First Nations Forward

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On Oct. 10, 2018, Grand chief Stewart Phillip saluted Marilyn Slett, Heiltsuk elected chief councillor, after the Heiltsuk Nation filed a claim against the government and Kirby Corporation for damages caused by a devastating oil spill. Photo by Michael Ruffolo

If you didn't know, now you'll know.

A lot of historic moments with lasting impacts took place in British Columbia over the past year. First Nations communities celebrated groundbreaking court victories with national implications, won awards for clean energy leadership, and took reconciliation efforts into their own hands.

This National Observer series, First Nations Forward, is dedicated to shedding a light in what can feel like a dark era of increasing climate change, fake news, and divisive politics, by emphasizing the many stories of success and sovereignty taking place across the province. Every story of a trailblazing individual, Nation or collaboration tells a larger tale of resiliency, leadership and foresight that may be remembered for generations to come.

Chief Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith Band and secretary treasurer of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs had every reason to pump her fist victoriously to the air on Aug. 30, 2018, after the Federal Court of Appeal quashed the flawed Trans Mountain pipeline approval. Photo by Michael Ruffolo

A strong delegation of Coastal First Nations leaders traveled to Ottawa on Dec. 4, 2018, to stress the importance of Bill C-48, the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act. Tweet by Heiltsuk elected chief councillor and president of Coastal First Nations, Marilyn Slett.

While upholding their traditional governance system and protecting their territories, members of the Wet'suwet'en Nation were served an injunction for blocking access to TransCanada's Coastal GasLink pipeline. Since the interim injunction was approved, Wet'suwet'en members of another Clan established a road-block and support for the resistance increased. Photo by Jeffrey Nicholls

Often governed by land-based laws and cultures, First Nations have continued to demonstrate leadership around clean energy alternatives, sustainable ecological protection and the meaningful recognition of title, rights and sovereignty.

Here's a recap of some of the stories shared from massive moves in 2018 - click on the titles to read more.

Chapter 1

Clean energy alternatives

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Installing solar panels at the band office and health centre was one form of renewable energy the Kanaka Indian Bar Band tapped into on the way to energy independence. January 21, 2018. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

First Nations in B.C. are taking a leading role in the renewable energy sector, with research showing many are either already involved or interested in getting there.

The Tla-o-qui-aht Nation demonstrates clean energy alternatives

The Tla-o-qui-aht Nation are a leading force in conservation efforts, from their tribal parks management program and successful run-of-river hydro projects to their forward-thinking land-use and ecotourism plans. By implementing modern methods grounded in traditional values, the Nation works to preserve their coastal ecosystems, and create a sustainable local economy that benefits the whole community.

The Nation won Clean Energy B.C.'s Environmental Stewardship & Community Improvement award for their Winchie Creek hydro plant.

Terry Dorward, tribal parks manager (left) and Saya Masso, natural resources manager (right), shared their vision for the expansion of some of their conservation efforts on April 21, 2018, standing in their traditional territory, across the water from Meares Island in Tofino. Photo by Peruzzo

Tla-o-qui-aht people have a sacred relationship to their territory, one that makes its preservation an obvious instinct, community members told National Observer in April, 2018. Photo by Peruzzo

This First Nation is four steps ahead of climate change

Also leading in clean energy is the Kanaka Indian Bar Band, located in the heart of the Fraser Canyon. Chief Patrick Michell, was recognized at Clean Energy B.C.'s annual award gala, winning the Lifetime Achievement award for his tireless commitment to the wellbeing, strength and independence of his community.

In 2013, Kanaka Bar opened the massive Kwoiek Creek run-of-river hydro plant. The run-of-river project produces approximately 215 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity per year, enough to power up to 22,000 homes. Some of the revenue from renewables funds the band's housing program, food self-sufficiency project and solar project.

