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Arthur Williams Sterritt, Indigenous Leadership Award Honoree

As an artist and then leader among BC coastal First Nations, Sterritt demonstrates a great and rare ability to identify what ought to be done and then to do it.

By Clara Sachsse

Art Sterritt has brought together an astoundingly wide range of people in support of social and environmental wellbeing in the coastal Great Bear Rainforest region of British Columbia and beyond. As a founder of the Coastal First Nations: Great Bear Initiative, and as its Executive Director since 2004, Art has rallied together First Nations and other indigenous groups, environmental groups, industrialists, unions, and municipal and provincial governments, all while directly forwarding the interests of the 20,000 members of the Coastal First Nations.

From 2001 to 2005, as Executive Director of the Gitga’at Development Corporation, Art supported innovative and balanced business initiatives in forestry, fishing, and community education and fostered sustainable prosperity in the Gitga’at community.

Man in traditional dress.

Art demonstrates a great and rare ability to identify what ought to be done and then to do it. Where others might think in terms of what’s been done and in terms of merely minimizing damage, he finds ways to think outside established paradigms and create new balances between people and the land. His colleagues agree that Art exemplifies great courage in the face of exceptionally tough adversaries and challenges.

Art started his working life as an artist specializing in painting screens and woodcarving. His leadership roles gradually took over as his primary work starting in the 1980s, as he served as a board member of the BC Indian Arts and Crafts Society and then as a board member of the Northern Native Fishing Corporation. In various leadership roles, Art helped combine traditional stewardship principles with modern scientific innovation to strengthen the economics and ecology of communities along the BC coast.

After serving as the President of the Tsimshian Tribal Council and President of the Northern Coast Tribal Council, Art became Treaty Commissioner and a founding member of the BC Treaty Commission. As chief negotiator for the Gitga’at First Nation from 1995 to 2005, Art won the protection of the Gitga’at Aboriginal Rights and Title and negotiated landmark agreements on forestry and land rights.

First Nations women hang fish
Women hang fish in the Great Bear Rainforest.

The Great Bear Rainforest includes 21 million acres of coastal temperate rainforest and is home to over 40,000 people, over half of whom are First Nations. It stands today as an incredibly valuable and uniquely protected area, largely thanks to Art’s work. Conservationist Bruce Hill called the Great Bear Agreement “one of the most celebrated and important conservation victories in Canada’s history.” To date, with Art’s persistence, a vast and diverse network of allies has been able to block a tar sands pipeline and oil tanker shipping routes from coming through the Great Bear region. The struggle for protection continues today, with Art on the front lines.

Art and his wife have three children and have fostered two more; many of their sixteen grandchildren now live in the Great Bear Rainforest.

On November 14, 2014, Arthur Williams Sterritt and four others were honored at the 12th annual Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award in a private ceremony at the Portland Art Museum. Find out more about the award at ecotrust.org/ila.