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The Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) are marine people.
Our oral history confirms our existence in our territory since time immemorial. Archeological evidence corroborates that my people have continuously lived in relationship to our lands and waters for at least 14,000 years, over 700 generations.
Our relationship to and understanding of our lands and waters has been passed down from generation to generation. It has formed a rich cultural, social and spiritual relationship with our territory. Like a canoe, we are tethered to place (our home lands and waters), as we move through time.
We have a living symbiotic relationship to our ocean — the health of the ocean is reliant on a healthy Heiltsuk community, and the health of my community is reliant on a healthy ocean.
Coastal First Nations have long histories of being first responders and answering to distress calls from mariners both within and outside of their communities. Most recently, in 2006 the Gitga'at people who at the dead of night rescued survivors from the sinking of Queen of the North. In 2015, when the whale-watching boat, Leviathan II, suddenly capsized, tossing its passengers into the frigid water, the Ahousaht people rescued 21 people. In 2016, when the Nathan E. Stewart ran aground, the first people on the scene were the Heiltsuk.
Coastal First Nations continually take it upon ourselves to safeguard our waters. We have no formal role in marine response, yet we consistently take on this responsibility as owners and protectors of our waters.
Canada’s Ocean Protection Plan (OPP) has committed to working with First Nations to address the risk our coastal waters bear, yet the majority of the OPP funds have gone to augmenting their own federal programs — programs that have continually failed in marine response situations. Canada must now support a model from those who know the waters the best, have proven success in marine response and support Heiltsuk self-determination.
This is not a plea for different levels of government to “try to perceive and act from within an Indigenous worldview.” That’s too great a task for any government to accomplish other than our own. We have our governance systems that respect the ocean as a life-giving force, not merely as a shipping lane or resource to be controlled and exploited.
Our Heiltsuk language reflects our cherished relationship to water.
As the rightful owners of the waters and lands, we continually find ourselves at odds with resource- management decisions made by other governments. #FirstNationsForward
The significance of water and how it connects us as Heiltsuk can be seen in the self-identification of our tribes. The main tribes of the Heiltsuk self-identify in terms of our positions to the waters in our territories: the ‘Qvuqvaitxv, meaning people of the calm water; Wuyalitxv and Wuithitxv, meaning inside and outside water people; Xixis, meaning down river people and Yisdaitxv, meaning people of Yisda where mountains meet the sea.
These names show how inter-connected we are with the waters we call home. Our verbs also change in terms of where we are in relation to the water, which fosters an intimate relationship and amplifies the importance of water in our everyday lives.
As the rightful owners of the waters and lands, we continually find ourselves at odds with resource- management decisions made by other governments.
When Indigenous people speak of violence at the hands of the Canadian government, it is often framed in the past. Violence towards Heiltsuk people and the ocean is not a thing of the past. It continues today, and I would argue, in exacerbated forms. So-called “projects” and “industries” poison and destroy coastal ecosystems and watersheds that Heiltsuk, non-Heiltsuk people and non-humans rely on. Ducks, geese, whales, halibut, salmon, seals, wolves, bears, herring, ravens, eagles and others have as much of a right to clean water and a healthy ocean as humans do.
Often when diplomacy fails, frustration leads to a call to action for our community. In the spring of 2015, the federal Department of Fisheries & Oceans (DFO) opened Heiltsuk territory to a commercial roe herring fishery. What followed were an assertion of Heiltsuk Gvi’ilas (laws) through intense standoffs led by the Heiltsuk people on the waters. We shut down DFO offices in Heiltsuk territory and other areas around the Pacific northwest. This powerful campaign of resistance and assertion of Heiltsuk jurisdiction resulted in an agreement between the Heiltsuk and DFO, to negotiate for a joint-management agreement on the herring fishery. This year’s commercial fishery has been shut down, as an act of “reconciliation”.
“Reconciliation” is a discursive word, its meaning digressing from subject to subject, mostly used to fit a non-Indigenous agenda. In the era of what is considered an “era of reconciliation” in Canada, the Heiltsuk have invoked our own power, through our native tongue, to define the pathway forward. We use a Heiltsuk word to name the process we are undertaking with the federal and provincial governments: “Haíɫcístut” (eh-gee-toot), a potlatch term meaning, “to turn things around and make it right again.”
The times of government officials deciding solutions for Indigenous people, without Indigenous involvement, are over. We have taken it upon ourselves to define the parameters of “turning things around and making them right,” on our own terms. As Indigenous peoples, we are the only ones who have the authority to name and define so-called “reconciliation”, as it is Canada and B.C. who need to reconcile with us.
A number of factors recently aligned, to pave the way for state-sponsored reconciliation. The legal landscape in Canada has changed significantly in the past 30 years. Victories in cases such as Calder, Guerin, Sparrow, Gladstone, Delgamuukw, Haida and Tsilhqot’in have advanced and confirmed Aboriginal title and rights. These cases (and others) gradually established legal tests for Aboriginal title and rights and laid out corresponding duties for governments, in relation to our rights. This body of law strengthens the Heiltsuk Nation’s ability to exercise jurisdiction over the lands, waters and resources within our territory. When necessary, we have utilized a litigation strategy and turned to Canada’s courts for recognition of our rights. As a Nation, Heiltsuk successfully established an Aboriginal right to harvest spawn-on-kelp for commercial purposes in the 1996 Gladstone decision.
