One year ago today, I was standing on the tarmac of the Bella Bella airport, a half-step behind a line of hereditary chiefs in their traditional regalia. It was the day before our JRP hearings were set to begin, and the sched flight that was about to touch down was carrying the JRP panel members, Enbridge attorneys, allies to the Heiltsuk, witnesses speaking for our Nation, and our High Chief Woyala who was coming home to stand with his people.
It was the culmination of a huge planning effort driven by our whole community. As I stood behind our chiefs, I remember thinking how the community had grown around the issue from the first moment we heard rumblings around Enbridge Northern Gateway. The momentum had built and it was strong. As a community, we were prepared to stand up with dignity and integrity to be witnesses for the lands and waters that sustained our ancestors – that sustain us – that we believe should sustain our future generations.
As the plane landed on the airstrip, I could hear the noisemakers on the chiefs’ regalia rattling. Our Heiltsuk singers and drummers were on the other side of the chain-link fence and their voices were so powerful I felt the ache of that pride right in my marrow. Our youth, elders, and families were clustered behind them, grasping signs and banners, four generations of our people standing together seeking some expression for their deep fears over a proposed project that threatened 10,000 years of culture and nature integral to our identity as Heiltsuk people.
On a deeply personal level, I felt overwhelmed at that moment by the privilege of standing behind our chiefs on the tarmac. Those of you who know me know that I’m a shy person. I love to work hard, but I prefer to do it without fanfare. It took an issue like tankers and pipelines to make me realize that sometimes, the challenges you face are too big to let your personal fears limit your contribution to the fight. Enbridge catapulted me into an unexpected leadership position that created an incredible opportunity for me to be a voice and a force for the things I care about. At that time, I was one day away from filing papers to accept my nomination to run for Heiltsuk Tribal Council, and I was surrounded by a community of Heiltsuk people and their allies who had signalled huge trust in me with the work they’d given me in preparing for our hearings.
I remember the plane landing, and the slow taxi of the aircraft toward the airport building and the line of hereditary chiefs. I remember the singers’ voices swelling, and the sound of the chiefs’ rattles. I remember the plane door opening, the ladder dropping down. I remember our High Chief Woyala’s head and shoulders emerging from the interior of the plane, the look on his face when he saw his fellow chiefs waiting to greet him and all the other passengers – friend or foe – en route to the hearings. I remember his tears and his evident pride as he danced down the steps and across the tarmac to stand with his people. And I remember realizing that I was crying too, completely overtaken by the power and dignity of the people around me.
The gathering of the crowd, the dressing of the chiefs, the wait for the plane’s arrival all happened in slow motion for me. What came next was a blur. We’d made arrangements to greet the plane in the Heiltsuk way – to honour the passengers with a welcome dance from the chiefs and an invitation to feast with us that night. It was of importance that we do things according to our sacred customs and protocols – that we do things with honour in the Heiltsuk way. As the welcome dance ended and Woyala began his address to everyone gathered there – intended for community members, neighbouring First Nations, environmental allies, JRP panel members and Enbridge representatives alike – a small huddle of people darted from the plane past the chiefs, through the small airport building, and into a waiting taxi.
Many of you already know the story of what came next. The sound of a community member knocking on the window of the taxi and holding up a sign was reported as “possible gunshots”. The children and families lining the road with signs were painted as a dangerous mob. At the feast that night, which the panel members declined to attend, Heiltsuk leadership received an email notifying them that the hearings had been cancelled. The panel members and staff said they feared for their personal safety in the face of the day’s events.
When our elected Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett stood up before the community at the feast that night to read out the cancellation message, you could feel the weight of those words like a physical impact. We had done everything according to our teachings, and to feel the back of someone’s hand could hardly have been more of an insult.
Do I want to belabour that now? No, I don’t. Because in a sense, it’s the least interesting thing that happened that week. We could have let that decision by the JRP settle like poison in our bodies. But what we chose instead continues to be the greatest source of strength and inspiration I’ve seen in my own life.
What happened was nation building. What happened was community building. Maybe it felt different if you weren’t here. We were isolated, and people were trying to shame us for our actions. For an instant, that fear made me vulnerable. But when I looked around me at all the people gathered at that feast, the fear turned to gratitude and the gratitude made me strong.
Why was it nation building? The room was full of Heiltsuk people who had just been insulted for practicing their culture and adhering to their traditional values and practices. And when they had to choose their response, I am proud that they refused to accept the shame and anger being pushed on us. The room was filled with community members who collectively asserted that the integrity of our cultural identity is the root of our strength as a people. At no point were we willing to apologize for upholding our traditions and acting with the peace and dignity inherent in our cultural protocols.
Why was it community building? We had neighbouring Nations standing with us – Gitga’at, Kitasoo-Xaixais, Nuxalk and Wuikinuxv. We had regional leaders from First Nations Summit and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, allies from the Lubicon Cree. We had friends in the environmental community from Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Sierra Club BC, Greenpeace Canada, Pacific Wild. Our MLA was in attendance. We were blessed by their presence. And one by one, they stood up to address our Heiltsuk people.
The power of their voices made us more resilient as they asserted that they’d witnessed our words and actions, and upheld that they were spoken and done with honour. The power of our friends and our leaders gave us the guidance we needed to move through the coming days.
It’s been a year since that day. I remember the chaos of trying to get the hearings back on track, the frustration of losing 1.5 days of testimony from our elders and knowledge-keepers. I remember sitting in the back of the room at the hearings, fighting to stay composed when our elders walked off the stand in protest – their evidence undelivered – after needless heckling and interruptions. Funnily enough, I remember my phone crashing as it tried to load the notifications for all the messages being sent to me by strangers around the world who were using social media to stand with us in that little auditorium. Some of my dearest friends today were strangers a year ago and I’ve never stopped being grateful for that first time they reached out.
The words that come into my mind when I think about a year ago aren’t dark. I remember gratitude, dignity, strength, resilience and grace. The images are the same. I remember the power of the testimony unfolding in front of a sea of red armbands, a packed room expressing silent solidarity with the witnesses who were speaking. There was a lot of beauty in that week, and it’ll be an inspiration to me for as long as I live.
I also have a huge amount of personal gratitude for the role I was given in all those proceedings. One year has passed by. I’m eleven months into my first term on Heiltsuk Tribal Council. I still get pulled aside in the street by chiefs, elders, community members, children. They ask the questions, express the concerns, and give me the direction I need to uphold the privilege of working for my people – both in my political work, and in my community organizing.
I’m surrounded by friends who came into my life in a time that would have been more difficult if not for the amazing wonder of new beginnings that they represented to me.
I live in a place where the water in the rivers isn’t different from the blood in our Heiltsuk veins, where we’re surrounded by the bounty that’s sustained our people since time before memory. And we’ve never forgotten the honour and obligation of stewarding it.
All those things were blessings, and they’re still blessings today. It taught me important lessons about vulnerability and fear – about sovereignty and governance – about unity and beauty. It was positive, and it was transformative, and I am profoundly grateful.
Thank you for being a part of transforming me.