Jordan Wilson, Heiltsuk Coastal Guardian Watchman

Heiltsuk Nation, federal agencies sign agreement to establish Indigenous marine response team

More than four years after the Nathan E. Stewart disaster on B.C.'s central coast, the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada commit to funding and training Heiltsuk first responders and improving communication and collaboration

The unmistakable rainbow sheen of diesel on the water still haunts the Heiltsuk community. It’s been over four years since an articulated tugboat called the Nathan E. Stewart ran aground near Bella Bella, B.C., spilling 110,000 litres of diesel, lubricants and other pollutants into the sea.  

After the tugboat hit the rocks near Gale Creek in the Seaforth Channel, an important site for seafood harvesting, it took the Canadian Coast Guard three hours to notify the Heiltsuk, who were given no instruction on what to do. Community members jumped in their boats and rushed to the site.

“It was really intense and quite heartbreaking,” Yáláƛí Megan Humchitt, a councillor with the Heiltsuk Tribal Council, said in an interview. 

Humchitt, who grew up in Bella Bella and spent much of her childhood on the water with her dad, a Hereditary Chief and fisherman, was one of the first responders to the scene, where community members waited 17 hours for a Transport Canada-certified spill response team deployed from Prince Rupert to arrive.

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Ever since the disaster, the nation has been working toward establishing the Indigenous Marine Response Centre in Heiltsuk territory, which would enable them to respond quickly and efficiently to emergencies. 

On Tuesday, the Heiltsuk Nation, the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada announced a memorandum of understanding that paves the way to create a Heiltsuk marine emergency response team and plan for how that team will complement the long-term plans for the response centre. 

“We’re mariners, we live on the coast. Our community has always responded to vessels in distress,” Heiltsuk Chief Councillor K̓áwáziɫ Marilyn Slett said in an interview. “This MOU allows us to chart the next steps to expand response when it comes to oceans protection in Heiltsuk territory.”

Marilyn Slett

Heiltsuk Chief Councillor K̓áwáziɫ Marilyn Slett says a memorandum of understanding signed by the First Nation, the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada helps the Heiltsuk take the necessary steps to protect their territory. Photo: Louise Whitehouse / The Narwhal

Humchitt said the agreement cements the relationship between the Heiltsuk Nation and the federal agencies.

“It feels a little surreal to be honest,” she said. “It’s taken a lot of work to get here.” 

Roger Girouard, assistant commissioner for the Canadian Coast Guard, said the agreement charts a course for long-term, lasting relationships.

“I want it to be an example, to those that work for me and those youngsters in their community, that the leadership believes in each other,” he said. “We’ve arrived at a place where, yes, trust was in short supply once and has its tenuous moments still, but we have decided to take this step for the future.”

Heiltsuk-led response centre ‘something that needs to be celebrated’

Among the priorities listed in the document is developing a plan to improve communications between the federal agencies and the Heiltsuk Nation, and to figure out how everyone will work together if there is another incident.  

The agreement also outlines priorities for training the emergency response team, including providing members with the opportunity to participate in coast guard-led training exercises. The emergency response team will be Heiltsuk-based and staffed by members of the community. Humchitt said the coast guard has already taken action by committing to funding and training 12 people. The federal agencies also committed to seeking funding to purchase equipment for the response team.

It will take time to develop and complete the training and figure out how the team will complement existing spill response operations and how it fits into the nation’s vision for a Heiltsuk-based response centre. There isn’t a specific timeline in place, but Humchitt said the nation will be posting the opportunities soon and initial training will take place over the coming year. 

“Exploring the next steps to ensure protection of the marine management in Heiltsuk territory is exactly what this does — and that’s something that needs to be celebrated,” Humchitt said. 

A man cleans up diesel from the Nathan E. Stewart spill near Gale Creek, not far from Bella Bella, B.C., on Oct. 29, 2016. Photo: Tavish Campbell / Heiltsuk Tribal Council

Girouard said the agreement is a helpful reminder of what the shared goals are. 

“It gives us both a to-do list. I think it’s smart in terms of focusing on what the key priorities are.”

He added the process is challenging, in part because this kind of collaboration has never been done before.

“It’s going to be a bit of a crunchy conversation at times, but nothing new of value ever got built easily.”

