Day 1. March 2, 2012
A community dinner was held on the eve of the JRP Hearings in Hartley Bay. Everyone wore a smile, yet as 12-year-old Morgan Hill pointed out, “what you can’t hear are the anxious heartbeats”. This anxiety is not only one of nervousness related to the proceedings taking place in the community over the following days, but more profoundly the looming angst associated with the threat of the proposed pipeline project.
The usual morning quiet and stillness was pierced by the sounds of multiple floatplanes and a helicopter landing in Hartley Bay as representatives of the JRP and Enbridge spilled into the Memorial Hall for the first day of hearings. Once everyone had taken their seats, the chiefs and speakers of the community were drummed into the room. First the men. Then the women. Then the chiefs, each accompanied by a small child. All were clad in traditional regalia, from head to tow.
The s’moogyet (chiefs) and their galum alguax (speakers, literally translated as voice box) were first to take the floor. The governance structure of the Gitga’at, or people of the cane, was explained as well as the chief and speaker custom. In Giga’at culture, what a chief says- whether it is right or wrong- becomes law and cannot be disputed. Thus it is the speakers that are entrusted to talk on behalf of their chiefs, if they make mistakes they can be corrected. It is uncustomary for chiefs to speak, especially at an event such as this. We were reminded time and time again that we had heard something very rare, the chiefs had spoken out in opposition to the proposed project. “We will be firm in our resolve that we don’t want tankers in our traditional waters”. This is now the truth, the law, of the Gitga¹at people.
Speaker Bob Hill explains how a Gitga’at ayaawx, or law, is “developed over time and become a part of our history. All of our traditions are based on these laws.” He tells a story of how he spoke with linguists and anthropologists in search of an accurate translation of the way in which these laws, traditions, histories and knowledge are passed along -birthright is the translation they settled on.
The s’moogyet (chiefs) and their galum alguax (speakers) gave way for Gitga’at women who took their place in front of the panel. Tears begin to stream from eyes, young and old, as Morgan Hill introduces her uu’lis (great-grandmother) and shares the lessons and experiences she has learned from her. Her words are wise, especially for a twelve year old. “We are trying to live here in the perfect balance that is supposed to be. Every action has its consequences”, she explains. She describes watching a flock of snipes in flight, “they travel in a group all going the same way and then, suddenly, they turn and go as a group in one direction at the same time. It¹s a beautiful site to see individual birds join together as they fly united in perfect unison. Gitga’at people are like those birds, joined together.”
The spotlight is passed along to 14 year-old Hillary Johnny Robinson, better known in the community as Johnny-Jo, after her grandfather Chief Johnny Clifton. She describes time spent at Kiel, the spring harvesting camp located on Princess Royal Island just south of Hartley Bay. Johnny speaks with admiration as she explains how just last spring, she was taught by her grandmother how to cut her very first halibut. She has learned to harvest seaweed and explains how at the end of a long day, the kids are rewarded by a visit to sea lion rock. There is a profound love and sense of pride in every word Johnny uses to describe the land, seas, rivers and rituals of the Gitga’at territory. She fights tears as she states, “I don¹t want to have to travel someplace to visit a spirit bear in a zoo”.
Helen Clifton, Johnny Jo’s great grandmother and matriarch of Hartley Bay speaks next. She shares with the panel a grocery list of things she would need them to provide if an oil spill were to spoil traditional fishing, hunting and harvesting sites. It’s long, and undoubtedly can’t be found in the grocery store. A few of the items on this grocery list include seaweed, seagull eggs, halibut, black cod, red cod, ling cod, spring salmon, seal, chitons, china slippers, sockeye salmon, herring eggs, eulachon grease, crab, cockles, clams, sea cucumber, salmon berries, crab apples, wild prunes, moose and many, many others. Ms. Clifton, with the help of her family, gathers, preserves and stores enough food for herself and her four family households that live in Hartley Bay.
Helen also provides an insight into Gitga’at history, she describes how her people have moved their village multiple times; each time being forced from the land due to flood, raid, disease or something equally traumatizing. “We will move no more”, she says as she dismisses the thought of having to relocate due to a catastrophic oil spill near her home. In August, the Gitga’at will celebrate their 125th year in Hartley Bay.
Two more powerful women speak to close off the first day of proceedings. Eva Hill explains how in Hartley Bay, it really does take a village to raise a child. She asks us to look around the hall, “you will see everyone who is important to me and to raising my children because they are responsible for teaching me and my children everything there is to know about my culture and
Simone Reece concludes the day by stating that “if by some horrible injustice this pipeline goes through and we are faced with tanker traffic, we’ll spend our days and nights living with fear and anxiety, living in a state of constant stress. And when there is a leak or a tanker goes aground and our waters and land are ruined, there will be no more Txalgiiw [Hartley Bay], no more Gitga’at. My grandbabies and great-grandbabies will be deprived of this extraordinary culture”
Day 2. March 3, 2012
People stream into the memorial centre for the second day of hearings, clad in the Eagle clan t-shirts that were gifted by Cameron Hill during last night’s feast. The JRP reluctantly agreed to attend the feast, but were welcomed so warmly that their hesitation quickly melted away. Within minutes, they rose from their seats at the head table to join in on the butterfly dance. The JRP, along with 200 Gitga’at members and friends danced, feasted and practiced the oral tradition of speech for hours on end.
