Photo: Amplifying Pacific coast First Nations wisdom

Tara Cullis helped connect remote First Nations communities in B.C.

David Suzuki Foundation co-founder Tara Cullis helped found the Coastal First Nations Turning Point Initiative in B.C. DSF staffer Gail Mainster interviewed her on that historic alliance, which became the Coastal First Nations Great Bear Initiative, a key step toward protecting the Great Bear Rainforest.

In the late 1990s, we at the Foundation witnessed increasing pressures from development, fishing and forestry on the B.C. coast. We wanted to know what could be done.

We studied sustainable fisheries around the world. What they had in common was local ownership and local control.

We were also studying how everything in an ecosystem is interconnected. That became our Salmon Forest project. And we were learning the benefits of ecosystem-based management.

We recognized First Nations' moral and legal authority over the lands and seas they've stewarded for millennia. But their coastal communities were small, remote and diverse — and therefore often ignored by Victoria and Ottawa. Could we help them find a unified voice, to get the attention of provincial and federal decision-makers?

In 1997, we wrote all central and northern coastal First Nations leaders about shared concerns, and asked about possible solutions. All 11 communities invited us to visit.

Of course they wanted to protect the forest and the fish, but they also had to be practical. To maintain their communities they needed jobs for their young people. So we opened up an economic development office in Prince Rupert. We hired First Nations and non-First Nations experts in participatory action, aboriginal rights and title, and community economic development.

We held community meetings to listen to people's job creation wishes. We discussed fundraising strategies to help keep the process sustainable.

Soon the chiefs of all the diverse communities asked the David Suzuki Foundation to organize a gathering to share solutions to common problems. The first Turning Point Conference was held March 4 and 5, 2000. One topic discussed was how science can support traditional knowledge. This is work the Foundation continues to this day.

On the second day, attendees wrote their eloquent declaration to work together "to ensure the well-being of our lands and waters" and went back to consult with their villages. They signed The Declaration of First Nations of the North Pacific Coast on June 13, 2000. This was the First Nations' first step in their key role in working together to protect the region now known as the Great Bear Rainforest.

This was by far the Foundation's biggest project to that point. And none of it would have been possible without the support of our amazing donors.