One week ago today, I was standing in the Wawiskas Community Hall in Bella Bella, British Columbia. I was watching hundreds of community members, pride on their faces and hope in their hearts in spite of the obstacles we face as First Nations people whose lands, waters, culture, and way of life are threatened by forces like the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project and ensuing oil tanker traffic on the North and Central Coast of BC.
“EVERY TANKER THAT TRANSITS COASTAL WATERS REPRESENTS THE POSSIBILITY OF A SPILL.” Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett
Last week, I visited classes at the Bella Bella Community School to talk to students about tankers and pipelines. I walked into those classes with nothing prepared. I didn’t give speeches or presentations. Frankly, I didn’t know what to say. Every class visit started with the same two questions: “How many of you have heard about the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project?” and “Can you tell me something you know?”
In the younger classes, I didn’t quite know how to broach the subject without overwhelming a gaggle of hopeful Kindergarten kids. I asked them to name their favourite animals in the ocean, to tell me some traditional foods we harvest from the sea. In the first primary class I visited, I asked the kids why they thought it was important to protect animals in the ocean. A five year old girl raised her hand and said clearly and boldly, “We need to protect them because an oil spill might happen and then we’ll lose all the animals.”
“WHAT IF THIS DISASTER HAPPENS? WHAT WILL WE SING AND DANCE ABOUT? WHAT CREST WILL WE WEAR ON OUR BACKS? WHAT WILL WE TEACH OUR CHILDREN?” Cerelina Humchitt, Heiltsuk mother
In Bella Bella, there’s no age sector in the community that isn’t aware of this issue. What I did when I visited the students was simple: I asked questions, and I invited them to tell their stories. They shared their fears. They expressed their disbelief that a project like this is even being considered. They shared their anger that our voices as First Nations with unceded lands are being ignored. They talked about what they’re prepared to do. Most importantly, they supported one another with both passion and compassion, hope and anger, fear, and faith that we’ll prevail.
Last Friday, those conversations culminated in an incredible show of community strength and support when we hosted our Community Voices Rally. All those kids who shared their passion with me carried it with them, en masse, into our community hall. Led by our Heiltsuk singers, 200 kids from Kindergarten through graduating class marched together through the streets of Bella Bella holding signs, banners and flags, their faces lit up in spite of the sharp wind and the daunting challenges ahead. When I stood outside watching them march against the cold, some of them arm in arm, many of them singing and all of them with pride on their faces – I cried.
“WHEN WE GET TOGETHER, WE’RE A STRONG FORCE.” Hemas Gilbert Jackson
As the kids marched into the hall, they were greeted by 300 community members who rose to watch them. They circled the floor before they took their seats, still holding their signs above their heads. Sitting in silent rows, these young sentinels made one thing very clear: they are not just the future leaders of our Nation. They are leading it already. And they know their own power.
“THIS IS THE WAY WE DO THINGS. TOGETHER. WE STAND TOGETHER. WE FIGHT TOGETHER.” Hemas Gary Housty
Our chiefs stood up, one by one, and addressed our community and our youth. Our hereditary chiefs have always been the compass that guides our people, and their message on this issue has been unwavering: we will not risk 10,000 years of history for a drop of oil. We will not abandon our unbroken chain of traditional stewardship. They called to our fishermen, our clammers, our hunters, our Coastal Guardian Watchmen to recognize that they are the ones who know the coast, the waters, the weather and the risks. They called to our parents and grandparents to keep the promise our people have always made to our future generations. They called to our children and uplifted them for the leadership role they’re undertaking. The call to action from our hereditary chiefs has not fallen on deaf ears. One by one, with wisdom and strength, they empowered everyone in our community to stand up for our way of life along with our brothers and sisters from other Nations on the coast and along the proposed pipeline.
“IT’S BEEN 400 YEARS SINCE CONTACT. WE HAVE BEEN HERE 10,000 YEARS. THIS IS AN ACT OF TRESPASS.” Carrie Humchitt, in-house legal counsel for HTC and HIRMD
Representatives from Heiltsuk Tribal Council, Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department and the community’s interagency committee on the Enbridge project spoke to the community about the work being done at the political level. Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett read out the words of the Coastal First Nations Declaration signed in March 2010 – the youth and community applauded those strong words. Carrie Humchitt, in-house legal counsel for HTC and HIRMD, read out the words of the Heiltsuk declaration signed this August. The responding shouts and applause were deafening.
Two huge maps of Heiltsuk territory were printed with the text of the Heiltsuk declaration written across the top. One by one, filing out of the hall at the end of the rally, people signed their names on the declarations – many of them signing on the lands and waterways where their families come from.
These are the people whose names and lineage are tied to the very places that are threatened by environmental disasters like oil spills. The people who can trace old traplines, family camps, hunting grounds, clam gardens, and berry orchards back to every little beach and river and meadow in our territory. These are the people who can take you out to the place where their great grandmother was born, between the fallen beams of an old bighouse that are now covered in moss on the forest floor.
This is a history that lives in our people, and the names marked on each mountain and inlet on our declaration are strong testimony.
“I SAW THE PRIDE ON YOUR FACES WHEN YOU CAME IN. WE’LL FIGHT TO MAKE SURE IT’S ALWAYS THERE.” Hemas Gary Housty
As the rally drew to a conclusion, one side of our community hall was packed with youth of all ages. Across from them, our community members looked on. Facing one another, witnessing all the strong words that were shared, everyone in the hall understood a promise. In unison, the community members shouted, “THIS IS FOR YOU, CHILDREN.” In unison, the children shouted in response, “THANK YOU. WE ARE LISTENING.”
500 people bore witness to that promise. Today I share it with you, because it gives me more hope than I’ve ever felt before. Even with the potential for disaster and devastation looming before us, even with our way of life and our very identity as First Nations people at stake, there is hope. As long as one generation can look on another and promise to fight, there is hope. You carry that promise now as well, and I thank you for bearing witness to it by reading the story I’ve shared with you.
Jess (on behalf of the Community Voices Rally organizers)