5 Actions Heiltsuk has taken to Protect their Ocean Territory to Inspire YOU to Help this Oceans Day!

World Oceans Day is tomorrow, and as everyone is out celebrating the oceans they love, Heiltsuk is doing all they can to clean up Q’vúqvai (known as Gale Creek). A devastating diesel spill in 2016 still affects the sacred harvesting area, where at least 25 food species were sustainably managed to provide sustenance for countless generations of Heiltsuk people. 

The theme of World Oceans Day 2024 is Catalyzing Action for Our Ocean & Climate. If we want to protect our oceans from further harm, we all need to be taking action. Here are five actions Heiltsuk has taken to inspire you:

  1. Heiltsuk took Kirby Corporation, the company responsible for the Nathan E. Stewart fuel spill, to court in 2019. 

Kirby Corporation traveled all the way from Houston, Texas to Bella Bella for a sentencing hearing at the newly-built Big House. Heiltsuk leadership and community members addressed the corporate big-wigs in full regalia, honouring their sacred Ǧviḷ̓ás (Heiltsuk law). Kirby Corporation pleaded guilty to three criminal counts, violating the Fisheries Act, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, and the Pilotage Act, receiving $2.9 million in fines.

Marilyn Slett, K̓áwáziɫ (Chief) for Heiltsuk Nation, said that the $2.9 million in fines were just “a drop in the bucket” for Kirby Corporation. She’s right. The company brought in over $1.7 billion in revenue in 2016, the same year that their tug barge ran aground and spilled 110,000 litres of diesel in Q’vúqvai. Kirby Corporation continues to use three lawyers from three separate law firms to oppose Heiltsuk with their ongoing, RAVEN-supported legal case. 

  1. Heiltsuk Nation occupied the local Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) office to stop the commercial fishing of herring in their ocean territory. 

Overfishing is a major concern in all oceans across the world. Everyone, including keystone and endangered marine species like the Southern Resident Killer Orca, rely on the health and abundance of fish populations for food. Indigenous Peoples play a crucial role in ocean conservation as their sovereignty continues to uphold healthy ocean ecosystems for generations to come.

That’s why Heiltsuk occupied the DFO office in 2015. The Nation stopped all commercial fishing of herring between 2008 and 2015 as stocks were too low for economic use. When the DFO tried to reopen herring fishing to the commercial fishing industry without Heiltsuk’s consent, the Nation had to step in. Leadership and community members blocked the DFO office, asserting their sovereignty and constitutional rights to fishing. It resulted in the DFO shutting down commercial fishing of herring that year in attempts to build a better relationship with Heiltsuk Nation.

However, the DFO continues to overlook Heiltsuk’s sovereignty, rights, and conservation measures. Check out this RAVEN blog to learn more about the DFO’s unilateral closure of the Spawn on Kelp (SOK) harvest of herring in 2022. 

  1. Heiltsuk Nation undertook their own Indigenous-led Environmental Impact Assessment for their RAVEN-supported court case.

Most environmental impact assessments (EIA) used in court are pretty dry. Scientific monitoring is usually done at specific sites, moments in time, and mainly for court use, all through a western lens of viewing the land as objective.

Heiltsuk, knowing that the typical EIA would not truly represent what was lost to their community, went beyond the normal standard for impact assessments. They went through a multi-year process with Elders, knowledge keepers, and scientists to establish their Indigenous-led Environmental Impact Assessment. The assessment, although confidential for court use in 2025, will greatly help Heiltsuk Nation with restoration and conservation measures in the future. They continue to monitor and assess Q’vúqvai from the effects of the Nathan E. Stewart as a result of the EIA. 

Here is a RAVEN blog that explains the Heiltsuk-led Environmental Impact Assessment in more detail.

  1. Heiltsuk is replacing old furnaces with heat pumps (and the impacts are bigger than you think!) 

The Nathan E. Stewart reminded the people of Heiltsuk Nation that they still relied on oil and gas to heat their homes. The high carbon emission, economic cost, and risk of future fuel spills from depending on fossil fuels became something the Nation wanted to move away from immediately.

The Heat Pump Project is an obvious plan for Heiltsuk to shift away from fossil fuels. Almost 160 homes have already been converted from oil furnaces to heat pumps, saving 795 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year! Better yet, the Nation has reduced consumption of 320,000 litres of diesel per year as a result of the project.

Limiting the shipping of oil and gas by getting Indigenous Nations to have Aboriginal title from coast to coast to coast is one of Heiltsuk’s legal goals. The Heat Pump Project not only reduces shipping of diesel to the community of Bella Bella, it reduces the carbon output of the Nation which, ultimately, affects their ocean territory. Over 30% of our global emissions are stored in oceans. If we continue to increase emissions and not move toward a just transition, it may cause severe damage and even ecosystem failure for oceans around the globe. 

Heiltsuk Nation’s Heat Pump Project is one of the many Indigenous-led solutions to protecting oceans from increased oil shipping and climate change. Find out more at their website here: https://heiltsukclimateaction.ca/heat-pump-project

  1. Heiltsuk Nation took their pursuit for justice to the international stage at the United Nations.

Leaders from Heiltsuk Nation travelled to London, England to speak at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN body for establishing international shipping laws. Over 170 nation states represent the IMO. Heiltsuk Nation was invited to speak at the IMO by the Inuit Circumpolar Council — the only Indigenous body there. . 

Heiltsuk Nation’s trip was directly linked to their RAVEN-supported litigation, and Canada’s inaction to protect Indigenous cultures from fuel spills.

K̓áwáziɫ Marilyn Slett said this at the IMO, “We have traveled to London for two reasons. First, we are calling on the Canadian government to fully participate in negotiations to resolve the NES litigation with Heiltsuk. If Canada is serious about its commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Canada must show leadership by sitting down with us to recognize Heiltsuk’s cultural losses from the NES spill, rather than continuing court battles.

Second, we are calling on all IMO states to begin a process to ensure international laws provide redress for cultural impacts to Indigenous peoples from marine spills and shipping activities. We know we are not alone.

You can read more about Heiltsuk’s visit to the IMO in this Narwhal article: https://thenarwhal.ca/heiltsuk-nation-international-marine-organization/

The incredible leadership of Heiltsuk Nation goes beyond just these five acts of sovereignty, stewardship, and defense for their people, culture, and ocean territory. Time and time again, Heiltsuk shows up to protect their ocean and the non-human life they hold deep, interconnected relationships with. They are protecting the ocean for us, too.

So, what action are you taking this World Oceans Day? Here’s an easy one: donate to help Heiltsuk Nation access justice. Another way you can help out Heiltsuk, especially if you don’t have the extra funds in your chequing account, is to hold your own fundraiser. You can host a beach cleanup with your pals or a backyard concert to raise funds and awareness in a fun, inclusive way! Everything helps.

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