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Story Publication logo March 18, 2022

Behind the Scenes: How We Made Our Indigenous Guardians Feature Come to Life


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Indigenous Guardians are a formidable presence on the coast of British Columbia, Canada. This...


It may be one of the biggest stories at the intersection of conservation and Indigenous Rights of the last decade: all across the nation Indigenous guardians are reestablishing sovereignty and stewardship of traditional territories through land and water patrols, natural resource management and widespread, landscape-level enforcement and monitoring.

But zooming out to get the big picture of the impact guardians are having can be difficult. That’s where The Narwhal started dreaming big: what if there was a way to look at what provincial and federal governments are accomplishing through patrols on B.C.’s Central Coast and cross reference that with what Indigenous guardians are out doing on their traditional territories?

Trying to tackle this from a journalistic perspective proved to be a challenge, but one The Narwhal took on in our recent ambitious data journalism feature: The frontline of conservation: how Indigenous guardians are reinforcing sovereignty and science on their lands.

It turns out there isn’t a whole lot of federal or provincial monitoring along parts of B.C.’s thousands upon thousands of square kilometers of coast. But, spoiler alert, no governments would actually cough up the data to show exactly where their monitoring along the coast is actually occurring. But you know who can give you first-hand knowledge of just how often Parks Canada or Fisheries and Oceans Canada or the Coast Guard are actually out on patrol? Indigenous guardians.

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That’s because guardians are out on the land and out on the water on a daily basis — something that’s demonstrated in the data they collect while they’re out on patrol, details three coastal First Nations generously shared with The Narwhal to make our feature come to life. 

So, just what does it take to pull off a story like this? First, it starts with being the very fortunate recipients of a grant from Humber College’s StoryLab and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. That support allowed journalist Jimmy Thomson to get out on the ground to spend time with guardians and learn more about what their important work entails. 

But a piece like this also requires oodles of project management, data-delving and map-making. 

I caught up with Jimmy and executive editor Carol Linnitt to learn more about the two-plus-year odyssey — hello pandemic — that our team went on to make this big story come to life.

Journalist Jimmy Thomson, photographed for The Narwhal. Image by Taylor Roades/The Narwhal. Canada.
The Narwhal’s co-founder and executive editor, Carol Linnitt. Image by Taylor Roades/The Narwhal. Canada.
How did the StoryLab Data Journalism Grant first appear on The Narwhal’s radar?

Carol: We first learned about this really rad grant — entirely focused on supporting stories of Indigenous people on the land — when David Weisz, co-founder and director of Humber’s StoryLab, approached us in the fall of 2019.

We really appreciated the way the grant was designed to support getting journalists out to remote places. The grant funds weren’t destined for paying a journalist to produce a piece of content, but to fund the easily overlooked but usually really high costs of doing both data journalism and landscape-level reporting. 

Our team at the time, way back in the before times of 2019, was super small — just five staff! So when we started thinking about the perfect pitch for the grant from The Narwhal, we immediately thought of teaming up with Jimmy, who has done some of our best reporting from within Indigenous communities and on Indigenous guardians programs in particular. 

We tag-teamed the application with Jimmy, where he laid out his vision for exploring the critical work Indigenous guardians do all along B.C.’s central coast. As Jimmy wrote, “this is an opportunity to highlight and explore one of the most significant developments in First Nations land management of recent decades; to study a movement — one that’s spreading to every corner of the country — where it all began.”

A few months later we got the very exciting news that Jimmy’s pitch made the cut.

David said at the time that Jimmy’s project was “timely, data-driven and utterly fascinating… exactly the type of journalism we want to nurture through this grant.”

Jimmy, you started digging into this story in earnest in 2020. How was it, working on this piece during a pandemic? Did that change the story?

Jimmy: I got the call that I had been selected for this Pulitzer Center/Humber College StoryLab grant in February of 2020 — meaning this story could go ahead in the ambitious form I had talked about with The Narwhal. But that, as we all now know, turned out to be the last “normal” month before everything changed. So the following months were a blur of planning and re-planning as we got to know this virus better and better. 

I had planned to visit Bella Bella (home of the Heiltsuk First Nation), Klemtu (Kitasoo/Xai’Xais) and Wuikinuxv, but due to the pandemic, it was just too risky and too complicated to visit all three. I decided on Wuikinuxv because it was more readily accessible than Klemtu, but it had had less media exposure than Bella Bella. (I still would love to visit Klemtu one day. And Bella Bella truly lives up to its name.)

