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Heartbreak, healingin Heiltsuk home waters:An interview with Jessie Housty

A Heiltsuk First Nation Tribal Council member and mother of two young boys, Jessie Housty had long served her community in Bella Bella, BC, when in Fall 2016, an American-owned tug barge ran aground in her nation’s unceded territorial waters and a diesel spill occurred. In this first of a two-part interview, Ecotrust’s Lisa Watt and Doe Hatfield talk with Jessie Housty, the youngest recipient of the Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award (2010), about the first 48 hours after the spill, the Heiltsuk Nation’s response, and the indelible impacts on the Bella Bella community that remain two years later.

In the early hours of Thursday, October 13, 2016, an American-owned articulated tug barge (ATB), the Nathan E. Stewart, ran aground on a reef in Seaforth Channel, a relatively remote stretch along the Inside Passage on the central coast of British Columbia. These waters are the unceded territory of the Heiltsuk First Nation.

Canadian reports would later reveal that the sole crew member on the bridge, who was responsible for navigating the vessel through rough waters, fell asleep at the wheel. After the vessel struck the reef, more than 110,000 liters (26,000 gallons) of diesel and lubricants were spilled and spread along the shoreline and into the marine environment.

The white cabin of a partially submerged boat is seen above green water.
The vessel Nathan E. Stewart submerged in the waters of Seaforth Channel. Photo by Tavish Campbell

Describe the place where the spill occurred. What is its significance to Heiltsuk culture, tradition, history, and knowledge?

The spill happened in Seaforth Channel near Gale Pass, which is just north of Bella Bella. Our community refers to that area as the breadbasket of our nation. It’s a place that’s been heavily used and heavily relied upon by community members who go there to harvest dozens of marine and intertidal species. It is also a culturally significant place with a long history of occupation with village sites and a couple of cabins. And it’s in a very volatile marine environment. The currents through there are just wicked. Gale Pass is tricky to navigate if you don’t have strong local knowledge of that area.

“I have never seen a marine emergency where the local indigenous nations aren’t showing up first and staying the longest because ultimately when everyone else packs up and leaves, we are still going to be here. We live on the frontlines of these issues.”

The morning after the spill, the Heiltsuk were some of the first responders. Why did they feel the need to be there?

The spill happened in the wee hours on October 13 so as soon as we could safely get there that morning, our first responders were there. At that point it was still a really live situation. The tug was grounded on a reef and it was still unclear what was going to happen, whether there was going to be fuel released into the marine environment or the barge was going to be compromised, or what of the safety of the crew on board.

We are fortunate to have a coast guard lifeboat station near Bella Bella which is well-equipped for search and rescue work but they don’t have sufficient towing capacity or equipment to respond to any sort of large-scale pollution. It was important to have Heiltsuk eyes on the ground, to see if there was a way to intervene to establish a better outcome and to make sure we were putting our intimate local knowledge of that area to good use.

A tug boat is hoisted by a large barge with lights on in the darkness.
A barge lifts the sunken Nathan E. Stewart from the waters of Seaforth Channel. Photo by Kyle Artelle

I was struck by the parallel between Heiltsuk first responders and those of the Lummi Nation and their response to the open-net fish farm pen that collapsed last summer, releasing 300,000 Atlantic salmon into the Puget Sound. The Lummi and other Coast Salish tribes were the first ones to respond and did the most of anyone else.

I think that’s true up and down the coast. If you look at the 2006 sinking of the BC Ferries’ Queen of the North, it was the Gitga’at who were rescuing people and intervening in that crisis. If you look at the Simushir, the Russian barge that lost power off Haida Gwaii in 2014, it was the Haida who were pivotal in directing that response. I have never seen a marine emergency where the local Indigenous nations aren’t showing up first and staying the longest because ultimately, and we experienced this, when everyone else packs up and leaves, we are still going to be here. We live on the frontlines of these issues. While it’s a professional situation for people from different response agencies, for us it’s our life, our livelihood, our territory, our everything.

The chronology of the first 48 hours after the spill describes chaos. Did the agencies not understand the seriousness of the spill? Why were they so slow to respond?

