Why are Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) conducting their own environmental assessment?

A guest post by Megan Humchitt, Haíɫzaqv councillor and community leader. Humchitt was among first responders to the Nathan E. Stewart disaster, and is now a contributor to RAVEN as part of our Indigenous Storytellers Initiative.

When the Nathan E. Stewart ran aground in Gale Pass in October, 2016, the resulting diesel and lubricant spill devastated the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) Nation, putting a stop to harvesting practices and cultural usage of the area. The spill continues to have significant economic and cultural impacts. This includes the uncertainty about when the area will be “safe” again, and when it will be permissible to harvest under  Ǧvi̓ḷás. The trauma of this incident continues to weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of the Nation.

As part of their ‘world class oil spill response”, neither the federal nor the provincial government ordered  the polluter – Kirby – to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). First the company was permitted to propose  the scope of an EIA within a western framework and without the benefit of  robust Heiltsuk participation or Indigenous knowledge, so an EIA Plan was never signed off upon. Heilstuk then attempted to negotiate a terms of reference with Canada and BC, but the incorporation of Heilstuk Ǧvi̓ḷás (law) and funding for the EIA were sticking points. The parties to the legal action against Kirby could not agree upon the terms of reference for an EIA and so, years later, no EIA has been completed.

This is not acceptable to the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk), and here are some of the reasons why. 

We are intricately connected to our natural world, the land, the sea, rivers, all the plants and animals great and small. When any one of these is put at risk, hurt, or displaced it affects us culturally, spiritually, physically, and in ways we cannot put into English words. The Nathan E. Stewart disaster is a prime example of that, and we cannot rely on a colonial system or the  polluter , but rather must conduct an environmental impact assessment grounded in  our laws, our culture, and  values.

 We have a long history of the government dictating to us what is “safe” and not being honest. This is not sufficient for the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) people and we must find a better way forward. Our own Environmental Impact Assessment  is a start. Whether the government will come to understand this and support this remains to be seen.

Our Ǧvi̓ḷás are the laws of our ancestors that guide us and our relationship to the natural and spiritual world. Ǧvi̓ḷás is directly connected to the principle of sustainability and respect. This is why it is necessary to conduct our own Environmental Impact Assessment. This is our responsibility to our environment, our people, and all living things that we share this world with. Our relationship with our ecosystem is reciprocal and by doing this assessment we are upholding our Ǧvi̓ḷás, our responsibility as Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) people. 

We will be integrating both western science and Indigenous knowledge to conduct a thorough investigation into how the environment and our people were affected by the NES spill. 

Heiltsuk’s Environmental Impact Assessment is based on on-the-ground knowledge,  involving knowledge keepers who have spent a lifetime out harvesting in the territory and who have learned from their parents, grandparents, and ancestors. 

Megan Humchitt with her father, Haíɫzaqv hereditary chief Harvey Humchitt

Back in 2017, the EIA Plan proposed by the polluter was flawed:

“Kirby’s environmental impact assessment was going to take just the information that had been gathered during the spill, and in the few weeks and months afterwards. The majority of that information gathering involved chemical testing. That means that they weren’t planning on going out into the water, into the territory, to  actually look and see what those impacts were, six months, a year, two years later. And they were going to rely almost exclusively on laboratory testing of contaminant levels, plugged into a computer model,  to tell Heiltsuk what those impacts were. We can’t rely just on models and something happening entirely in a laboratory to tell us what’s really going on. It’s important to build on the knowledge of people who have human experience with an ecosystem spanning generations and spanning millennia.” — Diana Chan, Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department

Efforts to negotiate a terms of reference with Canada and BC for a more fulsome EIA that would have included Indigenous Knowledge and additional field work failed because:

  • Lack of agreement as to who would fund the EIA;
  • Opposition from Canada and BC to signing off  on a terms of reference that includes the incorporation of Ǧvi̓ḷás in the EIA.

A Heiltsuk led EIA was the only way forward.

Heiltsuk have engaged Firelight to conduct a proper, thorough EIA grounded in Ǧvi̓ḷás, integrating Heiltsuk knowledge and western science. Firelight is an Indigenous-owned consultancy with extensive experience working with Indigenous nations to develop community- led impact assessments. They employ Indigenous knowledge-based approaches to monitor impacts and ecosystem recovery. 

The purpose of the Heiltsuk’s EIA is to:

  • Assess the impacts of the Nathan E. Stewart disaster on the environment and the living creatures in the area
  • Build an understanding of Heiltsuk’s own standards for ecological health, to allow members to    know when it is safe and appropriate to harvest from the area again
  • Identify rehabilitation and restoration measures that may be needed to restore the impacted area to health
  • Develop a plan for long-term monitoring of the site as needed

With its thorough scope and engagement of a broad sector of Heiltsuk society, the cost of the EIA is significant.  RAVEN is fundraising to support these costs as they are directly associated with the collection of evidence towards Heiltsuk’s legal challenge, launched in the wake of the Nathan E. Stewart spill. 

The Indigenous-led EIA process doesn’t just benefit Heiltsuk families and community members who rely on Gale Pass for livelihoods and cultural identity, though that’s an important outcome. Having Indigenous leadership to craft and conduct an EIA grounded in Indigenous law and cultural practices shows the way forward for future assessment processes, and pushes the envelope from the narrow scope currently defined by industry and government. The high standard ecological stewardship embodied by Heitsuk’s EIA is one that  proponents should be held to: in Heiltsuk territory, and beyond. 

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