Archive for April, 2012

Bella Bella Hunger Strike Multimedia Slideshow

The makers of Stand Film have released this great short video on the Bella Bella youth hunger strike during the JRP hearings:

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Herring Spawn Field Trips

A post by Max Bakken

In late March and early April, millions of herring travel inshore from the Pacific to spawn. Herring roe is highly sought after by coastal First Nations. It is an important part of their cuisine and culture, and brings a frenzy of activity and food after the winter months. There are many ways to collect the roe – herring spawn on kelp, other seaweed, and hemlock trees that have been placed in the intertidal zone.

This season, I was lucky enough to get out on the water with some members of the Heiltsuk First Nation on a field trip to the herring grounds. Jordan, a hunter, fisherman, and food gatherer, came along to teach some grade 4 students about the herring spawn. Jordan is extremely knowledgeable about his territory and plays an essential role in the community providing food from the land and sea for his family and Elders. Our first stop was on a beach to have a look at some hemlock trees. Jordan darted into the forest and after some quick snaps came out with an armload of hemlock branches. The ones he had selected were flat in plane, not bushy. He explained that the herring like to spawn on a flat surface, which is why he had selected these branches, but also that it is easier to pick the roe off of the flatter branches. After you find the right branches, you have to strategically hang them in the water where the herring are likely to spawn. The students understood all of this and each took a sprig of hemlock.

We weren’t going to set any branches that day, so we moved on to a rocky area just offshore of another island. Just below the surface was a kelp forest, slowly waving in the current. You couldn’t see the kelp until you were right on top of it. Jordan winked, “secret spot”. He pulled a strand out of the water and showed us which pieces of kelp worked best to attract herring. The students all shrieked as it came out of the water as it looked like a long snake with long flat leathery wings. Jordan showed us that the medium length pieces, about a hand width wide, with no holes, and of course, nice and flat were best. Ideally, you hang this kelp from a rope with floats, and the herring come along and spawn on both sides. What you get almost looks like an inside out piece of sushi, about a half an inch of herring eggs on either side of a piece of seaweed. Chopped up into small squares it collects a high price in Japanese restaurants. Eating the kelp on its own is just fine too, and everyone tried a piece. It was salty, and tasted like seaweed! Yum.

Jordan holds up a strand of kelp. Photo by Max Bakken.

Many Heiltsuk, I learned, prefer the taste of roe on hemlock. While you will find roe on kelp at some feasts, hemlock takes the cake. The roe takes on the flavour of whatever it is laid on. While you might not think of using hemlock needles in a soup or with a turkey, the flavour is a bit like rosemary and complements the roe nicely. Because of this, the commercial spawn fishery is exclusively spawn on kelp, and the Heiltsuk save the hemlock for themselves.

After a half an hour ride up another inlet, we found a fallen cedar whose branches were covered in spawn. Jordan said that the Heiltsuk may have used cedar in the past for roe harvesting, but that these days no one does it. Anthony, one of the grade 4’s, was looking at it like it was a new flavour of ice cream. Hands in the water he had a loaded branch in no time. Soon everyone on the boat was munching away, putting in their two cents about the cedar flavour. Almost everyone gave it a thumbs up, and Joe, the students’ teacher, had packed away what looked like a healthy month’s supply into his bag.

At the end of the day we had a bunch of happy kids who had more herring roe in their bellies and their minds than they did at the start. As they walked up the dock each with a sprig of cedar heavy with roe in their hands, I realized how important a food can be to a culture. The passing of traditional knowledge I had just taken part in has been happening for many millennia. The herring spawn is a huge event – it symbolizes the Heiltsuk new year. The enthusiasm of the students wasn’t just due to childish excitement, it was an enthusiasm shared with thousands of generations past about harvesting food, the coming of a new year, and the great bounty of the herring spawn.

A cedar bough laden with herring eggs. Photo by Max Bakken.

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Bella Bella JRP Hearings, Day 3

The Joint Review Panel Hearings in Bella Bella ended yesterday with as much tension as they began. While the speakers once again spoke with passion and sincerity of their home, their livelihood, and their fears, the panel responded impassively. One speaker, Alvin Dixon, was cut short by the panel claiming he was wandering off topic and needed to speak only if he was presenting an oral account of his traditional knowledge. Mr. Dixon concluded that if he was not permitted to say what he wanted to say, the exercise was futile and there was no need for him to continue.