I think a lot of factors contributed to that chaos: a lack of clarity about the Incident Command System, a multi-agency disaster response model that is not designed to incorporate Indigenous governments and local knowledge holders into its process; a lack of significant spill response resources on the central coast; jurisdictional disputes among responding agencies; and more.

“We still feel the spill in the way that people carry trauma in their bones for a really long time after the trauma first occurred. We want with every fiber of our being to help that place heal, and until the healing happens there, I don’t think it’ll happen in our bodies and minds and spirits either.”

As it stood, Heiltsuk had to fight to ensure that the Incident Command Post was set up in our community and not at a nearby fishing resort as the federal responders initially planned. We had to fight for a seat at Unified Command, which governed the spill response. We had to wait for nearly 24 hours for the delegated spill response agency to haul its equipment from Prince Rupert to the spill site, with those critical early hours lacking proper resources. And we had the province, many federal departments, and the polluter involved in the response, so there was often a huge fight about who had jurisdiction over what.

At a certain point in these kinds of situations, we as a nation have to assert that we have jurisdiction over everything in our territory and it’s time to take action.

A sheen of oil chokes a bed of kelp. This marine plant is critical spawning ground for herring -- a staple food for the Heiltsuk community. Photo by April Bencze

It’s not as if this was the first spill in those waters. Given the location and the amount of traffic in that area, you would expect there to have been a much better response plan in place.

Absolutely. Heiltsuk has had a longstanding issue with this exact type of vessel, and even with the specific vessel that sank. It was an articulated tug barge (ATB) which means it’s not a tug boat pulling a barge, it’s actually a push tug. To us, that design is really unsafe in this kind of marine environment. It doesn’t fit the volatile weather conditions that we get on the coast.

Even under the North Coast Tanker Moratorium, there are technicalities based on the tonnage, and the fact that this ATB delivers fuel between Washington state and Alaska do not call at a Canadian port, that means these types of vessels are seriously underregulated. Under normal circumstances, a vessel like the Nathan E. Stewart would require a Canadian pilot to be on board to help navigate challenging stretches of coastal waters, but the Nathan E. Stewart was traveling under a waiver and exempted from that requirement.

Marine traffic is not regulated nor monitored as heavily as we think it should be. We raised the issue long before the spill happened. It’s tragic that our community saw a spill like this coming and could not prevent it.

I was dumbfounded when I learned that you found out how the spill happened only when someone on the Canadian/governmental response team casually mentioned it in passing.

The response agencies were very clear that no one would go on record until the Transportation Safety Board released its official report. It finally came out in early 2018, almost 18 months after the spill. It was frustrating because for Heiltsuk, when something bad happens or you’ve done something bad, accountability to your community is the first step to healing the harm. You must be clear about the wrong that was done and who is responsible. That is the first step on the path to healing. But no one would talk about root cause on the record, so how were we supposed to heal?

If you looked at the trajectory and time of the incident, you could make an educated guess about what happened. But the community wanted to hear somebody in a position of responsibility say it. It was heartbreaking to community members that no one would go on record, even though there was constant chatter and rumors. I certainly had responders from a couple of federal agencies whisper that the person alone on the bridge fell asleep. It’s a hard thing to hear in a casual tone when no one will address it on the record. The fact that all we had was rumors and no one would begin the process of accountability really compounded the harm.

Heiltsuk First Nation members participate in the annual harvest of herring roe. The coastal area where the Nathan E. Stewart ran aground is considered the bread basket of the Heiltsuk First Nation. Photo by Ian McAllister, Pacific Wild

You had an environmental disaster in the waters of your homeland. What was the range of emotions that the community experienced over time, from when the spill occurred two years ago to today?

The incident was traumatic. We still feel the spill in the way that people carry trauma in their bones for a really long time after the trauma first occurred. There is no quick or linear path to healing. Speaking for myself, it is heartbreaking to know there was nothing more I could have possibly given of myself during the spill response, and to ask myself whether everything I had to give was enough. There’s an unbroken chain of stewardship in our territory going back to creation; was that chain broken? Did it break on my watch? That’s a heartbreaking question to have to ask yourself. We still don’t know what healing looks like for that place. We want with every fiber of our being to help that place heal, and until the healing happens there, I don’t think it’ll happen in our bodies and minds and spirits either.

