Two weeks ago I had the good fortune to stand with the Heiltsuk First Nation in their opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project (NGP). The Joint Review Panel (JRP), which is assessing the NGP’s environmental impacts, had originally scheduled four days of hearings in Bella Bella to hear the Heiltsuk give oral evidence on the effects the project would have on their traditional territories and ways of life. Heiltsuk traditional territories lie at the centre of the Great Bear Rainforest and the project presents a new threat to the entire region.
As senior Greenpeace campaigner working to help implement the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements, I am concerned about the NGP as a new threat to not only the ecological integrity of the rainforest but also to the very people - in terms of their culture, values and ways of life - who have called the region home for millennia.
In the relatively short period of time that I have spent time with, and gotten to know, the Heiltsuk people and their lands and seas, I have also become personally connected. In particular, my time over the two weeks leading up to and including the JRP hearings was eventful as I tried to balance assisting Heiltsuk friends and colleagues and their organizing efforts with the need to carry out my own day-to-day work while situated in the field.
It was wonderful to see people come together as one, to resolutely and passionately say no to Enbridge, to their pipeline proposal and to the massive oil tankers that would ply the turbulent northern waters to pick up tar sands oil coming from Alberta to Kitimat. I was personally moved and especially inspired by how the youth took a leadership role in organizing many aspects of hosting the JRP, from the peaceful, family-oriented rally to the hunger strike put on by the students of the Bella Bella Community School.
From the very first day upon arrival the JRP embroiled itself in controversy. After the peaceful airport reception to which I was a firsthand witness, a statement was issued by the JRP to the Heiltsuk leadership during that Sunday’s welcome feast (not attended by the JRP or Enbridge lawyer who has been travelling with them). This statement indicated that they were suspending the hearings due to perceived “security threats” based on their reception at the airport. By the next day, however, when the story was picked up by the media, their excuse had changed to “logistical issues” which they refused to explain publicly.
After intervention by the Heiltsuk leadership, the JRP agreed to proceed with the hearings but a day and a half of testimony had already been lost. Like many First Nations, the Heiltsuk chose to participate in a process not of their own making, and not in accordance with their traditional laws of governance. They did so to seize their chance to participate directly in the decision-making process around an issue that threatens the very foundation of their culture. A black question mark hangs in the air around whether we will ever hear the lost testimony of those witnesses scheduled to speak during those first one and half days the JRP pulled out from under the Heiltsuk.
Much has been reported through the mainstream and social media regarding the Bella Bella hearings so I will not go into alot more details here, but I suggest also reading Greenpeace tar sands campaigner and my colleague Melina Laboucan-Massimo's blog. We were both fortunate to share a first-hand perspective on the proceedings in Bella Bella.
However, the recent media developments coming out of the Bella Bella hearings also give me an occasion to elaborate on a highlight I was fortunate to witness: the oral testimony provided by Heiltsuk cultural leader, William Housty. I had the great privilege and honour of witnessing William provide poignant and eloquent testimony. It was powerful and reflective of a young man clearly rooted in his own Heiltsuk identity.
The Heiltsuk Nation recorded the hearings as an indelible record of their testimony that they could share with their supporters and off-reserve membership. Because of this, the wider world is fortunate to have access to footage of William’s speech which they have put online . Upon watching his testimony again, William’s words resonated through me as I listened transfixed, but this time in the very hard urban context of a coffee shop in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood of Vancouver.
William’s testimony so clearly made the link between the historic and present connection his people have with the lands and waters of their territories that are within the Great Bear Rainforest. As he put it, “Heiltsuk culture is strong, ancient, and very much alive amongst the people sitting before you today.”
The impact of an oil spill brought on by the NGP would deal a critical blow to the people – not only their sustenance, as they rely greatly on the sea’s bounty, but also their culture and the authority they traditionally derive from the lands and seas of their Heiltsuk homelands. An oil spill would have devastating impacts on the language, traditional practices and beliefs, potlatches, traditional medicines, place names. All these aspects are deeply intertwined with the land and sea.
Though his words are unique to his people and his place, much of what William talked about, especially in terms of values and impacts, is shared by many other coastal peoples whose very culture and way of life are jeopardized by the Enbridge pipeline and supertankers project.
I cannot do justice to summarizing William’s powerful testimony so I encourage you to grab a tea or coffee, sit back, watch the video and listen to what he had to say.
The fightback against Enbridge Northern Gateway Project is one of the greatest ecological and cultural struggles of the twenty-first century – for peoples of the coast, for all of Canada and - I daresay – for the world. Cultural and ecological resilience is intertwined and deeply bound up in having healthy lands and seas especially in significant regions like the Great Bear Rainforest. I’m grateful for having been invited by the Heiltsuk Nation to witness the hearing, and for all who are in solidarity and fighting passionately to stop this project in its tracks. Indeed, it behooves us all to resist the NGP, insisting on a better, healthier, fulfilling future while standing with the Heiltsuk and other peoples who share this life-affirming vision.