Category Archives: Oil

Transformations

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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.

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Film screening and panel discussion

‘We are rooted in the landscape,’ says Northern Gateway pipeline critic

“We have a unique perspective on the coast because we are an incredibly place-based people,” said Housty, who features in the film Groundswell. The documentary will be screened prior to the panel discussion as part of the university’s IdeaFest.

“We are rooted in the landscape. It’s a matter of our identity, and it goes back 10,000 years.”

Please join me for a screening of Groundswell and a panel discussion alongside some amazing colleagues. Follow the link to the article for details!

Sweetgrass and Tar

Tar Sands Healing Walk, 2012

I am proud and honoured to have been dispatched to Fort McMurray, Alberta to stand in solidarity on behalf of the Heiltsuk with all those participating in the 3rd annual Tar Sands Healing Walk. I flew from Bella Bella, BC to Fort McMurray, AB to join allies from across Canada and the USA who were walking to heal our sacred lands and waters.

On Friday afternoon, I traveled straight from the Fort McMurray airport to the Gregoire Park campground for the opening event. With just a few details tweaked – trade the lake for an ocean – the scene could have been home: elders in camp chairs around a fire, children weaving in and out of the crowd, laughter everywhere.

I don’t think I’d even set my bag down before people were reaching their hands out to shake mine, then reconsidering and greeting me with a hug instead. The usual conversations ensued: where are you from, who is your family, what is the web of possible connections we can identify from the earliest point of our meeting so that we part as friends – as family.

Slowly, speakers trickled onto the stage set near the edge of the trees. Crackling over the sound system, we heard from dozens of leaders – first from the Alberta First Nations who hosted us on their land, then from the visitors who had gathered from BC, eastern Canada, and the United States.

The real truth

I sat at the edge of a makeshift tent, rubbing yarrow between my fingers and listening to the speeches. People would come and go, stopping to greet me on their way to refill their coffee or as they descended the stage after speaking. One man settled beside me in the grass and started telling me stories.

“I grew up here”, he said. “I swam in the Athabasca sometimes. My mother always knew, and she scolded me. That residue in the river would just stick to you. Now I wouldn’t even feed fish from that river to my dogs.”

A native of Fort McMurray, he’d grown up at the edge of the Tar Sands and worked in the industry early in his adult life. “The companies tell all sorts of lies”, he insisted, “and the only reason we know is because we’ve seen different for ourselves. How many birds do they say die every year after they land in the tailing ponds? A couple hundred? I used to fish more than that out of the water every month.”

“Nobody ever contradicts those lies,” he said. “That’s all they do, they tell us lies. The real truth is these people right in front of you. What we’ve got in us is truth.”

When I was called up to speak, I hardly knew what to say. Sometimes you catch yourself in a moment and you realize all the people around you are part of the same moment as you. At times like that, what’s most beautiful is all that’s left unspoken that’s understood in spite.

Smoke and water

We all gathered on Saturday morning at Crane Lake Park, where two huge metal crane sculptures flanked the drive. As someone who has lain with the dampness of the meadow creeping into my bones while I watch Sandhill Cranes swaying in the sedges, I hope those metal birds are never all that remains as a link to my beloved living dinosaurs.

A hundred people gathered around a knot of local elders who sat on the ground in a clearing. They conducted a pipe ceremony to bless each of the participants. The smoke in my lungs made me feel strong. But the voices of those elders were drowned out, through most of the ceremony, by the constant screech of industrial noise. Their lips moved in prayer that was carried on the smoke, but their words were lost to me.

Sitting next to me was a man with his young daughter. When the pipe was passed in our direction, he looked her in the eyes and said to her, “Watch me”. He touched the pipe to the earth, and then to his heart, and then he took the smoke. Her eyes never left him, and when he handed the pipe to her, she mimicked his movements precisely. Our teachings are alive and they are passed down in the same way they’ve always been passed down.

Many of those gathered brought forward water from their homelands, and the elders mingled it all together – the collective power and purity of it was carried before us at the head of the march.

Sacred water, sacred song

We began our walk with the sacred water carried before us, led by the elders and by the drummers and singers who called our ancestors down to walk beside us. The cool morning was quickly becoming warm and bright. As we passed through the thin screen of trees alongside the highway, I walked beside an elder from Fort Chip.

“They want us to see the beauty of it”, she said. The trees passed behind us, and the first premonitions of industrial wreckage began to appear ahead. “They plant some trees, they cover it up. The beauty is just on the surface. But they already broke the heart of the land and they can’t undo that.”

As we crawled along the incredible length of a tailing pond, irregular shots interrupted the rhythm of the singers. Meant to keep the birds from landing on the sickened water, it kept me on edge as well. But the erratic shocks did nothing to shake the strides of the elders or the steady drumbeat.

