On August 20, the Vancouver Sun announced that “A B.C. judge has ruled that close to $3 million in fines imposed on the operator of a tug that hit a reef and sank in the Inside Passage in 2016 be handed to put into an environmental damage fund administered to benefit the Heiltsuk Nation.”
Sounds good, right? We thought so too. Unfortunately, it’s not true.
When the Heiltsuk hosted Kirby executives in Bella Bella in July 2019, they carried out a sentencing circle which brought those responsible for the Nathan E. Stewart spill face-to-face with impacted community members. It was an exhausting, emotional process that brought some closure for people still grieving the losses to livelihood and ecosystem devastation caused when the crew on Kirby’s boat fell asleep and ran aground in the Gale Pass fishing grounds.
Alongside that Indigenous legal process, Canada carried out a sentencing of its own. Fines levied against Kirby Corp under the Fisheries Act, Migratory Birds Convention Act and Pilotage Act totalled $2.9 million.
But, contrary to what the Sun reports, those remittances don’t go to Heiltsuk Nation. Instead, the payment will be put into an environmental damage fund that will be administered by Environment Canada. The government uses the money from the fund to make grants to communities for salmon enhancement and habitat restoration. Typically these are grants under $100K – a drop in the bucket considering the magnitude of the Kirby disaster. Plus — and this is critical — the Heiltsuk still have to line up with other communities and apply for each grant.
In an open letter to Kirby’s CEO, Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett wrote, “We both know this sentence does not represent true justice. True justice would mean paying for an environmental impact assessment, admitting civil liability, and working openly and honestly to address compensation and remediation for the harm caused by the spill. You should work with us to help reform antiquated marine pollution compensation laws, rather than hiding behind them.”
Heiltsuk’s website posted a correction given the community issues that arose due to the article : read their statement here.
In his ruling, the judge did recommend that the fund be allocated to communities on B.C.’s central coast, but he has no authority to order that they be awarded in such a fashion. It may take years for Kirby’s $2.7 million to make its way through federal bureaucracies and actually reach communities who have, for four long years, lived with the aftermath of a spill of diesel, oil and effluents that, in best estimates, had a recovery rate of less than 20%.
Judge Hoy’s decision is separate from the ongoing civil claim Heiltsuk Nation has brought against Kirby which seeks compensation for lost harvest and cultural uses, and seeks declarations of Heiltsuk’s title and rights. Kirby continues to deny civil liability.
The case the Heiltsuk filed last year, which RAVEN is backing with the help of our amazing community, is ongoing. The Heiltsuk have never been compensated for damages or losses from the wipeout of one of their major harvesting areas: the company-led Environmental Assessment is still pending, and the community has spent countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars doing their own research and remediation to try to understand whether seafood in their territory is even safe to eat.
The case has implications beyond just restoration and reparation, though. The Heiltsuk have claimed Aboriginal title to the seabed and foreshore in the spill area, a claim which would set a precedent and deepen Indigenous jurisdiction over marine activities including tanker traffic, fisheries and aquaculture. According to Lisa Fong, Heiltsuk’s legal counsel, “This case would be a gamechanger, for any coastal Indigenous community.” Fong has contacted the editor of the Vancouver Sun to request a retraction.
Right now, the Nation is involved in case management — this stage of the process involves regular meetings with the judge to make decisions on discovery (reciprocal sharing of documents) and pre-trial motions, of which Kirby is filing a multitude: the better to exhaust the Heiltsuk by attrition. It’s a classic delay and outspend tactic which Heiltsuk can only counter with the support of amazing crowdfunders, community event organizers and donors. Meanwhile the Heiltsuk are raising funds to complete a study of harvest losses (which is halfway completed) and do a study on cultural losses.
The anniversary of the Kirby spill (October 13) co-incides with the opening of the Heiltsuk Nation’s Big House. As the Heiltsuk host an historic celebration of Indigenous cultural strength, RAVEN will be launching a month of awareness raising and outreach. To host a film screening of our documentary “Raven People Rising” in tandem with that month of action, contact email@example.com.
To support the case, visit https://fundraise.raventrust.com/campaign/heiltsuk-step-up-for-coastal-heroes/c126144.