The Heiltsuk Nation in coastal British Columbia has announced a new partnership with Horizon Maritime in a joint effort to prevent and respond to marine incidents and preserve the west coast for future generations.

If the bid is successful, the Nation—industry partnership, called Heiltsuk Horizon Maritime Services Ltd., will deploy emergency response vessels, engage community members in a cadet-training program, and provide the coast the protection that both parties believe it deserves.

The move has been hailed as groundbreaking for reconciliation between an Indigenous and non-Indigenous partnership. It is especially meaningful for a small yet culturally strong and politically organized coastal Nation currently leading reconciliation negotiations with all levels of the Canadian government.

"It's a unique partnership that combines the Nation's local expertise with industry experience," said Chief Councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation, Marilyn Slett, in a phone interview with National Observer. "It's an opportunity to support on-the-ground reconciliation."

Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett greets the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in her home community of Bella Bella, B.C. on Sept. 26, 2016. Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey

Partnership prompted by past disasters

The Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) are marine people, Slett emphasized, and know the devastating impacts of mismanaged oil spills and inadequate emergency response first-hand. Their community is located in northwestern B.C., in one of the country's most pristine coastal ecosystems — what is known by some as the Great Bear Rainforest.

In October 2016, a 10,000-tonne tanker barge and tug unit ran aground in Heiltsuk territory, spilling more than 110,000 litres of diesel fuel, lubricants and heavy oils into the Seaforth Channel — an important food-harvesting spot. Its remnants washed up on a 14,000 year-old village site.

Response to the spill was painfully slow, confused and mismanaged, the Nation reported, forcing impacted community members to watch in distress as oil gradually poisoned their land and waters.

"We look forward to working with a company that shares the same values - marine response, training local people, building on local expertise, and protecting the environment," said Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett. #FirstNationsForward

After the Nathan E. Stewart catastrophe, the Heiltsuk Nation submitted an official report calling for the creation of an Indigenous Marine Response Centre (IMRC). The report proposes a facility on Denny Island, across from the Heiltsuk community in Bella Bella, and calls for adequate emergency response equipment, vessels and trained personal.

The Heiltsuk Tribal Council investigated the incident and created a report titled: The 48 hours after the grounding of the Nathan E. Stewart and its oil spill. The investigation noted a slow response time, insufficient and ineffective facilities and equipment, inadequate safety gear, and a lack of communications.

"The report documents that numerous separate requests were made for information to the foreign owner of the tug (Kirby Corporation) and various government agencies, including Transport Canada, the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), and the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG). The HTC indicated that all but two of those requests were either denied or ignored," wrote authors of the IMRC report.

Slett said there hasn't been a commercial clam fishery in the two years since the spill.​

During this disastrous incident, and in the spills and scares that followed, a lack of adequate resources for meaningful marine response became glaringly apparent.

"There has been no official role within Indigenous communities within marine response," Slett said. "There was room made, but no role. We have coastal communities that rely on the land and sea for our wellbeing. We invest in stewardship — marine-use plans, land-use plans, the Great Bear Rainforest (Agreement), conservancy plans — it's our responsibility as coastal people."

Slett said that for the Heiltsuk's investment to be reciprocated, there needs to be a proper response mechanism employed for any type of spill, be it from tanker, cruise, barge or vessel.

The Nathan E. Stewart tug and barge sinks in the Seaforth Channel, spilling tens of thousands of litres of contaminants into traditional Heiltsuk territory on Oct. 22, 2016. "We have no formal role in marine response, yet we consistently take on this responsibility as owners and protectors of our waters," Heiltsuk Nation negotiator Saul Brown has told National Observer. Photo by Tavish Campbell

Heiltsuk Nation calls for federal funding

The Nation looks to the federal government's proposed $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan (OPP) launched in November, 2016 to fund the IMRC and the joint venture was a natural next step in developing this vision. The OPP promises to improve marine safety and offer new possibilities for Indigenous and coastal communities.

Senior communications advisor of Transport Canada said in an email that through the OPP, the government of Canada is working with Indigenous communities, including the Heiltsuk, to enhance he country's marine safety system.

Advisor Annie Joannette emphasized work with the Canadian Coast Guard, a government of Canada marine management body with a Regional Operations Centre in Victoria. Transport Canada recently delivered two coastal First Nations Search and Rescue courses (which included 18 First Nations participants) and the Canadian Coast Guard will establish six new radar stations, and a new emergency response depot in Port Hardy, she wrote.

But when addressing questions about Heiltsuk Horizon specifically and plans for an Indigenous-led Marine Response Centre, media relations could not confirm.

"We are working with Indigenous peoples to assess marine safety risks in their communities and determine where we need more capacity to prevent and respond to marine emergencies," wrote Annie Joannette. "Multiple First Nations have proposed establishing Indigenous marine response centres as part of this process. No decisions on these proposals have been made."

Brought together by shared values

Horizon Maritime, based in Dartmouth, N.S., is a Canadian company that develops and supports offshore vessels, crew training, tugs, barges and work boats for open ocean projects. It started in 2015 through a partnership between Sean Leet, Horizon Maritime president, and Steve Widmeyer, executive vice-president.

The company began with crew and vessel management, but through successful contracts and business partnerships, was able to buy its first ship in May 2017.

Horizon Maritime is interested in "anything maritime-orientated," said Widmeyer on the phone with National Observer.

Back in the early 2000s, he helped put together an Aboriginal Cadet Training Program, that collaborated with the local Mi'kmaq community members to develop and certify trained seafarers on the east coast. ​

As the company expanded, and the labour market for qualified crew members shrunk, Horizon Maritime looked to Indigenous communities on the west coast, especially those who are equipped with an ancestral sense of the coastline.

The Heiltsuk Nation quickly stood out, Widmeyer said.

"We share similar values," he explained. "Horizon Maritime has always been focused on our employees and their families, and like the Heiltsuk, we believe in treating people with respect, respecting the environment and training and promoting people from within."

Widmeyer said both sides benefit from the partnership — their company brings industry expertise, while the Heiltsuk offer local territorial knowledge, seafaring heritage, community capacity and experience.

"We're honoured to work with the Heiltsuk as partners," he said. "We put forward a strong proposal and we're excited to see what this will become."

Heiltsuk Horizon Maritime Services has submitted a proposal to supply two new emergency towing vessels to Heiltsuk marine responders. The company also plans to establish a Heiltsuk Horizon Cadet Training Program, modeled after its previous cadet programs, to train and certify Heiltsuk members for work on emergency response vessels.

The Heiltsuk Nation is currently leading reconciliation negotiations with all levels of Canadian governments. But they don't use the word reconciliation — instead, they use Haíɫcístut” (eh-gee-toot), the Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) term meaning, "to turn things around and make it right again."

Heiltsuk Horizon Maritime Services is a natural next step to making things right for the Nation, Slett said.

"This bid is a big opportunity," she said. "What we do is sustainable. We're taking into account the generations yet to come."

This article was updated at 8:00 PST on May 2, to include statements from senior communications advisor Annie Joannette of Transport Canada.

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Who's going to foot the bill? It is after all Kinder Morgan's proposed expansion that is creating the necessity to respond appropriately to additional, unwarranted risk. This partnership should invoice Kinder Morgan for providing services that protects the B.C. coast