The deeper we walked, the harder it became. I hardly noticed it at first, but gradually the dust clouds became as thick as the morning fog on the coast. Organizers circulated through the crowd handing out masks and water. The heat became unbearable when the wind dropped, and the billowing smokestacks in the distance made my stomach turn. What I thought were huge buildings on the horizon became, on closer look, unbelievably vast machines at rest on the side of the road. Taller than old growth, tall as the hills, and frighteningly inorganic.

This moment

As I walked, I wove in and out of crowds and they wove around me. Conversations begun in the first kilometre would pick up again halfway through the walk. As we paced our loop, the elders stopped us periodically to smudge and pray in the four directions.

The smell of sage and sweetgrass pulled me away from chemical despair at each prayer point, and the smoke the elders waved over me anchored me in spiritual space as blessed as the physical landscape was damaged. As we stopped to pray to the north, I knelt in front of an elder from Fort McKay. Her words went straight to my bones: “Pray for the strength that will someday make you one of the grandmothers who blesses the children of your people with sacred smoke”.

I drifted in and out of conversations as I walked. At one point, someone behind me said to another, “This moment that we’re in is so important”. It’s true, and what’s more, it felt true right then. The spirit of the walk is a critical reminder to seek balance. It is not enough to spot enemies; we must build alliances. It is not enough to fight battles; we must seek healing.

Traffic in both directions

We took up one side of a two-lane road. Two hundred or more marched together with banners and signs, in regalia, in Healing Walk shirts. We followed elders swinging their smoking braids of sweetgrass, behind drummers who beat out a pace for us against the heat of the day. And as we walked, a constant stream of traffic rumbled by in the opposite direction.

Most vehicles passed us in silence, without turning their heads. But a good many found small ways to honour the walk. With their arms raised in solidarity, laying on their horns, shouting encouragements out the window, the drivers of those industrial machines were a reminder that corporations might not have a conscience – but we should never forget that their employees might.

As the walk wore on, the dust and the heat deepened. My water slithered thickly down my throat and I could feel the dull ache in my back that comes from long walks on concrete when you’re normally blessed to step on earth that springs back under your feet. I realized, gradually, that my eyes were burning and my lungs felt bruised. When I understood that the grit in my teeth came from breathing the air around me, I’ve never felt so grateful as when someone handed me a mask to slip over my face.

Community

One of the things that I’ve come to understand throughout my participation in this fight is that community doesn’t just come from the people who immediately surround you. I’ve had a privileged vantage point as I’ve watched my own community wake up to the incredible threat that Tar Sands development poses to our traditional values and ways.

I’ve watched them become strong in that knowledge together, and reach that strength out to our brothers and sisters from other Nations on the coast. I’ve watched that strength begin in the youngest generation and stretch to our elders, springing from the most locally-driven conversations to alliances that happen across huge regions.

I’ve also been blessed to build a network of support through social media, in all those who have followed along on Facebook and Twitter and other corners of the internet to make these moments communal even when you’re sending me messages of solidarity from Uganda or Japan.

The community of people walking the Healing Walk today was not confined to those of us who physically traced that path through the Syncrude oil sands. With the pipe and the water, we also mapped a spiritual path. Those of us who walked carried our own communities with us, and with the sacred drum we called down our ancestors to walk beside us too.

In Heiltsuk culture, to bear witness to good work being done is a critical role to be filled. To bear witness is to validate what’s happening before you – to commit to standing as a living record of what is carried out. I walked with the spirit of my Nation behind me. I walked with my whole huge community behind me, in the broadest sense – the sense that includes you, as the reader of this journal, and everyone who followed along through traditional and social media and kept in touch via email and text. And when I took the smoke at the beginning of the journey, I asked my grandmothers and all those who have gone on ahead to guide me. I know they were all with me today, and I know that’s why I kept walking against the ache and the heat and the dust.

Change

In the last stretch of the walk, I was behind a pair of elders. They walked with the invincible, untouchable rhythm and grace of those who have traveled more miles than someone of my youth can comprehend. They rarely rested throughout the day, and walked at the head of our procession to guide us all.

One turned to the other and said slowly and precisely, “Change isn’t coming. It’s happening right now.” They both laughed, then joined hands to walk the last stretch together.

I know better than to question whether they’re right. You trust your grandmothers implicitly. Besides, I can feel the change in the marrow of my bones. And though I’m going home with dust in my lungs and damaged earth on the soles of my feet, I’ll hold my head high when I stand where the river meets the ocean to bless the end of my journey and wash it all away. The only part I’ll keep is that message of my hope, tied in a little knot in my heart, from the beautiful grandmothers of northern Alberta to the grandmother I must pray for the strength to someday become.

I remain deeply grateful to Melina and the Keepers of the Athabasca for inviting our Nation to stand with them – to the Alberta First Nations who welcomed me into their territory – to my Chief for entrusting me with this trip – and to my Nation for committing their messages of strength and solidarity to me. I carried them with me and I gave them freely. And I bring nothing home but love and hope.