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.