Sentencing of Kirby Takes Place in Bella Bella, an Unprecedented Assertion of Indigenous Law

In October, 2016 a tug without a certified pilot ran aground and spilled over 110,000 liters of diesel oil in Heiltsuk waters on the central coast of British Columbia. The tug and attached barge were carrying diesel through Heiltsuk waters despite Heiltsuk prohibition of oil transport through their marine harvesting areas.

Through inadequate government and corporate response, and despite Heiltsuk responders’ heroic efforts to mitigate the damage, the spill contaminated key shellfish harvesting areas and critical habitat for the Northern abalone. The Heiltsuk suffered a violent disruption to their way of life, their economy, their history and identity, and their spiritual connection to the land. The Heiltsuk had warned the federal government about the risk of oil transport through the stormy passages of the Central Coast. Heiltsuk was one of the Nations that won a landmark case stopping Enbridge Northern Gateway in 2016. Tragically, they are now left dealing with long-term and catastrophic damage to the health of their land, waters, and culture. This tragedy is the direct result of the federal government failing to fulfill its constitutional duty to the Heiltsuk. It must stand as a warning for the future: lest it happen again.

The following is a witness report from West Coast Environmental Law of this unprecedented hearing:

On July 16th, 2019 Kirby’s criminal sentencing hearing was hosted by the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella. This one-of-a-kind hearing involved Heiltsuk and Canadian legal process operating side-by-side the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) have continued exercising their Ǧviḷ̓ás (laws) and asserting them when necessary in response to the Nathan E. Stewart incident. Despite ongoing colonialism and the imposition of the Canadian legal system over Haíɫzaqv peoples and territories, Haíɫzaqv laws have not disappeared and are increasingly being expressed by the Heiltsuk Nation for others to understand. In response to the Nathan E. Stewart incident, the Heiltsuk Tribal Council established the Dáduqvḷá Committee “to assess and adjudicate the Spill in the context of Heiltsuk laws, known as Ǧviḷ̓ás, 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.


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 eco-system.


In a section titled “H̓aíkḷa: To make things right – An opportunity for change”, the report sets out a number of recommendations for Kirby, including;

  1. Attending traditional washing and healing ceremonies
  2. Apologizing to the Heiltsuk people for the spill
  3. Providing funding for Heiltsuk ecological and cultural restoration projects

The report notes: “their vessels are not welcome in Heiltsuk waters until they have acknowledged the harms done to the Heiltsuk as a result of their negligence and taken responsibility for their corporate misconduct and the misconduct of the NES captain and crew.”

The Heiltsuk are taking the polluter, Kirby Corporation, and the federal government to court. RAVEN is raising $425,000 to help fund the case.

Will you stand with the Heiltsuk?


RAVEN is calling on coast protectors everywhere to DONATE, FUNDRAISE ONLINE and HOST FILM SCREENINGS in your community to raise funds for the Heiltsuk legal challenge.

Read more on this unprecedented hearing and further action in the report by West Coast Environmental Law here.

*This blog post is a compilation of excerpts from WCEL’s published article: “Witnessing the Nathan E. Stewart sentencing hearing in Heiltsuk Territories”

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