Protecting our world - H̓íkila qṇts n̓ála’áx̌v

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The Gvúkva'áus Haíɫzaqv, House of the Haíɫzaqv, a symbol the coastal nation's strength and resilience first opened its doors in 2019. Photo by Rochelle Baker

“This clean energy plan is to align with our values and to stay connected with the Earth."

Q̓átuw̓as Brown, community engagement co-ordinator

The Haíɫzaqv Nation is aiming to protect their world — building a sustainable future now and for generations to come despite being at the nexus of negative impacts from colonialism and climate change.

The nation’s climate action team recently crafted a framework rooted in the worldview and ancestral laws of the Haíɫzaqv and tied to concrete proposals to adapt and thrive as global warming advances.

Members and guests were welcomed in March to the big house in Bella Bella to witness, celebrate and advance the new community energy plan.

The plan is a key to achieve positive climate outcomes for the Haíɫzaqv, but it operates in tandem with the wider objectives, or “house posts”, of self-government, economic development, environmental stewardship, cultural revitalization and housing.

Protecting our world — H̓íkila qṇts n̓ála’áx̌v is the title and first story in a series by Canada’s National Observer to highlight some of the ways the Haíɫzaqv Nation is advancing its resurgence and self-determination in its territory on B.C.’s remote central coast where land and sea intersect.

“This clean energy plan is to align with our values and to stay connected with the Earth, said Q̓átuw̓as Brown, the team’s community engagement co-ordinator.

“What we're trying to do as a nation is move away from fossil fuels … but [stay] rooted in who we are as a people.”

Chapter 1

Cedar and sand

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Q̓átuw̓as Brown and a young assistant welcome guests and members into the Gvúkva'áus Hailzaqv, or House of the Heiltsuk, in Bella Bella to celebrate the community's new clean energy plan. Photo by Rochelle Baker

“When we come out and move on the dance floor, we are connected directly to Mother Earth — She is our mother and has taken care of us since forever.”

Yáqvuλas Ian Reid

Drummers, singers and dancers lead the Haíɫzaqv Nation’s clean energy plan celebration. Photo by Rochelle Baker

Voices and drums echoed through the Haíɫzaqv Nation’s monumental big house in Bella Bella as the community gathered to feast and celebrate its vision for clean energy sovereignty.

More than two years in the making, the Haíɫzaqv Community Energy Plan (HCEP) — called H̓íkila qṇts n̓ála’áx̌v, or protecting our world — is the nation’s collective roadmap to shift the remote central coast community's dependence on diesel, and boost climate resiliency by focusing on sustainable solutions using the sun, wind, earth and water.

The community’s 10-year path to carbon neutrality is ambitious in scope, aiming to eliminate 24,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions at a cost of more than $19 million. During the consultation process, members identified solar, wind and bioenergy as their top choices for clean energy.

The Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) climate action team (HCAT) invited the community and guests March 12 to bear witness to a plan rooted in the nation’s abiding values that outlines how to adapt to the ongoing impacts of climate change moving forward.

A dozen seated hereditary chiefs presided over the ceremony — flanked by two of four massive house poles that hold up the massive log architecture of the Gvúkva'áus Haíɫzaqv, House of the Haíɫzaqv, and which represent the clans and ancestral stories of the nation.

Haíɫzaqv hereditary chiefs attend the ceremony to celebrate a new clean energy plan. Photo by Rochelle Baker

As an elder led the blessing, the aroma of yellow cedar filled the air rippled by murmurs and punctuated by the exclamations of small children. Barefoot women in regalia capes emerged to plant their feet in the sand floor of the big house and swayed as a song rang out.

They are sweeping the floor, explained MC Yáqvuλas Ian Reid.

“It blesses the floor. It gives us a new beginning or a new start,” Reid said, before inviting the hereditary chiefs, the Yi̓ím̓ás, to also don their regalia to dance to welcome “and validate the presence of our ancestors as we sing.”

“When we come out and move on the dance floor, we are connected directly to Mother Earth,” Reid said.

“She is our mother and has taken care of us since forever.”

