A different kind of sentencing hearing took place last week on B.C.’s central coast.
Representatives from one of the biggest oil shipping companies in the world thought they were heading to Bella Bella to be handed a fine by the Canadian government. Instead, the Heiltsuk community were preparing to carry out a traditional sentencing circle. The day was a powerful reckoning, as the stricken coastal community called corporate representatives to bear witness to their pain and ongoing struggle to recover from the 2016 Nathan E. Stewart spill.
Three years after the accident — where Kirby Corp spilled 110,000 litres of diesel, effluent, and engine oil into Heiltsuk fishing grounds — Canada charged the Texas-based corporation that owns the ship with violations to theFisheries Act, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, and the Pacific Pilotage Act.
The company pled guilty to three of nine counts, and was given penalties of $2.9 million. That amount — none of which goes to compensate the Heiltsuk — represents a minor hiccup to business-as-usual for Kirby, a multi-billion dollar company.
But “business-as-usual” looks very different when an Indigenous community is at the helm. In the Bella Bella Community School gym, Kirby representatives sat together with first responders, fishers, and community members and heard story after heartwrenching story of how the community has suffered devastating losses – including the closure of fisheries that once supported many families in the remote coastal village
While the circle represented a degree of closure for some, the Heiltsuk Nation are outraged that the company has been given such a light penalty. As RAVEN supporters may know, the Heitsuk have also launched a civil suit against Kirby, B.C. and Canada.
The case aims to address deeper issues in Canada’s oil spill response, pollution laws, and compensation regime. Their concerns as particularly urgent, as new pipeline and oil tanker projects, like the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, are approved.
In addition to their civil suit, the Heiltsuk launched an open letter from Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett to the CEO of Kirby. They placed ads in Houston newspapers targeting Kirby, and launched a petition site asking citizens to stand with Heiltsuk in calling on the company to take full responsibility for the spill. The tactics are a response to the expensive and complex legal battle the company has engaged in with the Heiltsuk community.
Ultimately, the Heiltsuk hope that the company will listen, learn, and make amends.
“I would much rather work with you to make things right, than to keep fighting you in courtrooms and the court of public opinion, in the pursuit of justice,” said Chief Slett in her open letter. “But the Heiltsuk will do what we need to do to get justice for our community, and to protect the interests of other coastal communities that could experience a devastating oil spill in the future.”