Yesterday I attended a feast, and although the menu included things I had never eaten before, like cockles, ooligans, sea cucumbers, and seal meat, that was, by far, not the most interesting part of the gathering. The feast, organized by what Canadian First Nations, was the largest ever congregation of indigenous people in this part of the world around a common issue. It was not the number of people that attended - 1500 by some people's count, but the number of tribes that traveled from all corners of this region to the small coastal town of Kitimat in British Columbia to voice their opposition to what can only be described as a modern-day Avatar.
At stake is not only the remarkable beauty of this shoreline, but the very livelihood of thousands of people who depend on the sea and its bounty to survive and maintain their cultural identity.
I spent the last week in Kyel, a remote fishing camp tucked away somewhere along this coast. Although people from nearby Hartley Bay actually relocate to Kyel for several weeks every Spring to harvest seaweed, hunt for seals, fish for halibut and catch the first big salmon that are swimming up the river, Kyel is so small, it doesn't even appear on any map. It is rare for the Gitga'at, the people who own this territory, to allow an outsider to come and spend time during the all important Spring harvest, but the threat they are facing is so terrifying and so massive, that I have been invited here as a part of an iLCP RAVE to help show the rest of the world the importance of healthy marine ecosystems to their people.
Every day the 40 or so inhabitants of the camp awake to a variety of activities that include "setting the gear", which means throwing a bunch of hooks tied to a long line and baited with rotting fish into a carefully selected location where the tides are right and the fish are resting, not traveling; slicing the fish, which involves making thin, carefully calculated slices of halibut meat according to knowledge passed from generation to generation; "turning the woks" which entails endlessly moving around the slices of halibut from one warm place over the stove to a sunny spot on the roof of the house on the rare occasions when the sun comes out. The amount of species of plants and animals that are harvested is remarkable, from seaweed to octopus to chitons and clams. Nothing is wasted and everything is carefully prepared to feed entire families for months at a time.
So what could threaten this idyllic lifestyle in such a remote part of the world? The answer is oil, and not just any oil, but what has come to be known as the "dirtiest oil on the planet". This oil is not pumped out from the earth or funneled from the bottom of the ocean; it is embedded into the sandy soils of what is known as the Alberta Tar Sands and unlike other crude oils, this one must be separated from the sand using potent chemicals that have already poisoned all the nearby rivers and landscapes. The idea now is to carry this oil to the shore of British Columbia, over 1500 miles away where it can be picked up by giant supertankers that will then transport it to countries like the United States. The problem is that not only will the pipeline cross over tens of important salmon rivers, once it reaches the shore it will have to be shipped through some of the most fragile and treacherous waterways in the world. The coastline of British Columbia is known for the beauty of this landscape; the endless array of small islands, fjords and inlets that form intricate channels and bays where whales frolic, bears and wolves roam, and people fish. A single oil spill here would be catastrophic. From what we have seen in recent weeks in the Gulf of Mexico and over the past 20 years from the Exxon Valdez to the Great Barrier Reef, an accident is not a matter of if, but of when.
The Kitimat feast is remarkable because it marks the beginning of a powerful opposition campaign, led by indigenous people to protect their shoreline from corporate intrusion. The iLCP is proud to partner with the Gitga'at people in this effort.
Support the iLCP Great Bear Rainforest RAVE