Chapter 2

Setting the table for understanding

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Eryn Stewart, Q̓átuw̓as Brown and Michael Vegh, of the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) climate action team (HCAT), helped create and share the community's new clean energy plan. Photo by Rochelle Baker

"We have a tremendous history and culture that goes back throughout the millennia ... achieved through an incredible amount of resiliency and the ability to adapt and adopt through time and place."

λáλíyasila Frank Brown, Haíɫzaqv hereditary chief

Leona Humchitt, co-ordinator of the climate action team, said it was important the community shares a meal before hearing about the new clean energy plan. File photo Rochelle Baker

The energy plan is the result of deep community engagement based on the input of more than 1,000 members including youth, elders, and those living off-reserve, said Leona Humchitt, HCAT co-ordinator.

It offers clean energy solutions created for and by the Haíɫzaqv people, she said. But feasting together comes before showcasing the plan.

“We feed everyone before talking about the plan because we like to set the table for people to be able to absorb and think about what we’ll be sharing with them,” said Humchitt, also an elected tribal councillor.

The meal was especially satisfying as the community has had little opportunity to gather in the relatively new Gvúkva'áus Hailzaqv, or House of the Heiltsuk, since the pandemic began.

Hundreds of members and guests dined on a bounty of salmon prepared myriad ways, traditional herring roe on kelp, oolichan grease and crunchy seaweed among other dishes at the feast hosted by Yi̓ím̓ás (hereditary) chiefs Wígviɫba Wákas Harvey Humchitt and λáλíyasila Frank Brown.

Before reviewing the Haíɫzaqv clean energy plan the community shared a feast together in the big house. Photo by Rochelle Baker

The plan, with initiatives and milestones slated over the coming decade, is being jointly ratified by the Yi̓ím̓ás Council and the elected Haíɫzaqv Tribal Council, said Brown.

The nation has unified to examine its carbon footprint and take responsibility for climate impacts, and the energy plan reflects the Haíɫzaqv worldview and Ǧvi̓ḷás, or ancestral laws, outlining the nation’s commitment to steward and protect the environment for future generations, Brown said.

The plan’s values and objectives can offer a model of action across the province and nation, he added.

“We know that carbon emissions are the smoking gun of climate change, and that we're dealing with a critical time in human history,” Brown said.

“But we have a tremendous history and culture that goes back throughout the millennia.

“And that was only achieved through an incredible amount of resiliency, and the ability to adapt and adopt through time and place.”

The plan outlines 10 practical and innovative projects the community prioritized to adapt to climate change and reduce its carbon footprint.

They include equipping all homes with efficient heating systems and retrofitting them along with some community facilities, as well as equipping larger community buildings with solar energy. It also proposes to electrify marine vessels and community vehicles and install charging stations, as well as switch to renewable diesel and develop passive house kits — prefabricated ultra low-emission residences.

“We're not only taking responsibility for our carbon footprint as a community, but also we have developed a strategy based on the input and direction from our nation members,” said Brown.

Chapter 3

Climate resiliency is food sovereignty

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Haíɫzaqv youth serve guests and community members at a feast to celebrate the nation's clean energy plan. Photo by Rochelle Baker

“One of the first things our people remember from residential school, the first trauma, was being hungry."

Leona Humchitt, HCAT co-ordinator

Strengthening food sovereignty is a priority in the clean energy community plan, Humchitt said, adding it was the No. 1 climate concern of residents during the early stages of the consultation process.

The topic is important and emotional given the increasingly high cost of food in the remote community, disruptions to its supply chain during the pandemic, the shocking losses in abundance of key food sources such as salmon and herring due to the climate crisis and overfishing, and the ongoing legacy of colonization.

“One of the first things our people remember from residential school, the first trauma, was being hungry,” Humchitt said.

“So, is it any wonder why food security and food sovereignty is so important to our people.”

Bella Bella, or Wáglísla, is a community of approximately 1,200 residents only accessible by water or air, with most supplies shipped in by ferries or barges.

The plan’s food sovereignty objective is to meet 75 per cent of the community’s produce and protein needs through locally grown zero- or low-emission food systems such as vertical greenhouses and land-based freshwater fish farms, said Michael Vegh, community energy planner, adding the HCEP expects to help build up the foundation of food security already in the community.