"The time is now, to take pre-emptive measures. We cannot wait to deal with climate chaos," Chief Patrick Michell said on Jan. 21, 2018. "Look at recent earthquakes and tsunami warnings along the coast of Canada. Are we ready?" Photo by Emilee Gilpin

The Kwoiek Creek run-of-river project is located on the west side of the Fraser River. Kanaka’s corporate organization, Kwoiek Creek Resources Inc. owns 50 per cent of the project, and Innergex Renewable Energy Inc. owns the other 50 per cent. Innergex will release full ownership to the band in 36 years, as a part of their agreement. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

In brighter news, a clean energy success story

HlGaagilda (Skidegate) is becoming a city of the future. In an effort to decrease diesel consumption, the community installed heat pumps in almost all of its 350 homes and solar panels on all major buildings. Heat pumps save people about $100/month, which works out to over $400,000/year, solar energy offsets demand of electricity from diesel generation and the community has taken efforts to build capacity within the community and educate members on sustainable energy efficiency.

Barbara Stevens, chief administrative officer of the Skidegate Band Council; Billy Yovanovich, chief band councilor; and Trent Moraes, a councillor, spoke with National Observer about the past, present and future of the renewable energy initiatives.

Moraes, Yovanovich and Stevens standing in front of a piece by renowned Haida artist Bill Reid, that Stevens had made pink on Feb. 21, 2018. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Chapter 2

Legal challenges

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On Aug. 30, a Federal Court of Appeal ruling required the government redo an environmental evaluation and legally-mandated consultation process necessary for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project to survive. First Nations leaders opposed to the pipeline celebrated at a press conference in Crab Park shortly after the announcement was made. Photo by Michael Ruffolo

The courts have served as an important place for the assertion of international, human and collective rights and title to land, waters and traditional territories. This year was no exception.

Court quashes Trudeau’s approval of Trans Mountain pipeline

History was made on Aug. 30, 2018 when the Federal Court of Appeal quashed the government's approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline project. The court found that Trudeau’s cabinet made its decision without considering all evidence and had failed its legal duty to consult First Nations affected by the expansion.

The decision, the first major court defeat for the project, required the federal energy regulator or its successor to redo a federal environmental evaluation and to correct a “critical” mistake of ignoring the consequences of increased oil tanker traffic off the coast of British Columbia. There have been more than 250 ‘duty to consult’ court victories by Indigenous groups to date.

Grand chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian chiefs, a critic of the Trans Mountain expansion project, had a lot to smile about at a press conference at Crab Park on Aug. 30, 2018 when he learned the basis for federal approval was deemed inadequate by the Federal Court of Appeal. Photo by Michael Ruffolo

"This decision reinforces our belief that the Trans Mountain Expansion Project must not proceed, and we tell the prime minister to start listening and put an end to this," said Khelsilem, councillor for the Squamish Nation at the Crab Park press conference on Aug. 30, 2018. "It is time for Prime Minister Trudeau to do the right thing." Photo by Michael Ruffolo

Heiltsuk sue Canada on behalf of their nation, 'the coast and all Canadians'

On Oct. 31, 2016, the second mate of the U.S-owned tugboat Nathan E. Stewart was alone on the bridge and fell asleep, causing the tug and associated barge to run aground in the Gale Pass of traditional Heiltsuk territory, spilling 110,000 litres of diesel fuel, lubricants, heavy oils and pollutants into the water, contaminating an important Heiltsuk food harvesting, village and cultural site.

On. Oct. 10, 2018, the Heiltsuk First Nation filed a claim to the B.C. Supreme Court, against the federal and provincial governments, as well as the Kirby Corporation, for the spill.

"After the spill, Heiltsuk determined that for justice to be achieved, we needed to draw from all the legal tools at our disposal," Chief λáλíyasila Frank Brown said at the press release for the announcement. "Heiltsuk convened the Dáduqvḷá Committee to apply our own legal order, our Ǧviḷás - our laws, as well as to file a civil claim within the external court of Canada. This civil claim builds on the findings of our adjudication report."

