to mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfires and ensure the abundance of traditional foods, medicines, and access to their territories. However, the practice of cultural burning was criminalized in 1874, resulting in nearly 150 years of wildfire deficit. This forced erasure of practice is part of the challenge we have at hand with unprecedented wildfires today.

Yolanda adds that a myriad of factors play into creating the conditions for catastrophic wildfires that we see today. This includes climate change, forestry and land management practices, aggressive fire suppression measures, and the former forced removal of Indigenous stewardship from these lands:

All of these factors increased the frequency and intensity of catastrophic wildfires,” she says. “Revitalizing Indigenous Fire Stewardship provides an opportunity to correct historic mistakes, connect the dots between these issues and build capacity for solutions. This will help protect communities and create healthier and more resilient landscapes for everyone in BC.

Empowering the next generation of wildfire stewards

Yolanda points out that this canoe journey has a number of objectives, all aimed at empowering the next generation of Indigenous Firekeepers:

  • Connect Indigenous youth to land and culture: Create more opportunities for youth  to participate in land-based and cultural practices, including firekeeping.
  • Facilitate knowledge transfer and mentorship: Foster dialogue to transfer knowledge and provide mentorship for the next generation of Indigenous Firekeepers.
  • Support Indigenous rights and leadership: Work towards implementing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (2019) by empowering future Indigenous leaders to co-govern and steward landscapes.
  • Build a community of practice to mitigate catastrophic wildfires.
  • Address the shortage of fire experts: Generate interest among Indigenous youth in careers as fire practitioners to fill the current gap of firefighters in the province. Building a skilled workforce in this area will become increasingly important as the severity and scale of wildfires continue to grow.
  • Build local expertise: Provide Indigenous youth the capacity to contribute to wildfire stewardship in their communities, which are often remote and disproportionately affected by fires. Building expertise in fire management and stewardship is key to better managing the threat of catastrophic wildfires.

Yolanda adds that the canoe journey itself is more than just a means of transportation; it’s also a journey of discovery and leadership development. As participants navigate the river, they build essential leadership skills, forge lasting bonds with their peers, and deepen their connection to the land they’re helping to protect.

We’re honored to partner with Joe Gilchrist and the Mitigating Wildfire Initiative on this important initiative. However we can’t do it alone. A donation to Outward Bound Canada supports programs like this canoe journey that are making a difference in communities across the country.

Help us build a brighter and more resilient future for everyone in Canada. Donate to OBC today.