Nicole Robinson started the day by telling stories of her time in Kiel, the Gitga’at Spring harvesting village. Nicole returned to Kiel after a decade long hiatus just last summer, with her boyfriend and three year old daughter, Coda. She thought that she would remember the ways and traditions of her elders from the times she spent there as a child herself. She was mistaken. The ways of her people are so intricate that she had to be taught again. She spent weeks with her cousin re-learning the traditions and
practices of hunting, fishing and harvesting. Learning from ones’ elders and being able to pass on the knowledge, wilderness and experiences is the cornerstone of Gitga’at culture and tradition.
We then heard from the oldest Matriarch of Hartley Bay, Margaret Semigold Reece, otherwise known as Goolie. At 92 years young, Goolie has raised twelve children in Hartley Bay and struggles to remember the number of grand children (39), great grand children (65) and great-great grandchildren (5, with two more on the way in 2012) she has. “I’ve raised my family here and I want my grandkids to be able to do the same,” she says.
After a coffee break, seven distinguished men of Hartley Bay took to the stand. One after another, they pointed out their family’s fishing grounds. Each fisher stewards a distinct area within the territory, and each fishing ground is within a stones throw of the proposed tanker route. The men describe the harvesting areas and types of harvest gathered, but also describe many times when they have been out fishing when a sudden an unpredicted storm has hit. The weather in Gitga’at territory is unpredictable to say the least, and Squally Channel is given that name for a reason. Henry Clifton tells a story of fishing in Douglas Channel with his wife. They had checked all the reports and the weather was expected to be calm for days to come. “Yeah right”, he says, “we didn¹t even have time to put shorelines out before the weather came up. There was a large ship approaching, his bow light was probably 30ft up and it was disappearing in the waves, that’s how rough it gets in these channels.”
Henry, along with many of the others that spoke, told stories of when the Queen of the North sank, just off the North end of Gil Island in 2006. The residents of Hartley Bay were the first ones on the scene. As the ship sank, passengers and crew were taken to safety and fed. Two unfortunate souls went down with the ship, turning its’ resting place into a graveyard. According to Gitga’at tradition, a graveyard is no place to be harvesting and thus, this once productive halibut fishing ground is no longer viable. “I can’t fish at the North end of Gil island any longer. That’s where the Queen of the North sank. It’s a graveyard”, says Henry.
The sinking of the Queen of the North has affected the Gitga’at in many ways. For years, hydrocarbon levels on nearby clam and cockle harvesting beaches have been too high for safe consumption. The Gitga’at were promised that the fuel that had leaked from the Queen would be cleaned up appropriately and the affected land would be remediated. The Giga’at were promised that the diesel fuel stored in the Queen’s tanks would be removed in a responsible manner. None of this ever happened, and to this day, the Queen continues to burp up diesel fuel on a regular basis. “I have no faith in government and what they have promised to do. I have no faith in their statement that double-hulled tankers are safe”, states Allan Robinson. This ill-faith in government is not unfounded, and the Queen of the North case is not the only example to draw from. In the past decades, government management has also led to the annihilation of abalone and the exclusion of Gitga’at from commercial fisheries. “But there is no poverty. We have all we need to feed and nourish ourselves and our culture,” says Art Sterrit, Gitga’at member.
The final Gitga’at panel was made up of three elected councillors: Marven Robinson, Cameron (Cam) Hill and Kyle Clifton. Kyle, the marine and land use planner for Hartley Bay, describes the extensive process he went through to create a marine use plan for the territory. All of this work would be void should the proposed project be approved. Marven, a spirit bear guide and manager of the Gitga’at Guardian Watchman program, is passionate and remorseful in his speech. “I would like to apologize to my nation,” he says, “if I haven’t said or done enough”. But for those that know him or follow the media on this issue, know that Marven has taken on this issue very seriously. The stress of the potential project is so great, it consumes Marven daily. Cam echoes this sentiment, “I’m supposed to be a father, son, husband, friend -how can I concentrate on being any of these knowing that my livelihood is threatened?”
After the Gitga’at had shared their stories, angst and fears, the floor was turned over to Herman Meuter representing the North Coast Cetacean Society. Herman and his research partner Janie Ray have lived in Gitga’at territory, on the south end of Gil Island for twelve years now. They are the first to conduct long-term whale research on this part of the coast. Herman speaks for the whales. Orca, humpback and fin whales travel the waters in Gitga’at territory. These species, all listed as species at risk, travel here in the summer because we get a special phenomenon called upwelling -where water temperatures and atmospheric pressure force coastal waters to move eastward, thus bringing up nutrient and krill-rich water from the deep ocean to the surface on our coast. It could be argued that these waters should be designated as critical habitat for these species at risk, which should in principle protect their habitat from industrial development projects, such as the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline.
The proceedings were closed with comments of gratitude and gratefulness from the panel. For two short days the Panel found themselves immersed in Gitga’at culture. In passing a member of the panel remarks that the decision becomes harder with each community they visit. How many communities will they need to hear from before they realize this project will result in significant adverse effects and thus should not be allowed to go ahead.Written by Sarah Stoner, who helps PacificWILD coordinate the Great Bear Wild Exhibit. photography by Ian McAllister