Five Indigenous-led Movements for Ocean Protection

Forests are known as the lungs of the Earth: a source for clean air and carbon filtration. But oceans are also living, breathing carbon sinks that give life – and air – to the planet. During World Oceans Week, let’s give homage to the oceans that sustain life from the depths below the surface. As is the case around the world, it is Indigenous Peoples who are at the forefront of movements to defend the oceans. With bold leadership and vision that draws from deep traditions of stewardship and inter-relationship, coastal First Nations are inspiring collective action and giving reason for hope. 


Here are five stories of communities leading the way for ocean protection:


Heiltsuk Enacting Ǧviḷ̓ás– Indigenous law to protect habitat and enact a sustainable herring fishery

The relationship fostered between the Heiltsuk, Heiltsuk territory, and the ocean is one of interconnectedness. Ǧviḷ̓ás (Heiltsuk law) endows Heiltsuk people with rights to access and use of shellfish, herring, seaweed and other riches of the sea, as well as conferring upon them the responsibility of stewardship and maintenance of these resources. This relationship is one of reciprocity: a vigorous and enduring ecosystem is essential to Heiltsuk way of life, and therefore Heiltsuk carry out Ǧviḷ̓ás with a focus on  what can be gifted to future generations. 

On October 13, 2016, the tug Nathan E. Stewart ran aground in Heiltsuk territory. The tug spilled over 110,000 litres of diesel oil at the mouth of Gale Creek, polluting the waters and shoreline adjacent to a Heiltsuk village site and Heiltsuk marine harvesting area.

Now, Heiltsuk Nation is suing the owner of the tug, Kirby Corporation, and the governments of Canada and B.C. Their case seeks to challenge the constitutionality of Canada’s oil spill response; compensate the Heiltsuk for cultural and economic losses due to the spill; and establish Heiltsuk Aboriginal title to reserve lands, near-shore and seabed in the Seaforth Channel and surrounding areas. 

In response to the Nathan E. Stewart incident, Heiltsuk Tribal Council established the Dáduqvḷá Committee “to assess and adjudicate the Spill in the context of Heiltsuk laws …and prepare a written decision of its findings.” The first of its kind, the Dáduqvḷá1 qṇtxv Ǧviḷ̓ásax̌ – To look at our traditional laws adjudication report is a must-read.

The report states: “Ǧviḷ̓ás means that we as Heiltsuk people derive our strength from our territory by following specific laws that govern all our relationships with the natural and supernatural world. It is the basis of Heiltsuk respect and reverence for the surrounding ecosystem.”

Saul Brown from Heiltsuk, writes: “The Heiltsuk people have an inalienable relationship to their territories and all animate beings within their territories. This includes wanai or herring. The ecosystem, herring included, has always taken care of the Heiltsuk people. In accepting that the herring has continually provided for us, we also accept that herring and all they provide are a gift from creator and as such, our worldview bids us to be stewards of this sacred gift.”

Nations resisting Trans Mountain tanker expansion through Pull Together campaign

Canada has doubled down on efforts to build a pipeline from the tar sands to the west coast. The plan is to run a pipeline through salmon-bearing streams, parks and Indigenous communities before loading ships with toxic diluted bitumen. The project would mean a 7-fold increase in tanker traffic in the Salish Sea. Pipeline impacts are never contained at the source of its extraction, as the pipeline travels through mountains, waterways, and sacred lands. Through its Sacred Trust Initiative, Tsleil-Waututh Nation reported that the environmental and cultural impacts of an oil spill would be disastrous. Fumes from spilled oil alone could make more than 1 million people sick and would decimate wildlife including the southern resident orca whale population.

Kayah George, a 19-year-old from Tsleil-Waututh Nation, was raised by the very inlet that could become a major industrious site for the Kinder Morgan pipeline. “Tsleil-Waututh means ‘people of the inlet.’ It’s our oldest ancestor. To resist the pipeline is to do something my people have been doing for thousands of years,” she says.

“We believe that Canada should follow their own laws when reviewing projects such as TMX. Because of this decision, Canada’s failure to apply the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 and the Species at Risk Act will put the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales at greater risk of extinction.” Said Tsleil Waututh Chief George-Wilson.