Heiltsuk elected chief councillor Marilyn Slett and hereditary chief λáλíyasila Frank Brown hold their notice of civil claim and adjudication report at a press conference on Oct. 10, 2010. Photo by Michael Ruffolo

During the Oct. 10, 2018 press conference, hereditary chief Harvey Humchitt said that one of his roles and responsibilities as a hereditary leader is to protect the Heiltsuk peoples' territories, land and waters from harm. Photo by Michael Ruffolo

Leaders of Unist'ot'en Community were protecting their territory. TransCanada took them to court

On Nov. 26, 2018, TransCanada filed an injunction against Freda Huson, spokesperson for the Unist'ot'en House (C’ihlts’ehkhyu / Big Frog Clan), and her husband Warner Naziel (Dinï ze’ Smogelgem, Hereditary Chief of the Laksamshu Clan) for defending their traditional territories. The interim injunction was approved by a B.C. judge, allowing Coastal GasLink to remove the gate that blocks access to the road leading to the pipeline site. The judge also granted an extension of the time for the defendants to file and serve an application response and a response to civil claim to Jan. 31, 2019.

"We are the jurisdiction in our land," Dinï ze’ Na’Moks (hereditary chief John Ridsdale) told National Observer over the phone. "We never signed a treaty with Canada. As hereditary chiefs, we are unified, and our answer has always been — no pipelines."

Since the interim injunction was approved, members of another Wet'suwet'en Clan, the Gitdumt'en Clan, set up another check-point, outside the injunction zone. TransCanada filed for an amendment to the injunction, to include the second road block and on Dec. 21, 2018, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Marguerite Church ruled in favor of the amendment. There have been mass gatherings and shows of solidarity across the country and beyond, as the stand-off escalates and informative conversations around Canadian, Indigenous, hereditary, and elected governance bleed into a new year.

Celebrated Michif Cree artist Christi Belcourt designed this graphic of hereditary Wet'suwet'en chiefs standing up against pipeline construction in their traditional territory.

Chapter 3

Breaking ground

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Crown–Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett smudged with Tsilhqot'in leadership on Nov. 2, 2018, at a historic exoneration on Tsilhqot'in title land. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

First Nations in B.C. marked important milestones in territorial jurisdiction, reconciliation efforts, cultural reclamation and professional distinction this year.

Doing business the Tsilhqot'in way

The Tsilhqot'in Nation located in interior B.C., became the first Nation in Canada to prove their title over a portion of their land in a groundbreaking 2014 Supreme Court of Canada decision. They are still working to extend title over their full traditional territories. A part of the Tsilhqot'in Nation's court settlement and reconciliation process included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s official exoneration of six of their war heroes.

In the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Prime Minister Trudeau offered an apology on behalf of the colony of B.C. who took the lives of six Tsilhqot'in war heroes 150 years ago. A more important event for Tsilhqot'in leadership took place on Tsilhqot'in title land, when Trudeau traveled to the Xeni Gwet'in territory and exonerated the chiefs a second time, face-to-face with the community.

An important part of the exoneration of six war heroes of the Tsilhqot'in Nation involved this black horse, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rode into the historic community gathering on Nov. 2, 2018. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

While the Tsilhqot'in Nation, led in part by a strong group of elected chiefs representing all six Tsilhqot'in communities, demonstrated tribal leadership and sovereignty, First Nations women were busy organizing their own historic gatherings.

Something's stirring on Haida Gwaii

The Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) and Haida Nations share a long history. In part, to acknowledge their coastal relationships and unity, and recommit to a peace treaty signed in 2014/2015 and make plans for a collective future. The days were themed: "Building Relationships and Sharing Knowledge" and "Taking Action and Creating Change."

Some members of the Heiltsuk women's delegation posed for a photo before opening a dialogue session on Feb. 28, 2018. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

​​Attendees included Heiltsuk and Haida chiefs, elders, high-ranking women, youth, and council members from the Heiltsuk Tribal Council, the Council of the Haida Nation, the Old Masset Village Council and the Skidegate Band Council. Participants held panels on cultural health and wellness, identified and addressed top challenges impacting their communities and established solutions moving forward.

While National Observer had the honour of covering this historic gathering, it was impossible to ignore other positive stories stirring on the island - from the impressive clean energy alternatives to groundbreaking language revitalization efforts.

The Haida language is here to stay

In many corners of the world, people work tirelessly to learn land-based languages old as time, remembering, reawakening and revitalizing alternative ways forward. In Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the northwest coast of British Columbia, many indomitable spirits and multi-layered moving parts are tending to the fire of the Haida language. From the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program, which connects elders to state-of-the-art technology, to a team of hardworking teachers in Masset, the Haida's approach to language revitalization sets an example for Indigenous communities worldwide.

The Skidegate Haida Immersion Program has become the language hub for Haida elders in the Skidegate community. The program was founded in 1998, after an extremely impactful and successful 10-day Haida immersion summer session, with more than 40 students and 16 teachers. Learn more here. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Jaskwaan (Amanda) Bedard was recently hired in Masset as the Haida language and culture curriculum teacher and was one of many women interviewed about Haida language initiatives. Bedard said learning her language has helped her learn about herself and that nurturing the Haida language is invaluable. "Everything is connected to everything else," she told National Observer. "The strength of Indigenous peoples speaking the language of the land contributes to the strength of humanity."

Indigenous women have been leading, not just in court rooms and classrooms, but on softball pitches and in the sky too.

Young Indigenous athletes recognized as leaders and role models

Hunter Lang, 16, from Port Moody, helped Team B.C. win a bronze medal in the U16 age division last year and her team – the Coquitlam Classics – won a silver medal at the 2017 U16 B provincial championships. Lang was one of 12 recipients recognized with a 2017 Premier’s Award for Aboriginal Youth Excellence in Sport, presented in March this year.

"The Grade 11 honour roll student is three-quarters Chinese and one-quarter First Nations, from the Ts'kw'aylaxw First Nation," wrote Tracy Sherlock in a March feature story. Photo supplied

While youth won awards for softball, archery and rowing, another Indigenous woman bought her own plane and launched her own airline, IskwewAIR. When the spotlight hit her and newspapers requested to share her story of success, Teara Fraser, Cree and Métis, shared her personal motto: dream it, design it, do it - hoping to inspire other aspiring women entrepreneurs.

The woman who bought a plane and started an airline dedicated to Indigenous women

Fraser, the first Indigenous woman in Canada to own and operate an airline, didn't become a pilot until she was 30 years old. Now, at the age of 45, she bought a plane and is launching an airline dedicated to the strength and success of Indigenous women. IskwewAIR will start flying on Mar. 8, 2019 and operate out of the Vancouver International Airport's south terminal.

The airline will begin with charter flights, as the team determines more regular routes. At the moment, Fraser told National Observer, the company is examining ways they can connect to remote communities, including Indigenous communities across the province that aren't as well-serviced as other destinations. She hopes her airline will also help strengthen Aboriginal tourism in Canada.

Teara Fraser, the first Indigenous woman in Canada to simultaneously buy a plane and launch her own airline, celebrated in Vancouver on Sep. 21, 2018. Photo by Emilee Gilpin
Chapter 4

All in style

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Hundreds marched in remembrance of missing and murdered women during the Women's Memorial March in Vancouver on February 14, 2018. Photo by Edward Ngai

It's not all pipelines and politics, when it comes to the ways that communities and community champions have led the way for generations to come, reclaiming 'cool culture' with ancestral style.

Five Indigenous women rock business with beauty

In January, National Observer profiled five Indigenous women entrepreneurs remixing tradition, creating pieces for ceremony, powwows, self-care and fashion — making the world more beautiful with every bead, shell and prayer-filled piece of work. Lenise Omeasoo of Antelope-women Designs, Arianna Johnny-Wadsworth of Quw'utsun' Made, Caroline Blechert of Creations for Continuity, Sharifah Marsden and Vyna Brown of CopperCanoeWoman Creations talked about how they made it in the world of business and art as Indigenous women from all directions.

Arianna Johnny-Wadsworth, founder of ‘Quw'ut'sun Made,’ said in an interview, "I think if we indigenize our daily actions and connect with where we come from in small ways, it’ll help the whole world." Photo provided by Johnny-Wadsworth

Also carving and riding the emerging Indigenous business wave are five Indigenous tattoo artists who spoke earlier this year about their work, visions for the future and commitment to reawakening traditional tattoo practices in a contemporary reality.

Reawakening cultural tattooing of the Northwest

Tattoo practitioners are revitalizing their cultural tattooing practices, speaking out against cultural appropriation and healing their communities in the process. An exhibition at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, called Body Language: Reawakening Cultural Tattooing of the Northwest, showcases the incredible work of Dion Kaszas, Dean Hunt, Nakkita Trimble, Corey Bulpitt and Nahaan.

“What is now known in the art world as 'northwest art' and 'northwest coast formline' has always been a visual language for the Nisga’a — a language that informs belonging, territory, community and place,” Trimble said after the opening of the exhibition, during a panel discussion on June 8, 2018. “It’s all written in the design. If you’re trained to read the language, you can see who someone is, who their chief is, what territory they come from, where their hunting, fishing and harvesting rights are and what it means to put it on a certain part of the body.”

Dean Hunt, Heiltsuk, said at a symposium at the Bill Reid Art Gallery of Northwest Coast Art on June 8, 2018, that he's using the tools his ancestors fought hard to protect. Photo by Emilee Gilpin

Emerging Indigenous filmmakers feature Indigenous cowboys of B.C. 'In the Valley of Wild Horses' [VIDEO]

Indigenous filmmakers Asia Youngman and Trevor Mack joined forced to create a short documentary In the Valley of Wild Horses which premiered in the Vancouver International Film Festival on Oct. 1, 2018. The film follows the annual wagon trip put on by members of the Xeni Gwet'in community, who identify themselves as "Indigenous cowboys," and embark on their journey to reconnect youth to their history, land and culture. Mack and Youngman invited members of the Xeni Gwet'in community, featured in the film, to attend the Vancouver premier, before taking the doc to Tsilhqot'in title land, for a community-viewing.

Asia Youngman (front left) and Trevor Mack (front right) posed with members of the Xeni Gwet'in before the Oct. 1, 2018 film premiere in Vancouver. Photo by Michael Ruffolo

Two communities take reconciliACTION into their own hands

Demonstrating class and the strength of spirit, two communities came together to transform a tragedy into an act of love. The story involves blood, history — and a little Nuu-chah-nulth girl named Maggie Sutlej. When the Ahousaht First Nation and the Khalsa Aid Society realized the pieces of their connected stories, they took reconciliACTION into their own hands and made a commitment to work together for a brighter future.

The Khalsa Aid Organization and Ahousaht First Nation came together to celebrate a new project on Oct. 26, 2018. Photo by Sarah Davison

In conversation with Kanahus Manuel - a woman of many names

What is more empowering than a woman standing up for her rights, family and wellbeing of future generations?

Kanahus Manuel has been called many names — a political activist, a pipeline protestor, a tiny house warrior, but she identifies first and foremost as a mother. Manuel and family members continue to make news headlines for resisting pipeline activity in their traditional territory.

"Everyone will be tested, when the time comes and they meet our ancestors," Manuel said in an interview. "That’s when the real judgment happens. People can judge the tactics, what our people are doing, but we know what we’re doing is right, when we say we’re standing here to protect water for our children, and those yet unborn - that’s our tribal law. As women we know it, because we birth these babies."

Kanahus Manuel told National Observer in August that "resistance comes in many forms." Photo by Aziz Dhamani

While First Nations made massive moves over the past year, they showed no sign of slowing down. National Observer remains committed to bearing witness to the many historic political and environmental steps taken in courts, at check-points, and in communities; to document the way that history recreates herself with every passing moon. Stay tuned.