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