After about a week of my road trip, the discovery has been immense. From the startling sound of the raven’s flight to intimatly camping alongside the eagles. From whale bones and indigenous arts to golden seaweed and coniferous mountains. To frame it all together are the great blues of the Seaforth Channel. These are the sights and sounds that colour the central coast. A place where relations with the land is very much central to the health of the people, plants and animals. And thanks to that relationship, this coast is very much alive and so is the culture that respects it.
Bella Bella’s Wharf
So, what have I noticed about the people of this place? What I’ve seen is that the youth are their priority. One piece of evidence are the schools in Heiltsuk and Kitasoo First Nation which are the most modern and beautiful buildings in the village. It is clear they have been heavily invested in. Signs that say “the children are everything” and “many hands make light work” decorate the child care centre across the street in Bella Bella.
The youth aren’t the only deeply cherished members of the community. Any gathering is made with consideration for the elders of the village at top of mind. It’s no surprise that two of the most cared for people are the children and the grandparents because these are the markers of strong lineage. The people of this place value their long practiced traditions which mark their passage through the tests of time.
Bella Bella school
Their history has been archaeologically dated 14,000 years back. Today, arrival in Heiltsuk territory brings us to a thriving community. Here, local people decorate their homes with boat paraphernalia and symbols of defending this place. Alongside the signs that celebrate their youth words like “Heiltsuk opposes Enbridge” and “care for Mother Earth” are strung from well lived in homes. Much like their people, the environment is celebrated as integral to their roots.
One local who I’ve connected to through my work is Jess Housty, Heiltsuk band council member, community builder and Dogwood’s newest board member. When asked what she loves about living in Bella Bella, she responds, “it’s the only place I make sense. I was fortunate to grow up in a family that practices our cultural tradition of harvesting berries and living off the land and water in our territory. I feel connected to this place knowing that when I pick berries here my ancestors may have stood in the very same place.”
It’s beautiful the way that history weaves so intricately with the present. It’s impressive that one’s long enduring relationship can weather the tests of the ever changing world. Wouldn’t you say?
One such test was that of the tug boat that sank in Heiltsuk waters in 2016. That tugboat, the Nathan E. Stewart, spilled 110,000 litre of diesel into the Seaforth Channel.
Heiltsuk Nation photo of the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat
I was able to visit the site of the spill just North of Bella Bella in the boat of local fisherman named Walter. We were on our way back from a moving screening in Klemtu, a village just 2 hours by boat north of Bella Bella. It was a serendipitous encounter running into the writer/director and executive producer of Kayak to Klemtu a narrative starring Ta’Kaiya Blaney (a personal hero of mine, you can see her music featured on the home page). I happened to run into Zoe Hopkins, writer/direcor, her mom, Dora, and Alex Ordanis, executive producer, on the dock in Bella Bella. Their film speaks to the struggle of the First Nations people fighting to protect their ancestral waters from the threat of tanker traffic while navigating modern day challengs. Ironically, just after they finished shooting the movie, the Nathan E. Stewart sank when the driver of the tugboat fell asleep at the wheel. It can’t be chance.
Alex Ordanis, Dora & Zoe Hopkins
The tugboat crashed into the shores along the Seaforth Channel on Athlone Island. This particular spot is abundant with clams and abalone and has been a source of harvest since time immemorial. So of course, Walter and anyone with a boat who lived in the area dedicated their time responding to the crisis of a toxic leak.
They spent 10+ hour days tending to the site. But after six weeks of cleanup efforts they watched as containment booms were no match for the unheralded west coast weather. The booms failed to soak up what had leaked in the channel. The locals monitored, transported equipment and food to cleanup crews, and watched people in hazmat suits carry away dead animals. Others documented the 110,000 litres of diesel that remains in the water to this day.
Walter on his boat in the Seaforth Channel
“How did it feel being here for that?” I asked him.
He took his eyes of the bow, looked me in the eyes, and in the few words of a fisherman he said, “It hurt,” as he tapped his fingers to his chest.
A moment passed.
“Everyone was crying” Zoe added.
“We don’t fish over on this side [of the channel] anymore,” said Zoe’s mom.
You can see the 3D experience of the spill that Zoe and Alex documented just after the accident took place (best seen on a smart phone or tablet with headphones.)
When I spoke to Jess, it was clear her experience was similar. It wasn’t an easy conversation. Like any discussion with a person about the loss of a loved one, it was clear that despite 2 years of time, the experience had left a lasting impression.
I asked what she’d like people in other parts of B.C. to know about life here. She responded that “even though the media isn’t reporting on what happened here anymore, it doesn’t mean we aren’t still living with the consequences.”
Sign posted beside Bella Bella wharf
So what consequences are they living with? Despite the harrowing six weeks of emergency spill response on the part of the community, federal, provincial, and company responders, the Heiltsuk people feel alone in the aftermath. They have been fighting, with limited resources, to track and understand the long term impacts of the spill on their ancestral foods, their environment, and their health.
From RAVEN Trust, which is fundraising to assist the Heiltsuk with their legal costs, we learn that, “The Heiltsuk are preparing a civil case against Kirby to recover damages for loss of Aboriginal rights to Food, Social and Ceremonial harvesting, and the loss of their commercial harvesting of marine resources. This work builds on a comprehensive impact assessment led by the Heiltsuk, which will quantify the impacts of the spill in terms of western science, traditional knowledge, and human health.
You can support the Heiltsuk people of Bella Bella to hold those responsible for the spill to account by donating to RAVEN Trust by clicking here.
Despite this traumatic experience, this event does not define the Heiltsuk people. It is mearly one example of many in which they perservere.
The Heiltsuk Nation of Bella Bella and the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation of Klemtu, continue to put their children, elders, and environment first. You can find evidence in the culture and science kids camps that blends cultural traditions and scientific knowledge so that Heiltsuk youth can continue to be stewards of the land. Another example is the community garden created shortly after the spill to help ease some of the anxieties around food security (pictured below). The Kitasoo/Xai’xais are also uplifting their youngest voices by joining with neighbouring nations in song with the Dream Keepers initiative. You can hear their music playing in any car you enter in Klemtu.
Bella Bella community garden and cultural center
Today, if you visit Bella Bella you will see a lively community. The type of people who come in on their day off to help you with a flat tire (true story) and that you can always count on for a friendly wave. No matter where you are from, the people of Bella Bella seem to understand that we are all neighbours.
Alex Ordanis and locals waving to one another in Bella Bella
What I’ve Learned
What I’ve gained from my visit to Bella Bella is a renewed adoration for First Nations culture. Their practiced and proud demonstration of which is a continual reminder to honour the past and invest in the future. Their reverence of nature is a staple of human life’s connection to the resources we depend on for food, survival, commerce, and harmony. Finally, the continual struggle and perseverance is evidence of a light that will not be extinguished. They continue to defend the people and nature which is intrinsically linked to one another. Something that I believe we should all strive for.