By Debora Steel
BELLA BELLA, B.C.
An adjudication committee made up of knowledge keepers and title holders is being struck by the Heiltsuk Tribal Council to determine if a marine disaster that occurred in their coastal waters last year violated any Heiltsuk traditional law.
The six-member committee, which includes an appointment from the Haida Nation, will review an investigation report of the first 48 hours after the tug-barge Nathan E. Stewart ran aground and sank, spewing 110,000 litres of diesel into a sensitive ecosystem which provided culturally, economically, spiritually and nutritionally for 1,700 on-reserve Heiltsuk members.
The investigation report was released today, April 6, by the Heiltsuk Tribal Council; financed and conducted by that governing body.
The backbone of the report, said Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett, is the testimony of Heiltsuk first responders who observed, hour after hour, as the milky toxic fuel devastated clam beds, closed now to commercial, food, social and ceremonial harvesting into the future with an unknown end-date.
“We suspect that we are at the front end of this,” said Slett about the environmental damage. The clam beds were closed in late November through December, and now there is a closure of the spawn on kelp commercial fishery.
“Our whole territory is important, but this particular area is known as our breadbasket,” Slett said. But more than even that “it’s a ceremonial area. It’s the site of one of our ancient tribes… so the impact that it had on us is not only to our environment and to our ecosystem… but also spiritually…
“It was like we were grieving. We went through a grieving process and still are. We are so connected to our territory, and people were … It was a hard hit to our community.”
Heiltsuk is still in data collection mode and continuing its analysis, Slett said. They are talking to their traditional knowledge keepers and Elders, looking to them to understand how long it will take to restore balance in the area.
They are seeking guidance from their neighbors to the north, the Gitga’at Nation, which had its own oil spill experience in 2006 as a result of the sinking of B.C. Ferries’ Queen of the North.
Gitga’at has told Heiltsuk that it took many years before they were able to harvest clams again from their territory, said Slett.
Heiltsuk Tribal Council has taken some effort to gather what facts they can to nail down what occurred—and what didn’t—in those first two days beginning in the morning of Oct. 13, 2016.
The investigation report recounts the journey taken by the Nathan E. Stewart along the coast, including a missed course change, ending when the barge ran aground at Edge Reef on Athlone Island at the mouth of Gale Creek in Seaforth Channel. The report details the “confusion” and “chaos” Heiltsuk community members say ensued.
Through witness accounts, the report tells of the heartbreak of the community as hours passed before contractors were able to bring in resources enough to contain the spill. It talks of how Heiltsuk fought to be included in the disaster response being conducted in in its own territory.
The incident command that they put into place was set up between “the polluter, the Coast Guard, and the ministry of Environment,” Slett said. They all got together to form a Unified Command. It’s not set up to include First Nations communities, she said.
Slett said Heiltsuk had to fight to have Unified Command be located in Heiltsuk territory at Bella Bella instead of across the channel at a marine resort.
“We said ‘Absolutely not. This is Heiltsuk territory. It’s happening in our backyard. Heiltsuk is the governing authority. The unified command will be set up in Bella Bella’, and that was not a given.”
The adjudication committee will begin its work in May, said Slett, reviewing the report and such community resources as land use plans, traditional use studies, and traditional values and principles.
The committee will take a holistic look at Heiltsuk traditional laws to determine if any were breached by the Nathan E. Stewart incident and the disaster response that followed.
This committee is expected to take months to complete its report and make recommendations which will go back to the Heiltsuk Tribal Council for review and discussion with Canada and British Columbia.
Asked why, given the details of the investigation report, the Heiltsuk can’t now determine whether Heiltsuk traditional laws had been breached, Slett said the investigation report was “undertaken as an exercise of our sovereignty, as part of our self-governance, our inherent right to self-governance.”
It was the compiling of facts, she said, though government and industry transparency may be among the casualties of the Nathan E. Stewart diesel spill. The report details the items asked for but not provided to the Heiltsuk Nation, like the ship logs, incident reports, and statements from the crew.
The adjudication process is much different than the process for the investigation, said Slett, and considered separate.
“Our laws embody our values and our beliefs and our teachings. It applies to our whole traditional territory and people in our territory… everything that we do in terms of stewardship, in terms of protecting the lands and the sea.
“It really comes from a set of values that we have… around sustainability and protection of our traditional territories that sustain us as a people, our customs and our ways of life… They are ancient laws carried through our hereditary system.”
Slett is critical of the “world-class spill response” that was promised by government and industry, saying the events in Heiltsuk territory should be a stark reminder that, in the case of the Nathan E. Stewart, it didn’t pan out.
“This whole incident has really brought to life for our community and other coastal communities the wide gaps, the risks that we’re still faced with today,” said Slett.
“We have to do better.”
There has to be collaboration with the communities that are impacted by these spills and certainly on the central coast, Heiltsuk traditional territory, waiting for hours and hours for contractors to come out with equipment and supplies is not acceptable, she said.
“The reality is, the First Nations that are out living in our coastal communities are the first responders. You see it on Vancouver Island with the Nuu-chah-nutlh, with the Gitga’at with the Queen of the North, the Heiltsuk with the Nathan E. Stewart, so our communities need to be properly resourced, with training, with infrastructure required, to be able to respond adequately. Because we know our waters.”
Heiltsuk is one of the larger First Nations on the coast and has built a lot of capacity in the community, from its integrated resource department, which is its stewardship arm, to a model health agency, said Slett.
“We have a lot of institutional support in our community, but this was taxing on us. I can’t imagine a smaller community going through this.”
Living and going through it was pretty hard, Slett said. People were working 30 to 35 days straight… It took a long time before the barge was taken out of the territory.
“It was quite a grueling process in the community.”
Chief Slett, by living through this incident last year, learned a few hard lessons that she can pass on to other First Nations communities living along the coast.
In the event of a marine disaster in your territory, assert your jurisdiction immediately. Be prepared, and take control, she advises.
Bring in extra biologists. Bring together your technical team, your management team. Work with your land and marine experts to monitor environmental impacts. Have baseline data.
If you are involved with Unified Command, appoint the high commander first thing.
“As of now, our coastal communities are still at risk for something like this happening,” she told Windspeaker.com. Slett said the Heiltsuk people have always said it’s not a matter of if, but when.
And then it happened.