After Mr. Dixon was cut short, Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett gave a wonderful and well prepared presentation on the history of First Nations’ affiliation with the land and with industry. She spoke of the Heiltsuk’s 11,500 year relationship with the land and sea, including their subsistence fishing, tradition of trade and barter, and ongoing dedication to sustainable use resources. To provide a context for the community’s refusal of the pipeline proposal, Chief Councillor Slett cited historical examples of detrimental encounters between First Nation communities and industry including the commercial herring fishery, the mill in Oceans Falls, and Atlantic salmon fisheries.

The panel interrupted Chief Councillor Slett several times, inquiring how her testimony was relevant to the proposed project and requesting she confine her comments to “describe [her] oral traditional knowledge”. What the panel failed to acknowledge is the connection between the historical events Chief Councillor Slett referenced and the potential effects of this pipeline project.

After half a dozen interruptions, Chief Councillor Slett concluded her testimony boldly and emotionally declaring, “We are not anti-development, but we cannot accept a project that will include supertankers in our waters…a tanker spill will cause irreparable harm to our economy, environment, culture, spirituality, and survival”.

Frank Brown was the last speaker of the day. He educated the panel on the Seven Truths of Heiltsuk culture:

creation
connection to nature
respect
knowledge
stewardship
sharing
adapting to change

He then focused on the strategies and programs Bella Bella has initiated or joined regarding sustainable development, including the Hakai Conservation area, the Coastal Guardian Watchmen, the Cohen Commission, and the Great Bear Initiative. He explained the community’s decision making process, stressing their ability to properly deliberate on an issue and do their due diligence to reach a sound conclusion. And the conclusion they have reached in this proposal is that the risks greatly outweigh the benefits and so, “just like in any sound business decision, we will not proceed because we have nothing to gain and everything to lose”.

With four minutes to go before the end of the hearings, Jim White led the chiefs and elders in a closing statement, thanking the panel for their time spent listening to the people of Bella Bella.

And with that, the hearings concluded. It was a trying, emotional, and frustrating few days for everyone involved. With the truncated schedule, there are plenty of words left unsaid. Several of those registered to speak were not given the time to do so. It remains unclear how they will be able to present their testimony to the panel. The speakers that were able to testify did so with all their heart, soul, and traditional knowledge, representing the thousands of individuals affected by this issue.

 A group of young women sporting “No Tankers” shirts, signs,
and $20 bills reading “Oil” taped over their mouths peacefully protested
outside the airport at the panel left Bella Bella yesterday

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Bella Bella JRP Hearings – Day 2

It’s a struggle to find adequate words to describe what was witnessed during the hearings on Wednesday.  Speaker after speaker faced the panel and testified with dignity and eloquence.  When someone finds the perfect words and delivers them with such purity, as so many did here in Bella Bella, it simply doesn’t do it justice to attempt to summarize.  We will linking to clips as they become available because you should hear the words from the speakers themselves.  I don’t know how many times someone moved the audience to tears or how many times a speech brought the audience to their feet.

What I can tell you is that we heard an elder tell her life story and her wish to have a healthy sustainable environment for future generations.  We heard a woman speak on behalf of her father who survived residential school, fought for Canada during World War II, and is now having his country threaten to destroy his people’s way of life.  There was a proud mother whose young children are already so connected to the water, a traditional harvester who shared treasured family stories, a doctor who has seen the devastating health effects that occurred when other communities have been deprived of their traditional foods.  Seven courageous high school students stood in front of the panel and testified to why the proposed oil pipeline and tanker traffic are unacceptable to them.  We heard from a cultural leader, an archaeologist, fishermen, and more.  How many different times and how many different ways and how many different reasons to say “no” do the Heiltsuk and other coastal peoples have to give?  I suppose the answer is as many as it takes them.

There are several more Heiltsuk registered to testify at these hearings, and it’s not clear how they could all possibly be given sufficient time to speak during the final morning of the hearings.  The panel sat for only an additional two and a half hours on Wednesday evening to make up for the day and a half that they delayed the proceedings.  The community was prepared, and in fact excited, to stay through the wee hours of the morning to ensure that all the speakers were given a voice.  The panel did not share that same resolve.  The chairwoman abruptly cut the hearings short at 8:30pm, despite having agreed to stay until 9:00pm.  While First Nations should not be in a position where they are forced to share their knowledge and bear their souls in an effort to protect what is rightfully theirs, let us hope that they are at least given that opportunity when they have been promised it.