The spill introduced so much uncertainty into our community and that has been challenging to overcome. We struggle with poverty and unemployment here. There are a lot of families that depend on places like Gale Creek to feed their families, whether it’s harvesting traditional resources for food, social, or ceremonial purposes or commercial harvesting to earn a living. All of a sudden those livelihoods — our members’ ability to access traditional foods, to access that place — are gone. And we don’t know when we are going to have that back. We had 50 families that would normally would have winter income from digging clams in Gale Creek stare down Christmas that year. That commercial clam fishery is still closed. It becomes an issue of economic precariousness and food insecurity on top of the social and spiritual impacts.

Two years after the spill, what have been the federal and provincial clean up efforts to date? What has been the impact on marine life?

One of the biggest struggles is that there has still not been any kind of environmental impact assessment that is even remotely satisfactory to us. There has been no ongoing sampling except that conducted by Heiltsuk. All of the response agencies left about six weeks after the spill, since then we haven’t really seen anyone here. It’s only been Heiltsuk and our Coastal Guardian Watchmen who have been out there monitoring regularly and undertaking the kind of testing that we feel is necessary to keep our community informed about the health of that system.

Throughout the response process, there were some glaring gaps here that became really apparent. One is that you cannot respond to incidents like this without the kind of detailed, intimate, local knowledge that only Heiltsuk people have of this place. The coast guard doesn’t have it, neither does the provincially-delegated spill response agency, nor the companies that own the articulated tug barges (ATBs) traveling through our territory. Indigenous knowledge needs to be built into both spill response and spill prevention regimes.

Another big gap is the need for more spill response capacity here on the central coast. We can’t wait for equipment to come from Vancouver or Prince Rupert. We need the capacity here. Subsequent to the Nathan E. Stewart incident, Heiltsuk took the lead on envisioning what meaningful capacity would look like, which we articulated in a proposal for an Indigenous Marine Response Centre. We were hopeful that with the lessons of the Nathan E. Stewart incident, and all the work we did to assess risks and gaps and to plan for better outcomes, that our proposal would get traction. It hasn’t. It’s frustrating to know that we’ve learned the hard way where the gaps are but we’re not seeing a readiness outside of our community to address those gaps.

An underwater view of silver fish swimming in clear, green tinted water.
Spawning herring swim in Heiltsuk Territory. Photo by Ian McAllister, Pacific Wild

There is so much in this story that is painful and unjust. What motivates you to stand up and be heard, to be an activist, a responder?

I was really blessed to grow up out on our lands and waters. The whole fabric of my identity is tied to these incredible places and species that enriched my childhood and continue to enrich my life. I also feel really blessed to share all of this with my kids. As a Heiltsuk person, my identity and my territory are inseparable. So, for me, I have to defend the lands and waters in the same way I would defend myself and my family because I can’t think of them as separate from one another.

What can our readers do to help?

It was such a storm of activity during the emergency phase. We worked so hard to communicate out to the world photos, videos, and stories, and to make it newsworthy. There was a lot of attention in BC and some in Canada but I don’t think audiences across the border really knew what was happening during the spill. Then, when the emergency phase ended and everyone left, we really felt alone. Although it’s not “newsworthy” anymore, we are still sitting here in the aftermath. This is still a live issue for Heiltsuk and public support and attention is still needed.

We also need greater accountability to ensure this type of vessel traffic is regulated and monitored more thoroughly. Our American friends and colleagues could help by being advocates on that front, because these are very often American vessels making American fuel deliveries transiting our waters, with the risk being planted squarely on our shoulders.

Part two of this interview will be posted next month. In it, Housty describes the Heiltsuk investigation of the spill and subsequent actions the nation has pursued for accountability and restoration.

Readers can also support Heiltsuk civil case against the attorney generals of British Columbia and Canada, and the ATB owner, Houston-based Kirby Corporation, for loss of aboriginal rights to food, social, and ceremonial harvesting as well as the loss of their commercial harvesting of marine resources after the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart by donating.