Tragedy and grace in the Great Bear Rainforest

Five years ago today, an articulated tug-barge sank in Heiltsuk territory. The spill devastated Gale Pass, a prime shellfish and salmon habitat that Indigenous mariners have relied on for countless generations. 

Since that horrendous day, the community has worked unflaggingly to contain not only the oil that spilled, but to repair the damage and restore the ecosystem to health.

In that process, the community has stepped even more fully into their cultural resurgence, their stewardship responsibilities, and their power. Though the Nathan E. Stewart sank, the Heiltsuk are rising. Donations to support Heiltsuk’s groundbreaking title case are being DOUBLED, right now: please give. 

Last week, I went up to Bella Bella to learn more about the unique community-led Indigenous Environmental Assessment that is currently in progress as part of evidence collection for Heiltsuk’s legal challenge. As a special bonus, I was there to help out with a festival of Indigenous music that was being filmed in the territory.

A crew of artists and performers from Haida Gwaii, Kitimat, and Vancouver descended on ShearWater, a sports-fishing resort which its new Heiltsuk owners aim to transform into a world-class, Indigenous-led ecotourism destination. We visitors were all primed to record a two-day show that would be live-streamed across the country as a way to call attention to the wild salmon crisis facing coastal First Nations. 

Despite 90-kilometre/hour windstorms, delayed flights and a drenching rainstorm, by Day 1 of the festival, the stage was standing proudly, performers had run their sound checks and the Heiltsuk hosts at ShearWater were ready with feasts to feed the lot of us. As artist KC Hall was putting the finishing touches to a #LandBack mural, we got the call. 

An elder in the community had passed away.  

Q̓vúmán̓akvḷa Wilfred Humchitt was 78 and had held the role of Yím̓ás  — hereditary chief —  for a generation. His death meant that, according to Heiltsuk Gvi’ilas (laws), no cultural activities could take place before he had been properly mourned, and buried.  

Which meant… calling off the festival. 

Before we can process the news, we’re called into a circle. Hereditary chief Dhadhiyasila Frank Brown speaks about the enormous gifts that elder Humchitt brought to his Heiltsuk community. Frank acknowledges how much work and planning has gone into making the festival happen. And then he shares something that will stay with me for a long time. “No matter what, we have to abide by our Gvi’ilas. Because without our laws, then: who are we?”

With that, though our plans had gone wrong, everything felt exactly right. Witnessing how a community pushes everything aside to honour custom even — especially — when the pressures of capitalism encroach was to experience grace in action.   Seeing people gathering together to recognize the departed chief was to witness the practices that have kept this Nation strong, united, and resilient for 14,000 years. 

And it’s that very foundation that is being upheld as Heiltsuk Nation pursues this court case. The chance to enshrine ‘traditional’ legal orders and stewardship practices into colonial law is invaluable. For Indigenous Peoples to have a stronger say in how marine resources are managed is so important at a time when overfishing and climate change combine to threaten the very existence of wild salmon — and, by extension the bears, wolves, and orca who roam the Great Bear Rainforest and the Great Bear Sea. 

With no festival to run, a group of us were escorted out into the territory by boat to take in the grandeur and beauty of the land and waters. We passed waterfalls plunging through old growth fir and cedar forests, islets freckled with hundreds of basking seals, ancient village and burial sites and pictographs with the Heiltsuk shield emblazoned in red onto rock faces. An eagle alighted on a storm-battered tree, furling its wings to settle and survey this vast paradise. 

This sacred place, these sacred relationships, are what’s at stake in every decision the Heiltsuk people make. With their legal challenge, Heiltsuk are asserting sovereignty over lands and waters that gave birth to hundreds of Heiltsuk generations and their culture.

Winning this legal case would mean not only that the Nation would be compensated for their losses from the Nathan E. Stewart disaster, but that the knowledge and wisdom I’ve glimpsed here this week can be recognized for what it is:  the voice, and the law, of the land. 

Please join us in making a donation today – which will be doubled – to stand with Heiltsuk Nation, and for the Great Bear Rainforest. 

With gratitude, 

Andrea Palframan
Director of Communication
RAVEN – Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs

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