In the meantime, plans for the Indigenous Marine Response Centre will move forward. The nation partnered with Horizon Maritime, a Canadian company that specializes in marine operations, to form Heiltsuk Horizon, which is currently looking into possible locations to build the response centre. 

The centre will be operated by 37 full-time local employees with intimate knowledge of the region, the tides and the weather conditions. It will be equipped with vessels and equipment designed to contain spills in the area, which is subject to extreme weather conditions and complex tidal systems. The centre’s location on the central coast will mean crews could respond to any emergencies in the territory within five hours or less. The Heiltsuk proposal estimates annual operating costs at $6.8 million. 

Spill response training complements other Heiltsuk initiatives to protect their territory     

Slett said the Heiltsuk are taking advantage of every opportunity available to increase capacity and develop knowledge.

Last year, for example, the Heiltsuk joined four other First Nations in forming Canada’s first Indigenous coast guard auxiliary. This provided the community with training and equipment to respond to marine emergencies. While the auxiliary is focused on search and rescue activities, its close collaboration with the coast guard helps Heiltsuk mariners understand how the federal agency operates. Funding for the auxiliary also equipped community boats with sophisticated communication and navigation equipment, which could be used in future emergency situations.  

one small boat next to a bigger boat

Members of the Canada’s first Indigenous coast guard auxiliary participate in a training exercise in Bamfield, B.C. Photo: Andrew Szeto / Coastal Nations Coast Guard Auxiliary

The community has also been developing maps that identify culturally sensitive areas, including important seafood resources such as clam beds. This information can be used to inform how responders, whether Heiltsuk or non-Indigenous, deal with potential spills. 

Humchitt said while the Heiltsuk Nation is still in a vulnerable position, if a ship got hung up on the rocks tomorrow, events would unfold differently. She explained that planning the Indigenous Marine Response Centre and communicating with the federal agencies has helped community members develop a deeper understanding of emergency response procedures.

“We know what an incident command post looks like, we are well versed in spill response techniques. Even just the jargon and speaking the language of spill response is something that we are now also versed in.”

Nathan E. Stewart

On Oct. 13, 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat ran aground near Bella Bella, B.C., spilling more than 110,000 litres of diesel and other pollutants into the heart of Heiltsuk territory. Photo: April Bencze / Heiltsuk Tribal Council

Heiltsuk knowledge and experience could support other coastal communities  

Slett said the Heiltsuk community has always fought to protect the land and waters, citing the nation’s support for the oil tanker moratorium and its testimonies at the National Energy Board hearing on the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline

“Our way of life and how we live is connected to our land and our waters,” Slett said. “It underscores everything that we do in terms of protecting the marine ecosystem.”

Heiltsuk Guardian Watchman Jordan Wilson

Heiltsuk men prepare salmon on their territory. The nation’s way of life is intimately connected to its waters, which it has worked hard to protect. Photo: Louise Whitehouse / The Narwhal

Hereditary Chief Harvey Humchitt told The Narwhal the sinking of the tugboat changed the way the community thought about its role in protecting B.C.’s waters.

“Heiltsuk have always relied on the ocean,” he said. “What we’ve experienced from Nathan E. Stewart, we would never want to see that happen to anyone on the coast.”

He said the Heiltsuk want to apply their knowledge to protect the waters for everyone, not just the community.  

His daughter agreed and said that all this work can serve as an example to other First Nations along the coast.

“Hopefully, one day, we’ll have our [Indigenous Marine Response Centre] built and it will be fully operational not only as a centre of excellence for spill response and emergency response and training for Heiltsuk, but also for our Indigenous relatives to the south and to the north,” she said.

The memorandum of understanding notes that the Heiltsuk-based team is a “pilot for what community-based oil spill response could look like in the central coast.” Slett and Humchitt said the nation is open to sharing knowledge with other Indigenous communities.

“As Indigenous people who are always here and always on the water, we are always going to be the first responders,” Humchitt said. “We need to have that technology, that knowledge, that equipment situated in our own territories, and people to be able to know what to do when there’s another incident. And the likelihood of another incident just increases as tanker traffic increases.”

“We just have to be prepared.”

Read more: Heiltsuk rising: inside the cultural resurgence of one B.C. First Nation

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Matt Simmons is a writer and editor based in Smithers, B.C., unceded Gidimt’en Clan territory, home of the Wet'suwet'en/Witsuwit’en Nation.…

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