Finally, in September of that year I was able to visit the community, with permission from the Wuikinuxv to break their otherwise very strict quarantine. I had to abide by their rules, like self-isolating before my trip, driving up-Island on my own as far as I could, instead of flying, and avoiding going inside anyone’s home. But the community was incredibly welcoming. 

It turned out to be a stunning week, warm and clear, especially for that part of the Central Coast in the fall. So I got lucky; the weather was one factor that could have hurt the developing plan. I spent that week gathering footage, meeting people in the community, doing interviews and trying to understand the extent of the guardians’ work. I did some ride-alongs with guardians out on their patrols, and tracked down people who had stories to tell. I shot as much footage and as many photos as I could, both with my camera and my drone. And I just enjoyed being in this gorgeous community full of lovely people. 

Wuikinuxv Guardian Watchman Corey Hanuse says he heard about being a guardian when he was a kid at a cultural rediscovery camp in Haida Gwaii. “We’re all so isolated. So we’re the only ones out here to protect the land and people.” Image by Jimmy Thomson/The Narwhal. Canada, 2020.
A key component of this story is the patrol data. How did that inform your reporting? And what was the process like trying to marry the data element with human-centred storytelling — video, photos, drone footage, words?

Jimmy: The question that underlay the story was, in a part of the coast that’s challenging for provincial and federal governments to access, how are First Nations stewarding their own lands? So that is a data-centric question, but it’s also a very human question. 

I started by tracking down the data: I knew from previous reporting trips for guardian-related stories, both on the Central Coast and in the North, that Indigenous guardians produce a lot of data in the course of their work. I asked the Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv and Kitasoo/Xai’Xais (all neighbouring First Nations) if they would be willing to share that data, and, incredibly, they all did. I’m still blown away by that openness — try asking the Coast Guard or the Parks people for data sometime. I did, and, well, you didn’t see any in the story, now did you? 

So with the data in hand, next I needed to figure out what to do with it. I started by trying my own hand at mapping. Esri, the people who make ArcGIS software, were kind enough to assign a mapping specialist to help me learn their software. After a short time, I was able to see what the data shows: the guardians are covering basically the entire coast, within their territories. Every inlet, every island — everywhere. It’s truly amazing the reach they have. No government agency that patrols that coast has anywhere near that penetration into the complex geography of the area.

But I still needed to make maps that could look great and represent the data. I got to a certain point trying to do that before realizing that the ArcGIS Story Maps software wouldn’t be compatible with The Narwhal’s site … and on top of that, you should see those maps. This is not a dig against the software — it’s incredibly powerful — but let’s just say my personal cartography skills could use some refining. 

Carol: When Jimmy brought his collected data and visuals to our team of editors at The Narwhal, we immediately knew we wanted to level-up in terms of how we run visual storytelling on our site. We’ve done a lot of map-making for our stories on The Narwhal, but these have been static maps that we knew wouldn’t do justice to the scope and movement of the guardians’ patrols.

We began dreaming up a richer and more immersive experience for our audience — one that would really help the multimedia elements of Jimmy’s on-the-ground reporting, as well as the data we were able to collect, shine. We worked with our very talented developers at Ictinus to build in new video capabilities on our site so we could begin the story with some of Jimmy’s epic aerial video footage. It may seem like a small tweak on a modern website, but there’s a lot that goes into creating a smooth experience for our readers who might be accessing our site from a myriad of different devices and on varying bandwidth capacities. We worked closely with our developers to strike a balance with working with more video but in a way that would be streamlined for our readers.

But then came the really challenging part: how to incorporate the spreadsheet patrol data into interactive mapping that would help our readers get a sense of how guardians operate on the landscape. We decided to go for a two-part solution here: at the beginning of the story we worked in seamless layers of maps that flow out in a parallax scroll manner to situate readers within the broader Central Coast landscape and the patrol areas of the Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv and Kitasoo/Xai’Xais. Secondly, we developed a Narwhal-themed style in Mapbox to feature the more interactive components of the Wuikinuxv guardian data. It was a big investment and heavy lift to create a custom Mapbox theme, but we ultimately decided this was a great new tool for The Narwhal’s stories, one that would pay dividends well beyond the scope of this one feature. 

The amazing thing about Mapbox is that they provide special rates for non-profits like The Narwhal and their team there has been keen to support our journalism, which is pretty cool. (Um, Arik, you were the one that actually noted their non-profit rates in the first place, so big hat tip to you!)