Together with leaders of Squamish and Coldwater Nations, Chief Leah George is leading a strategic legal challenge against TMX that aims to cancel the project based on a failure to account for Indigenous concerns around impacts on communities, ecosystems and future generations. Communities are rallying around Indigenous Nations by organizing and fundraising for the legal cases through

Seven Coastal Nations Bring United Resistance to Enbridge: Ban Tanker Traffic on North Coast 

The Northern Gateway pipeline and tankers project consisted of two 1,178 km pipelines from Alberta to Kitimat, a marine terminal, and oil tanker routes. Gitxaala Haisla Gitga’at, Kitasoo/Xai’Xais, Heiltsuk, Nadleh Whut’en and Haida Nations joined forces to challenge the project in court. Supported by, the Nations won a resounding victory in court that resulted in the cancellation of Northern Gateway 2016.

In their ruling, two of the three judges said the government failed to meet even a basic standard for First Nations consultation: “The inadequacies left entire subjects of central interest to the affected First Nations…entirely ignored.”

This victory confirms the position that First Nations have been advancing all along: Aboriginal rights to stewardship and protection of ocean resources must be recognized and respected. Because of the hard work and deep investment of coastal Indigenous Nations, working together, the north coast of BC is now tanker-and tar-sands pipeline free.

Resistance to LNG Projects that Threaten Salmon Habitat in the Skeena Estuary

The Skeena Estuary, where the grand river meets the Pacific ocean, contains an abundance of life. It is among the most productive ecosystems in the world and home to a variety of unique plant and animal communities including wild salmon and steelhead. Designated as critical salmon habitat, this natural wonder requires special management, consideration and protection. 

After years of growing opposition and legal challenges, in 2019 Malaysian energy giant Petronas cancelled an LNG export project that had been proposed for northern B.C. Following suit, Pacific Northwest LNG also abandoned plans for a project in Port Edward – Lelu Island.  The Gitxsan, Gitanyow and Gitwilgyoots led the way to these victories, with their determination to ensure the survival of the salmon, and the integrity of their territories.. By exercising aboriginal laws,Indigenous Peoples were able to defend pristine salmon habitats that have sustained Indigenous families for millennia.

But now, LNG Canada wants to build a pipeline from the fracking grounds in northeastern BC to a shipping terminal y on the north coast of BC – the very waters that people worked so hard to protect from Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline.

A fracked gas export terminal on B.C.’s north Pacific coast would spell doom for the baby salmon, shorebirds, marine mammals, fish and invertebrates that call these waters home. Devastating upriver impacts that would reverberate throughout the entire food and culture chain that salmon support. We can’t let this happen: that’s why we’re supporting legal challenges of Nations who are resisting the project with our Wet’suwet’en campaign. Read more here.   

Indigenous culture in the path of LNG: reoccupation of the land

In addition to powerful Indigenous-led legal challenges and laws protecting the ocean, cultural represencing camps are also part of a pathway to Indigenous sovereignty and coastal health. Because carbon emissions from pipeline projects are directly connected to warming oceans, the far-inland resistance movements to stop pipelines and reinstate Indigenous sovereignty are inseparable from the larger impact on climate change, carbon emissions and ultimately, warming oceans.

Madii Lii, led by Luutkudziiwus, a House group of the Gitxsan Nation, is a camp that aims to foster cultural strength and transmit land-based knowledge through land re-occupation. In order to realize that goal, Madii Lii aim to close all LNG industrial activity on their land. The territory is now occupied full time and traditional traplines, hunting grounds, and trails are under use, as per Gitxsan Ayookw (Gitxsan Laws). 

Unist’ot’en house of Wet’suet’en Nation have taken significant action to protect their lands by building a cabin and healing centre on the Skeena River, fostering traditional livelihoods in opposition to resource extraction projects – that have included seven different proposed pipelines – in their territory. 

Gidimt’en Camp and the Gidimt’en Yintah Access checkpoint was created by the Gidimt’en, one of five clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, to control access to the road leading to the Unist’toten Camp. Both of these efforts were aimed at staving off Coastal GasLink pipeline construction, while raising global awareness about the industrial and government injustice to Indigenous rights and the environment. In an assertion of Wet’suwet’en law, hereditary chiefs are pursuing legal action to stop Coastal GasLink and uphold their jurisdiction over their sovereign lands. 


To protect the oceans, we need to stand with Indigenous Peoples. Their stewardship practices, laws and cultural practices have existed since time immemorial, and continue to lead the way forward to create thriving ecosystems and communities. By supporting Indigenous leadership, you are also supporting long term ocean protection. Get involved, support Indigenous sovereignty and environmental stewardship here.


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