Empowering Water Protectors

By: Ruby Banwait

My unwavering love and respect for the ocean is my north star. It’s taken some time for me to trust that I am indeed on the right career path of ocean education and conservation. I’ve had to course correct several times during this journey as I get to know myself and I’ve learned, that’s just life. When I let the fog of uncertainty, indecision and lack of confidence cloud my view, my loving community helps illuminate my chartered course. I’m very fortunate to have loved ones that see my strengths and remind me of them. 

I was flattered and delighted when my friend and fish leather mentor, Janey Chang, reached out to see if I would be open to helping a friend of hers with a Grade 6, water protection themed, “Ignite” event for the Aboriginal Education Department of School District 42 in Pitt Meadows, BC. It had been ages since I’d conducted any formal outreach and the thought of dipping my toe back in with Indigenous youth to inspire connection to the ocean was a great honour. I would run the Ocean station with help from co-op student Svetlana (Sveta) Zamaeva of Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), one of CaNOE’s great supporters and collaborators. Together we’d take students on a scientific and artistic voyage of discovery, relating climate change factors including ocean acidification and rising temperatures to social, economic and environmental impacts on our global community and actions the students could take to help. 

Grade 6 students attending Ignite event

School District No. 42 (Maple Ridge – Pitt Meadows) lies within the traditional territories of the Katzie First Nation and the Kwantlen First Nation. The Aboriginal Education department supports all students in District 42 schools who self-identify as having either First Nations, Métis, or Inuit ancestry in their family line. The Aboriginal Education Department organizes several special events each year including themed, Grade 6 Ignite camps. For almost twenty years, students have been connecting with their ancestry and with each other biannually at Ignite events, participating in cultural activities such as beading, drumming, painting, carving, wood burning, Métis jigging, bullrush weaving, cooking, archery and turning salmon skins into leather among many other captivating activities.

“I think Ignite and all of the other Ab Ed Department initiatives allow kids to connect with their ancestry while also gaining confidence as individuals. Over time, the department’s annual activities and weekly supports help students form a strong positive and personal cultural identity that empowers personal success and achievement.”

Kirsten Urdahl-Serr, Principal of the Aboriginal Education Department

For more information about the program, please visit the Aboriginal Education website

Igniting in Water Protection

Beautiful artwork at the South Bonson Community Centre

On Oct. 11, 2023, Indigenous students from 22 elementary schools came together at South Bonson Community Centre for a Water Protection themed Ignite event. The day included an opening circle ceremony and welcome to the territory by elders Ed Brown and Coleen Pierre. Councillor Rick Bailey shared stories of his experiences growing up along Pitt River, changes he has witnessed over time and his renewed hope for the future because of the strength and resilience of Indigenous youth. Elementary Aboriginal Support Worker, Melinda Mouland led the students in a team building activity and Vice Principal, Kathleen Anderson facilitated a movement break before the students were assigned to one of four groups named after sacred plants: Tobacco, Sage, Sweetgrass and Cedar. 

The students spent the day with their groups rotating through different stations learning about water and various ways to protect such a sacred resource. SD42 District Alternative teacher Scott Schell connected kids to their local waters. He had students looking at the water quality of the Fraser River and identifying insects found in the water samples. The Alouette River Management Society (ARMS) provided students with connections to the surrounding environment. The students conducted field tests and discussed how different results would affect the local wildlife and ecosystems. They were introduced to the concept and benefits of participating in citizen science with ARMS and other groups. Representing ONC and CaNOE, Sveta and I connected the youth to the marine environment through the Salish Sea and our global ocean. 

Connecting to the Salish Sea

Ruby Banwait, CaNOE and Svetlana (Sveta) Zamaeva, ONC

Once settled around the Ocean station table, Sveta and I began the journey of discovery with discussion to find out how the students related to the ocean. The students shared thoughts such as whether or not they liked swimming in the sea, snorkeling, fishing, eating seafood or boating to name a few. Everyone agreed that the ocean provides people with food, oxygen, recreational activities, physical and mental health benefits and more. Everyone also agreed that climate change is having negative effects on ocean conditions and that human actions have contributed to the rapid climate changes we are experiencing.

The opening discussion was followed by two experiments taken from the Climate Series of ONC’s Ocean Sense Program. The first experiment examined the impact that temperature has on gas solubility – that is the ability of gasses, like oxygen, to stay dissolved in water. After some discussion and seeing this experiment, the students were able to explain the effects that warming ocean temperature has on marine animals, ecosystems and people. To view an explanation and demonstration of this gas solubility experiment, click here. The second experiment examined the impact that CO2 has on water chemistry. After some discussion and seeing this experiment, the students were better able to understand pH, the term ‘ocean acidification’ and the effects that increased acidity has on marine animals (particularly invertebrates), ecosystems and the global food web. To view an explanation and demonstration of this ocean acidification experiment, click here.

Combining Art and Science

Colouring clam shells

Believe it or not, one of the many perks of working at an aquarium is having access to clam shells. Not only is this great for potted plants or the garden, it can also come in handy for arts and crafts and science experiments as well! Clams are often fed to resident sea stars and their shells normally just get composted with other organics. After weeks of collecting, cleaning and drying many discarded clam shells we were able to reuse them to ignite imagination and encourage experimentation with the Indigenous youth. Thank you to my fellow aquarists who took the time to save clam shells for me! 

The final activity at the Ocean station allowed the students to get creative while challenging them to participate in a brainstorming session and an optional take home experiment. The students were asked to name their clam and colour it however they liked while coming up with actions they could take to help combat climate change and protect the ocean. They were also challenged to take their clam shells home, put them in a cup of vinegar for one week and note any changes they observed. It was fun to watch the students flexing their artistic muscles after focusing on the science of climate change on our ocean and the scientific method. 

Inspired and Empowered

The event wrapped up with a brief closing ceremony which included many words of gratitude for everyone involved. It was wonderful for CaNOE and ONC to engage with 47 Indigenous youth and 17 adults in hands-on learning experiences at this Ignite Water Protection event. It was an honour to witness the effort and care invested into events like this that help strengthen cultural ties, build community and facilitate excellence for the Grade 6 students of School District 42.   

When asked her experience at the Ignite Water Protection event Sveta said,

I thoroughly enjoyed my time supporting CaNOE at Ignite! It was heartening to see the enthusiasm, curiosity, and the unique personalities of the young participants as they connected with the wonders of our oceans and the Katzie First Nation traditions and knowledge. Watching grade six students unleash their imagination in brainstorming creative climate solutions only further reinforced the need for fun and interactive educational opportunities, sparking a newfound passion for marine science and conservation in the next generation.”

Svetlana (Sveta) Zamaeva, Co-op Student, Ocean Networks Canada

I left this gathering feeling inspired and hopeful for the future as well as gratified in my decision to stay salty and work for what I love most – the ocean! 


Ruby Banwait is a Senior Aquarium Biologist at the Vancouver Aquarium, Education Coordinator for CaNOE and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. A champion of ocean conservation, Ruby helped launch the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium in Newfoundland Canada, a seasonal capture-and-release educational facility. Ruby has explored many aquatic environments from the Salish Sea to the Arctic Ocean. Her desire to restore abundance in our ocean motivates her to connect people to the sea. 

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