Jimmy: The Narwhal’s work on mapping freed me up to do the storytelling. I started cobbling together the multimedia, which included the interview-based mini videos you see embedded in the story, the drone shots, the photos, the timelapse and the story itself. I wrote the story and every once in a while would put something in the body like [George video here?] or [low drone video in the village here!] — then when the editors who put it all together looked at it, they knew where that particular element would go. 

In the end, I hope the human part of the story helps to complement the data story. Because the two, obviously, go hand in hand: it’s people who are out there doing these patrols, and they’re doing it for a reason. I wanted to make sure that was part of the story.

Carol: Once we got all the technical details settled — which included questions like, should the guardian data be divided up by dates or by days out on the water? Should the clickable features on the map be static dots or pulsing dots? Should the writeups in Mapbox be accompanied by images or should we keep the scrolling experience more sleek for readers? — we were able to pass off the entire project to our art director, Shawn Parkinson, who did a beautiful job with the story’s immersive layout and design. All in all it took nearly five months of development work to bring this story to life on our site in its current iteration. The exciting thing is what we’ve built into our site can now be used for more data-driven, immersive features going forward. 

View interactive map in the original story here.

This story focuses on three nations, but there are guardians doing conservation work across B.C. and Canada. What do you hope this story conveys about the role of guardians as stewards of land and water in our country?

Jimmy: As we all know, the vast majority of Canadians are all huddled up against our southern border, mostly in cities. That leaves such a large swath of the country unobserved by most of us; we think of it as wilderness but for the most part it’s someone’s home. 

First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities are dotted across the remote parts of the country, and in each of those communities there are people who know their homeland. Many of them have a deep stake in protecting and monitoring it. That, I’ve learned, is what guardians programs are about: unlocking that potential for local people to take ownership over the stewarding of their lands. It provides local jobs in places that need it, and provides the rest of us data and “boots on the ground” where we need them. 

There are talented, hardworking, well-educated people working at parks services and public agencies for the provinces and the federal government. But they’re spread so thin that guardians have the potential to be a much more efficient and dependable means of keeping an eye on most of the country. That’s really evident on the Central Coast, and that’s an area that (relative to much of the country) is pretty easily accessible from major cities. Think of how much harder it would be to send a Parks Canada staffer to, say, Thaidene Nëné or Aulavik National Park — but there are people living right there. 

Tell me a little about the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Humber College’s role in helping to make this story happen.

Jimmy: They have been fantastic. The two came together to offer this data-driven grant in 2019, focusing on local communities’ relationships to the land. This story fit perfectly with that mandate. They paid for my travel — which, as anyone who’s been to small remote communities knows, is expensive — and paid for some equipment, and consulting fees for a cartographer I initially worked with, Alex McPhee. That contribution was wonderful, but it didn’t end there.

They also paid for me to host a small event in the community to say thank you. That ended up being impossible because of the pandemic, so instead I brought some small gifts to the people in the community as a token of appreciation. Humber College’s Indigenous Education and Engagement department consulted with me to make sure I was approaching the story and the community in a culturally respectful way, and that’s where that event/gift idea came from. That’s not a normal part of a reporting grant, so it’s good to see it being incorporated into the process.

Finally, during the reporting process, they made themselves available for any questions I had on data journalism, and that was a huge help. It was a great experience, start to finish, working with the people from Pulitzer Center and Humber College. 

What has the feedback been since publication? 

Jimmy: Jennifer Walkus, a Wuikinuxv councillor and scientist, shared her perspective on the story: “Enviro-monitoring is so underfunded,” she wrote in a tweet. “What good are laws if nobody implements them[?] That’s what drove Nations to act.” I have yet to speak with the guardians I spent most of my time with — Adam, Corey, and Soleil — but I hope they enjoy seeing their work reflected to a wider audience.

Carol: We’ve been hearing some really great feedback from our readers about the feature, including how much they loved seeing the video clips of the guardians who talked about what it means to be a guardian from a really personal perspective.

One reader said he discovered The Narwhal because of this feature. He was so taken by it, he immediately wanted to support us by becoming a monthly member. He couldn’t figure out how to do so but ended up digging up one of our reporter’s phone numbers somewhere online. When he got ahold of her, he was put in touch with our director of finance, Don Gordon, who said the enthusiasm this “elderly gentleman” brought to supporting us with a $25 per month donation “to start” was delightful. Don wrote to our team on Slack that it was “certainly the highlight of my day.”

As a member-supported, non-profit newsroom, we’re incredibly lucky that we can devote the time and resources to pulling a project like this off. Even with the support of the StoryLab grant, this feature was massively time and resource-intensive. So we’re all feeling the love for our monthly members who give us the means and freedom to pull off ambitious projects like this.


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