Given the on-going strength of our convictions, new legal developments, ongoing resource-management conflicts, and the need for a sustainable economy for our own people and government, strategic action is necessary. We must take a more proactive role in determining the path of our people. The Heiltsuk will continue to assume greater jurisdictional power on all matters related to our people, lands and resources in our territory. We will continue to build on the brilliance of our ancestors, our intimate knowledge of our territory, and existing capacity to effectively exercise our authority, with or without reconciliation on the national agenda.
Heiltsuk territory is located in the heart of the largest intact temperate rainforest on planet earth.
It is a vast and beautiful place with wind-torn outer islands and gorgeous sandy beaches sprinkled with thousand-year-old bonsai cedar trees barely over four feet tall. We have fjords that dive from hundreds of feet above, from saves of sacred places, deep into the Pacific Ocean. Our whole territory is drenched in ancient, permanent art, in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs, left by our ancestors.
A healthy ocean relies on healthy Heiltsuk people and healthy Heiltsuk people rely on a healthy ocean. The relationship is inherently inalienable. Heiltsuk knowledge-keepers tell us that the marine and terrestrial environment cannot be separated. Our nuyem (oral history) tell us this. Western Science is only now coming to understand how interconnected these environs are.
The economy — especially in Heiltsuk homelands — depends on the environment. It depends on the health of the land and waters, to produce the gifts from the land and water. Prior to colonization, the Heiltsuk Nation had a strong economy throughout their whole territory. We relied on the abundance from the land, ocean and resources, and were innovative with our trade and economic relationships with other Nations throughout the Northwest Coast. With vast trading networks along the Northwest coast, into the interior, the Heiltsuk utilized this economic strength to our advantage in early commercial arrangements with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike.
Heiltsuk is entering into an era of renewed growth and vitality for our people, one based on the strength of modern entrepreneurship, court decisions affirming pre-existing Aboriginal rights (e.g., Gladstone), and an insistence that reconciliation between the Canada and Aboriginal peoples is an essential path forward. Heiltsuk people have had a distinctive and at times horrific relationship with Canada and those experiences demand reconciliation. Therefore, Canada’s approach to reconciliation ought to acknowledge and respond to this same distinctiveness. For the Heiltsuk, at least for the time being, in the context of the economy, reconciliation means: Heiltsuk economic development based in and owned/ driven by the Heiltsuk Nation and people- balancing ecological integrity with a vibrant economy, meaningful employment, development of sustainable infrastructure, capacity to create economic opportunities and benefits for the Heiltsuk Nation, and fostering and the health and well-being of all Heiltsuk peoples and territories in the economic development process.
Heiltsuk’s strong traditional governance is intrinsically intertwined with our relationship to the land and our economies.
The colonial system attempted to violently sever our deep connection to the ocean. The colonial system failed. But it continues to attempt to violently sever this deep connection. With the Nathan E. Stewart spill still polluting our waters to this day, and the Jake Shearer scare last fall, this disregard and unacceptable neglect for Indigenous jurisdiction became grossly apparent. If the government wants “Haíɫcístut,” or so- called reconciliation to be real, Canada would not accept of environmental damage from these articulated tug and barges, that are unfit to traverse our waters and inflict violence and damage onto our Heiltsuk community.
Reconciliation without restitution perpetuates a long-standing asymmetrical power dynamic between First Nations and Canada. By restitution, I mean creating the space to restore our Heiltsuk communities, our lands, our languages, systems of governance, our laws, our potlatches, our cultural practices, our knowledge systems and our waters.
Meaningful reconciliation means putting a stop to tankers and articulated tug barges, and enforcing harsher regulations for anyone traversing our waters. Meaningful reconciliation means supporting an Indigenous-led Marine Response Center (IMRC), for those closest to the ocean, those who have always been the ocean’s caretakers.
The Heiltsuk Nation is proposing a new pathway forward with Canada’s first Indigenous-led response centre. This is one act that aligns with our governance system and is a step to actualizing Heiltsuk self- determination with relationship to water. See the full report here.
When engaging with non-Indigenous people, I have noticed that some really do want change and reconciliation, but don’t know how to achieve it. Some are brave enough to have dialogue that includes relinquishing and addressing their privilege as beneficiaries of a system of dispossession, but encounter the barrier of the lack of a plan for change. The Heiltsuk have addressed this barrier with the Indigenous Marine Response Centre. Our IMRC proposal is to move forward together, with respect. It means cooperatively focusing on the health of the water that gives us all life. It is time for Canadians to heed the Heiltsuk’s vision and move forward in a good way. This is a clear path for non-Heiltsuk and non- Indigenous, especially in the era of accelerated climate change, rampant ocean pollution, and insatiable consumerism. This is a pragmatic path non-Heiltsuk people can follow that respects Heiltsuk knowledge.
Half the oxygen we breathe was created by plankton in the ocean. We are connected to ocean, land, flora, and fauna in ways that western science is only now coming to understand and articulate, yet our Nuyem (traditional stories) have always taught us. I invite you to invoke our knowledge system and ask yourself: Where does the seafood come from? Who harvested it? What is that seafood connected to? Where does the water I nourish my body with come from? Where does it go? What happens once it leaves your house? Our bodies are 60 percent water. Keeping in mind the importance of water helps build a collective consciousness of interconnectedness, sustainability, and interdependence.
It is time for Canada to heed the Heiltsuk’s leadership and seize this opportunity to breathe life into reconciliation by supporting the world’s first Indigenous Marine Response Centre.
First Nations Forward is produced in collaboration with the Real Estate Foundation of BC, I-SEA, Vancouver Foundation, McConnell Foundation, Vancity, Catherine Donnelly Foundation, Willow Grove Foundation, and the Donner Canadian Foundation. National Observer retains full and final editorial control over the reporting.