“We're not building this from the ground up,” Vegh said, noting the climate action team will focus on the energy infrastructure aspects of the issue.

“We have amazing partnership opportunities with the QQS Projects Society and the band store that are already at work on food security and to give us happy, healthy plates in our homes.”

Chapter 4

Transforming energy liabilities to strengths

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Peter Mason and Chris White Jr. unload freight from one of the Bella Bella water taxis. The community is heavily reliant on marine vessels. To reduce emissions the Haíɫzaqv plan to pilot the use of renewable diesel and electrify 50 at least half of all boats. Photo by Rochelle Baker

“This current reality is unacceptable, and this plan sets out a path forward to change it.”

Michael Vegh, HCAT energy planner

The Heiltsuk community is contending with a number of energy vulnerabilities that the clean energy plan addresses, said HCAT energy adviser Ayla Brown.

Bella Bella is not connected to BC Hydro’s wider electrical network, relying on the privately owned Ocean Falls hydro facility — an off-grid system with ageing infrastructure that will not be able to meet the community’s growing energy needs by 2040.

And the diesel backup generator can no longer power the village, Brown said.

During the heart of winter storms and freezing temperatures in January, the community was plunged into the dark and cold — suffering an extended outage and dwindling fuel reserves at the same time as a COVID-19 outbreak, which prevented people gathering together in homes with alternate heat sources.

“We are on a very small grid, and as we experienced this winter, when the power goes out because of our remoteness, it can be out for days,” Brown said, adding the plan’s initiatives will increase energy savings, improve energy resilience to increasingly extreme weather and develop energy sovereignty.

Bella Bella relies on hydro for 97 per cent of its energy, while diesel supplies the rest, Vegh said, but that still means 1.9 million litres of fuel are being used to heat homes, generate electricity and power vehicles and boats each year.

The lion’s share of hydro use, 73 per cent, occurs residentially and the starkest findings are that Bella Bella homes are consuming double the B.C. average, Vegh said.

Yes, homes in Bella Bella typically house more people, Vegh noted.

“But more to the fact is that we have homes that have been neglected by colonial policies and disregarded for the work that needs to be done to them,” he said.

“This current reality is unacceptable, and this plan sets out a path forward to change it.”

The biggest objectives are to install heat pumps and retrofit 100 per cent of the community’s homes at a combined cost of $11.6 million.

Doing so will result in a reduction of 13,000 tonnes of GHG emissions.

Energy resiliency will be bolstered by investing more than $6 million in off-grid solar panels on half of the community’s major buildings to offset demand on the Ocean Falls facility and provide backup power in lieu of the maxed-out generator system.

The overall goal is to drive down emissions and increase energy efficiency but also to improve people’s lives, Vegh said.

“Making sure that we have healthy homes, happy homes, that we can all feel comfortable and safe in.”

Chapter 5

Sásṃ deserve a sound climate future

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Astrid Wilson, Indigenous Climate Action youth intern for the Haíɫzaqv climate action team, says the new clean energy plan was crafted with children and future generations in mind. Photo by Rochelle Baker

"It’s so important we breathe life into this, we’re engaged, and we own it because we’re our children’s future.”

Ayla Brown, HCAT clean energy adviser

Young children and youth, the Sásṃ, were front and centre at the ceremony, practising dances and helping to prepare and serve food to guests and elders.

They deserve a positive climate future and are the central reason for developing the "protecting our world" energy plan, the climate action team members said.

“That's why we're here. Because they matter,” said Q̓átuw̓as Brown, HCAT community engagement co-ordinator.

“This is the work that we want to do, to continue to do in our community. And that's built long-term sustainability for future generations.”

Ayla Brown agreed, noting the plan reflects and identifies the priorities identified by the Haíɫzaqv community.

“It’s your plan. It’s our plan,” Brown said, adding there’s no longer any choice when it comes to climate change, the community must take action.

“And it’s so important we breathe life into this, and we’re engaged and we own it because we’re our children’s future” Brown said.

“Over the next 10 years, we’re going to transform our community together. But now we’re going to celebrate.

“Bring your clean energy plan and come dance with us.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer