Category Archives: Stewardship

Why I signed the Let BC Vote pledge

Last week I signed the Let BC Vote pledge. You could say I’m late to the party. More than 200,000 British Columbians signed before me. I’ve been aware of the Dogwood Initiative-led campaign since it launched, and I’ve watched the numbers grow. But I wanted to reason it through before deciding with conviction that it is part of my path forward.

For the last few years I’ve worked in my community and beyond to help build the momentum we need to stop Enbridge Northern Gateway. I’m not trained as a leader or organizer. I came to this work before I felt ready, and I learned on my feet. I’ve made my share of gut decisions in the heat of battle, and learned to be grateful when I have the luxury of examining every angle of a campaign before I commit to it.

Now that the federal government has approved this project, we could be in for a long fight. I believe pipeline opponents have been laying the groundwork for sustained action since day one, but what carries us through will be smart strategies, high levels of organization, and commitment. I may have taken my time, but Let BC Vote has my commitment. Because this is more than a drive to build a list and collect signatures. It’s an opportunity to build capacity, demand accountability, and strengthen alliances – and all of those actions are critical at this stage of the fight.

Two systems of law and governance
Smart organizers invest in a diversity of tactics, and lead with the strongest in any situation. The tactics available to us in this fight are complex, because the communities who are organizing are interacting with two very different systems of law and governance.

Let me explain: I am Indigenous, and I am Heiltsuk. The Heiltsuk have a set of laws and customs that goes back to our First Generation, and that system is the one that primarily guides my actions. Heiltsuk people also maintain an original system of government that organizes how we function as a society. I’m not talking about the federally-imposed system of Indian Act governments; I’m talking about our hereditary chiefs who are groomed from birth to be rights-holders who uphold the ways of our people.

More broadly, Canada has a set of federal and provincial laws and governance that is primary to my Settler allies. I respond to it as well, but for me, it comes second.

Those two systems of law and governance make three sets of tactics available to us. Think of them as two circles. I want to talk about those circles, and the space where they overlap.

In one circle, you have the Indigenous system. This system is what empowers our hereditary chiefs to say no – no, on the basis that this project is inconsistent with our laws and customs. No, on the strength of their authority as chiefs. In the other circle, you have the Settler system. This system includes federal and provincial legislation that is meant to impartially vet and regulate projects like Northern Gateway.

Let’s be frank. My laws and customs as an Indigenous person are my highest truth, but I live in a country that sidesteps the power of that truth. And Canadians are living under a regime – at least federally – that systematically dismantles inconvenient legislation and regulations so projects like Northern Gateway can barrel ahead.

So what is possible where the Indigenous and Settler circles overlap? One clear example is in the courts. As the recent Tsilhqot’in decision reinforced, Indigenous rights and title hold real, tangible power within the Canadian legal system.

This is the battle plan that pipeline opponents have had in their back pocket since day one: Indigenous people fighting and stopping Northern Gateway in Canadian court, on the basis that this project would intrude onto territories to which we hold title, and infringe on our rights. As these cases proceed there is a supportive role for Settler allies to play in areas like fundraising and communications, but with this tactic the burden of leadership rests with Indigenous people.

Where is the burden of leadership for Settler people? A majority of Indigenous groups in British Columbia have rejected Enbridge Northern Gateway under their own systems of law, while a majority of British Columbians reject this plan for their home province too. Based on those two facts, what power can non-Indigenous people seize? I believe the answer lies in the citizens’ initiative.

By organizing in ridings across the province, by stepping up as leaders within their own communities, and by drafting and proposing legislation that fits their values, citizens have a powerful opportunity – available only in British Columbia – to hold their provincial government to account. For as Ottawa acknowledged the day it approved the pipeline, B.C. still has the power to stop it. Without 60 permits from Premier Clark, Enbridge may not proceed.

I don’t want my Settler brothers and sisters to point to the Indigenous legal battle and say “We believe you’re going to win.” I want to hear them say they’re ready to work shoulder-to-shoulder, with each of us seizing the power that best enables us to win together. If diverse tactics are available, let’s be wise enough to consider all of them. Preparing for a citizens’ initiative does not undermine title or rights. Rather, it builds our collective political power.

Final thoughts
For me, the core of this issue is simple: leaders must be accountable to their people, regardless of the scale of leadership. If leaders forget who they represent, then the people need to organize. I know this truth from my own leadership in a community that is not afraid to correct my course if there is a better way for me to carry their interests forward.

Scale that spirit up to the provincial level. Elections are not our only opportunity to remind leaders whose interests they’re meant to represent in office. Trooping to the ballot box every four years is not enough to hold Christy Clark accountable. Let’s use every means available to hold her to the truth that her mandate comes from the people of B.C., and the people of B.C. expect her to join us in stopping Enbridge.

When it comes to being allies, let’s remember we are in this fight together. It is no longer enough to show solidarity. I am humbly asking my Settler allies to be solidary. It’s the difference between a finite action and a way of being. We need to work strategically in the space where our values and power overlap. I am committed to upholding the truth of my laws and stories, to helping my chiefs defend our rights and title in the courts. And I am committed to supporting my Settler brothers and sisters who choose to organize around an action that puts power back in their hands too.

By signing the Let BC Vote pledge, I am gesturing my willingness to be solidary with my Settler brothers and sisters. It’s time for all of us to rise up, build our organizing capacity, and exercise it in actions that advance us toward our goal of stopping this pipeline. I’m with you until we win.

I came into my role as a leader and community organizer because of Enbridge Northern Gateway. My elders taught me that you don’t get to choose the moment when you’re called to leadership; the only thing that’s up to you is courage and conviction. That teaching has guided me through many moments of uncertainty, and it’s the message I’ve most often shared with Indigenous and Settler people alike: respond to what this moment is asking of you. This fight is too big for us to do otherwise.

In the spirit of kindness

More and more often, we are reading in the news about the federal government and various intelligence and law enforcement agencies allegedly “spying” on aboriginals and pipeline opponents.

I am both of those things. I have no idea whether strangers are picking up shards of information from my emails and text messages. I have no idea what kind of beautiful stained-glass mosaics their imaginations might create. But in the spirit of wild and optimistic honesty, I would like to make a declaration to them, just in case:

I have nothing to hide from you.

Sometimes I can be arrogant. I’m very bad at playing guitar, but you know, I think I can sing pretty nicely. I like an embarrassing amount of honey in my tea. When I hike in the forest, I like to run. I write poems on napkins and receipts and scraps of paper and most of the time, I lose them; maybe you’ve found some. I don’t make my bed. Even though I think they’re silly, sometimes when it’s laundry day I resort to wearing animal print underpants.

I love my family so much it feels like my heart could burst out of my chest. Yeah, I know that emotions don’t really come from the little organ hidden behind my ribs, but I’ll admit it: I simplify the things that are too complex for me to comprehend, and I am content with those little truths I create. Besides, my family is pretty amazing. I really think my cousins build better forts than anyone else in the world, and they’re all my best friends.

It’s not just my family, though. I love my people. I really believe this: there are salmon swimming in my veins. Isn’t that incredible? My vertebrae are just stones from an old fishtrap arranged into a spine. My whole body belongs to the land I come from. I didn’t inherit the legacy of my ancestors; I’m part of a continuum. My whole sense of time is probably different from yours. I have 10,000 beautiful years of history on my shoulders and I live my life hoping that future generations will nod quietly to themselves someday and think of me as just another face in the vast village of ancestors that lives in their imagination. I’m Heiltsuk; it’s imprinted in every cell in my body.

Okay, that probably sounded a little smug. I told you I can be arrogant. Really, though, I wish everyone could experience how beautiful it is to know where you come from and to know where your bones will rest too. With a good heart, I wish you the peace that comes from having deep roots.

What else should I tell you? I was going to say “that you should never be afraid of me,” but I’m not sure that would be honest of me, and this is an exercise in honesty after all.

A journalist asked me a question once. Well, journalists ask me questions all the time – I’m not sure why – but there was one question I particularly liked. Not because it was original, but because of how he asked it.

This journalist, he was sitting on my deck last summer in Bella Bella, and a couple of barn swallows were swooping over us while he interviewed me. We were trying to have a very grave conversation, but it was a sunny day, and my heart was feeling light. After awhile, his formal interview tone just sort of dissipated, and then he asked me in a small voice: “Do you think this pipeline will get built?”

I couldn’t help it. It was instinct. I started giving my usual, predictable response. “I’ll be dead before this pipeline gets built,” I snapped. Then I paused and thought about his tone. And so he looked relieved when my voice got softer too, and then I said a thing I really do believe with all my heart: “But I hope it’s the case that I die an old, old woman, whose grandchildren never got tired of hearing how granny watched the people rise up to defeat the pipeline.”

I don’t want to die to stop this from happening. More importantly, I don’t want to ask other people to risk their own wellbeing to fight beside me if it comes to that. It’s why I work so hard to find peaceful resolutions. But people can be hard and soft at the same time, you know. I want justice for the land and its people without any violence. But that is secondary to a simpler statement: I want justice for the land and its people. I hope we find justice and peace; I know we will find justice.

I’m arrogant sometimes, but often it’s to cover up being nervous. When the journalist’s voice went quiet that afternoon, I should have known that for a moment, he was just a nervous person asking me a personal question. And you know what? I believe we should reciprocate the trust that comes with someone making themselves vulnerable in front of us.

That probably sounded like I expect you to trust me with your vulnerability too, stranger, if you do indeed exist. But don’t feel pressed. Making space for something isn’t the same as asking for it. Just know that if you want to tell me your secrets, I will respect them.

If you remember just one thing from what I’ve shared, I hope it’s not that I own animal print underpants or that sometimes I switch to autopilot when I’m being interviewed by journalists. I hope you remember that I have nothing to hide from you.

Maybe you’re worried that I’m organizing a riot when all I’m really doing is building community. Maybe you think I’m opposing development when really what I’m doing is protecting something sacred. Maybe you have questions about place-based indigenous identity. Or maybe you don’t ever ask yourself “Why?” Me, though, I sleep well at night because I do my work with a good heart; I’ll answer any questions you ask of me in the same spirit. If you’re out there, and if you’re “spying,” come out of the shadows. Be the audience to a story. Or be a participant in dialogue. Let’s understand one another instead of one side watching the other. Don’t be passive; be bold, and engage!

You don’t need to worry. My people have a long tradition of feasting with their enemies.

I’ve made peace with the possibility of watchers. I hope someday when this is all over, you will come out and publicly affirm all that to which you bore witness when reading my emails: that my boyfriend is, as I often rave to my friends, incredibly handsome; that the seventeenth round of edits to that draft of my thesis chapter is good enough already; and that as I write to my sister in Vancouver quite frequently, I’d give just about anything to share a cup of tea with her. I really do miss her. But you know that.

Does that sound like a deal? If so, give me a sign. I’m sure you are able to manipulate my devices and accounts to do so.

In the spirit of kindness,
Jess

Sitting on Water

Earlier this year, I blogged about the new Salmon Stewardship Program at the non-profit organization where I work as communications director. This fall, we wrapped up an exciting pilot year for the program, which included the construction and operation of a traditional-style fish weir that we used for sockeye enumeration.

This project has the potential to enable powerful, local stewardship of an important resource to the Heiltsuk Nation, and the data generated by our fieldwork will support resource management and decision-making for our Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department. It is also an inspiring example of scientific research and monitoring that is guided by cultural values and indigenous knowledge, developed by Heiltsuk managers and carried out by Heiltsuk field technicians.

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Since we’re so excited by the story of this project, we wanted to find a way to share it with you! So we partnered with filmmaker Ilja Herb to develop a short film called Sitting on Water: A Season on the Koeye River. The film is close to being completed, and we’re looking for your help to generate interest and the last bit of funding we need to finish the editing. We’re offering some neat incentives for donors, and you can find out more by visiting our crowdfunding page on IndieGoGo.

I’d like to thank Ilja Herb, our filmmaker, and Andrew Naysmith, our editor; Will Atlas, our Salmon Program Coordinator, and all our colleagues at Qqs (Eyes) Projects Society; Grant Callegari for his invaluable work in designing and building the weir, and for helping with donor incentives; Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department; Hakai Beach Institute; and all of our philanthropic partners who support the operation of the Salmon Stewardship Program.

Consilience in Action: Salmon Stewardship in the Koeye River Watershed

At my non-profit job, we’ve been launching into a new initiative based at our field site in the Koeye River Watershed. Recognizing the interconnectedness of the relationships between our people, our territory, and the key species we rely on, we’ve launched a strong Salmon Stewardship Program under our Coastwatch Heiltsuk Monitoring Initiative to ensure we’re managing this important resource with the best tools and information at our disposal.

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An exciting element of this Salmon Stewardship work is our fish weir project. Supervised by Salmon Program Coordinator Will Atlas with assistance from some amazing folks at Hakai Beach Institute, this involves the construction of a cedar- and alder-wood weir across the whole width of the Koeye River above tidewater, which allows our team of Heiltsuk technicians to count every individual sockeye heading upstream. As far as our ongoing theme of “consilience” goes, this represents an incredible overlap between IK (indigenous knowledge) and western science. We’re combining the soundest elements of both in order to achieve better stewardship outcomes in our territory, and it’s exciting to be a part of it!

I’d like to invite you to check out an amazing little video from our friend and colleague Ilja Herb, who joined us during the construction stages of the weir project and is currently on his way back up the coast to film its operation. This video will give you a beautiful, visual introduction to the project, and there’s more to come as the summer progresses!

If you feel compelled to make a donation, your support has a huge impact at this scale. You can donate online, or contact my office for more information.

Global Tribes

I was privileged recently to join a delegation of First Nations leaders from across Canada in a trip through Northern Australia. This article from a Sydney newspaper shares a little of what we were doing.

Meet one of my heroes, Jeffrey Lee:

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Ancient wisdom sends message across the world

They are on their way to meet the stone country people on the remote Western Arnhem Plateau, but first the delegation of Canada’s First Nations stops in Kakadu National Park to visit the man who said no to millions of dollars.

Senior custodian Jeffrey Lee takes them to Koongarra, his bush site that might have become a uranium mine worth as much as $5 billion. If only Lee had said yes.

”Money don’t mean nothing to me,” he says. ”Money come, money go. Once you take my land away, you can’t put it back together again.”

His 11 guests from nine First Nations find nothing strange in this.

”Heartwarming, but not surprising,” says Steve Nitah of the Lutsel K’e Dene Nation. Nitah says native Canadians derive 70 to 90 per cent of their diet from the land but are fighting their own battles with resource developers, from foresters to gas pipeline builders and tar sands miners. They only wish they had the power of veto that Lee enjoys under the Northern Territory land rights act.

Lee’s father and grandfather had wanted the mine but, after a decades-long battle, he has succeeded in his own determination that Koongarra be folded into the world-heritage park that surrounds it.

When Lee divulges his cut from the mine might have been $7.5 million, a 26-year-old member of the Heiltsuk First Nation’s tribal parliament, Jess Housty, shrugs: ”The money is the least interesting thing. If we want to calculate the value of a proposal, the question is, ‘What’s at stake?’ My identity is based on the stories my people have written in the landscape. If you kill the land, you kill our stories. If you kill our stories, you kill the people. It’s as simple as that.”

They are sweltering in temperatures of 30 degrees-plus. Some of them are more comfortable in -30 degrees. But they find they have much in common with indigenous Australians like Lee.

It is why the Pew Charitable Trusts has brought them here. The US-founded global philanthropic giant, which built its perpetual fund on the Pew family’s old oil fortune, is focusing its environmental work on the world’s remaining ”big scale” treasures – the kind of intact ecosystems over vast landscapes that can still be found in Canada and Australia.

So early on Saturday, we board single-engine planes bound for Warddeken, an indigenous rangers’ camp in the stone country of the Mok clan. This tiny outpost is protecting what Pew’s Australian director, ecologist Barry Traill, calls a ”global gem of biodiversity”.

The Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area is half the size of Switzerland, almost 1.4 million hectares that contain species found nowhere else on the planet: the black wallaroo; the Oenpelli python, rock rats, birds, many plants. It boasts thousands of rock art sites.

But wildfires that can burn for months and grow to ”the size of Sydney” would threaten it all if not for the pioneering indigenous fire management at Warddeken, says Traill. This work earns Warddeken and neighbouring indigenous groups a break-even $1.2 million a year for the abatement of 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Warddeken is one of 58 Indigenous Protected Areas that cover more than 51 million hectares of Australia and employ almost 700 indigenous rangers. Launched by the Howard government and expanded under Labor, IPAs are not forms of land tenure. They are agreements between the federal government and traditional owners under which the locals are supported to care for land that is otherwise neglected.

Pew supports several IPAs and believes they can be a model for the Canadians and their own treasures such as the boreal forest, the largest intact forest in the world. The visitors agree. ”I’ve been fighting for something like this for six years,” says Douglas Neasloss of the Kitasoo-Xaixais Nation.

But Warddeken may never have happened if not for ”the old man”, Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, AO. Locals had left the area for bigger settlements around World War II and earlier. Nadjamerrek was among pioneers who led a homeland movement back into Arnhem Land in the 1970s and ’80s and, finally, a return to his own country in the late 1990s. He lived until 2009, just long enough to witness its declaration as an IPA.

Much damage was done in those lost years by wildfire, invasive weeds and feral animals.

Trail says: ”We usually think of conservation and say people are the problem. But one of the biggest problems in outback Australia is the lack of people. In more than 50 per cent of Australia there are fewer people managing the environment today than there have been for the past 50,000 years.”

The IPAs, he says, allow the people who know best to work ”on country”.

The on-site operations manager at Warddeken, Jake Weigl, says their controlled mosaic burning ”absolutely replicates” ancient fire practice but exploits modern tools. In the early dry season, they drop incendiary devices from helicopters. He describes how a helicopter will drop a team of just six to nine rangers – armed with only rake hoes, chainsaws and leaf-blowers – to resist fire fronts as big as 50 kilometres.

”For a fire that size in Victoria they’d bring in hundreds of firefighters, but that’s fire suppression – not management. If they managed it, they wouldn’t need so many resources.”

The chairman of Warddeken Land Management Limited, Dean Yibarbuk, points to the return of emu to the area as evidence of the rangers’ success and the recovery of species.

The Nature Conservancy also supports the operation. Pew has backed IPAs elsewhere, including the Kimberley. It is supporting the Ngadju people to protect the Great Western Woodlands in the south-east of Western Australia.

It worked with graziers and indigenous groups to secure the exclusion of mining leases from the Queensland Channel Country rivers and floodplains that feed Lake Eyre, but now they are battling the Newman government’s declaration that it will allow mining after all.

Pew has some enemies, notably elements among recreational and commercial fishers who believe it has supported research that overstates the threat to global fish stocks. Pew stands by the research. Traill derides a conspiracy theory that Pew is backing marine parks in Australia to exclude oil exploration – to benefit American oil producers.

Pew no longer has any money in oil, he says. When established in 1948, founder J. Howard Pew wanted to ”acquaint the American people with the evils of bureaucracy and the values of a free market”. His heirs have a less conservative focus but the group claims to be non-partisan.

Little of this concerns the daughters of Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, Lois and Hagar. They welcome the First Nations people to their country by inviting them to enter a spring, where they pour water over their heads. In their dreaming, it is the nectar of the sugar bee.

”We are really proud to have that mob coming from Canada,” Hagar says. It was their father’s vision to share their knowledge with the world, she says.