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Bella Bella JRP Hearings – Day 1

The Joint Review Panel hearings began on Tuesday afternoon, a day and a half later than originally scheduled due to the panel’s unwarranted security concerns.  After a community luncheon, the Heiltsuk singers and drummers led the hereditary chiefs into the school gymnasium packed with over 400 people wearing red arm bands as a sign of solidarity.  The chiefs danced a welcome dance and ladies danced to sweep the floor and cleanse any negativity from the room.

As the sacred eagle down from the opening ceremony still floated in the air, the proceedings began and we spent the next several hours hearing moving testimony from chiefs and elders.  Elder Pauline Waterfall explained that the Heiltsuk have a responsibility to care for their resources because home is not just one’s immediate surroundings or house, but rather the entire territory.

This concept helps to explain the passion of the six chiefs who followed and provided oral testimony.  As Chief Gary Housty said, “We are the salmon people.” An oil spill would destroy their foods, way of life, and economy forever.  The community has already felt the effects of the loss of abalone, oolichan, and other diminished stocks, and cannot afford more losses.  Chief Peter Mason testified to the dangerous marine conditions that can hit the narrow channels that the supertankers would navigate.  He has witnessed 30-foot waves that could no doubt lead to disaster.  Throughout the afternoon, each speaker offered compelling testimony demonstrating the Heiltsuk people’s reliance on the resources from the ocean and the dangers that tanker traffic would bring.

Anyone who has spent any time in the community would expect nothing less, but it is nonetheless amazing how the chiefs and the rest of the Heiltsuk people can act with so much poise and integrity in the face of disrespect and injustice. During his testimony Chief Harvey Humchitt calmly explained that they were disappointed and upset that the hearings had been postponed and truncated.  He reminded the panel that it is an honour to be invited to a feast or potlatch, alluding to the panel’s refusal to attend Sunday’s feast at which they were to be introduced and welcomed to the community.  Chief Humchitt also asked to take the staff that had been presented to Head Chief Wauyala’s grandfather by Queen Victoria and place it on the panel’s table, as a reminder of the Queen’s promise that her government would always look after the Heiltsuk people. While the panel refused, we can only hope that they got the message.

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The Eve of the JRP Hearings in Bella Bella

It was an honour to witness and take part in the events in Bella Bella on Sunday. After several months of preparing to give testimony, the Heiltsuk community organized a day of events to coincide with the arrival of the Joint Review Panel.

Dozens of children and their families walked up to the airport from the school and lined the road, holding signs voicing their opposition to the Enbridge pipeline and tanker traffic on the coast. Many more community members, representatives from neighboring Nations, and other supporters gathered outside the airport with their own signs to hold up for the JRP to see. Dressed in full regalia, the hereditary chiefs lined up on the tarmac to welcome the head chief who was returning home for the hearings. As Chief Wauyala stepped off the plane, the Heiltsuk singers and drummers erupted in song and brought a powerful energy to the scene.

The assembly returned to town where they were joined by more peaceful protesters. The singers and drummers led a procession to the community hall for a feast. For the next several hours chiefs, community members, guests from the Gitga’at, Kitasoo, and Oweekeno Nations, and visitors from elsewhere around the coast spoke out, making their unwavering opposition to the pipeline and tankers clear.  The community feasted on herring eggs, salmon, halibut, and oolichan, clearly demonstrating their connection with the seas and how much they stand to lose.

While each and every speaker was passionate and articulate, the youth in Bella Bella may have been the most remarkable at expressing their opposition. From the elementary students who walked the three miles to the airport and back to meet the plane, to those who sang a touching song with their Heiltsuk language teacher, to the high school students leading a 48-hour hunger strike, the youth have been a tremendous source of strength and inspiration for the entire community. I have spoken to children from kindergarten on up and it is remarkable how informed and concerned they are. We at Pacific Wild are proud to follow their lead and continue to oppose the Enbridge pipeline, tanker traffic, and any other threats that would damage the future of coastal people.  We wish those giving oral testimony over the next few days well and we thank them for standing strong.

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