Lois adds: ”I believe we are following his vision.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts assisted Fairfax Media’s travel from Kakadu to Arnhem Land.

Read it here: http://www.theage.com.au/national/ancient-wisdom-sends-message-across-the-world-20130602-2njqs.html#ixzz2VMbFl3w3

Exploring consilience in the GBR

This May, I was privileged to co-instruct a field course with a dear friend and colleague, Dr. Chris Darimont, through UVic’s Department of Geography. Along with 15 bright and amazing students, we explored the theme of consilience – in particular, how western science and indigenous knowledge can run parallel or even overlap to achieve stronger stewardship objectives.

It was my first experience teaching. And it was magical. Together, we explored many of the landscapes that are dearest to my heart: Koeye, Hakai, and Goose Island. Students brought diverse backgrounds to bear on the values, ideas and solutions common to biology, ecology, environmental studies, geography, First Nations studies, resource management, political science, and even my background in literature.

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What I want to share is this: Meaningful and authentic collaboration is possible. It has a language and a grammar that root our conversations in respect. It has basic principles that guide our interactions and teach us to navigate a route together. It is multidisciplinary, it is exciting, and it is a process that is never completed. That’s where the sweetness lies.

The other thing I want to share is this: The fifteen students who participated in our class are already leaders in their field, and they are growing to be experts on collaboration and engagement, authenticity and respect, and yes, on consilience. It was a pleasure dear to my heart to share this time with Chris, and I’m deeply grateful for everyone who was so gentle with me as I walked this path with them.

Gaiasixa!

For the bears

One of my challenges living and working in such a remote geography is a feeling of isolation. Often, the scope of my universe is limited to the territory of my people, and there is power in being rooted primarily in my home geography.

But you realize quickly that the scale of the issues we all face is rarely local. Although I prefer grassroots work, that work is empowered by connections to the broader network of powerful people who are bringing their good heart to issues at every scale.

In our environmental work, and in our ceremonial work as well, our relationship to bears is one example of the many incredible touchstones that guide us. We’ve worked at Qqs, for example, to engage and educate our young people through our cultural programming about the importance of bears in our songs and rituals. We’ve also led research on grizzly bear DNA in important watersheds in our territory.

To the north and south and on the mainland, our neighbours have been doing their own good work around bears. Collectively, we’ve invested efforts in scientific research, developing solutions to human/bear conflict, maintaining a sense of cultural connection to bears, operating sustainable bear-viewing ecotourism programs, and finding ways to live with the animals that have been strong characters in the narrative of our coastal people since time before memory.

Do bears respect territory boundaries? Of course not. And our people have worked, traded, married and traveled across those same territory boundaries for a hundred generations. Together, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo-Xaixais, Nuxalk and Wuikinuxv have begun an amazing and precedent-setting shared conversation about how we can make our relationship to bears more powerful through collaboration.

This past weekend, I was honoured to be part of a group of Heiltsuk stewards who traveled to a beautiful estuary in overlap territory where bears live in harmony with an incredible and productive ecosystem. We joined stewards from Klemtu, Bella Coola and Rivers Inlet and allies from a number of external organizations with a simple purpose:

To feast together, and to share stories.

There is an incredible power that comes from settling yourself into a space in the landscape where your ancestors lived. To see the tents go up, to smell the fish cooking on the fire, to see dozens of people feasting on a shared meal of our traditional foods – and sharing stories to reaffirm our conviction around working together for the good of our ursine relatives – it nestled a joy deep in my heart that continues to empower me now that I’ve returned to the office.

So much of what we do to fight for the lands, waters and creatures we care about happens in the board rooms and behind our computer screens. It is good and right to give ourselves time to gather in the watersheds and amongst the grizzlies, to reaffirm why we’re doing our work – and why we’re doing it together.

I am grateful to everyone who joined us at our solidarity camp. For the bears. For our four Nations. And in the spirit of our ancestors.

Four Nations

Four Nations Solidarity Camp