A healthy ocean relies on healthy Heiltsuk people and healthy Heiltsuk people rely on a healthy ocean. The relationship is inherently inalienable. Heiltsuk knowledge-keepers tell us that the marine and terrestrial environment cannot be separated. Our nuyem (oral history) tell us this. Western Science is only now coming to understand how interconnected these environs are.
The economy — especially in Heiltsuk homelands — depends on the environment. It depends on the health of the land and waters, to produce the gifts from the land and water. Prior to colonization, the Heiltsuk Nation had a strong economy throughout their whole territory. We relied on the abundance from the land, ocean and resources, and were innovative with our trade and economic relationships with other Nations throughout the Northwest Coast. With vast trading networks along the Northwest coast, into the interior, the Heiltsuk utilized this economic strength to our advantage in early commercial arrangements with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike.
Heiltsuk is entering into an era of renewed growth and vitality for our people, one based on the strength of modern entrepreneurship, court decisions affirming pre-existing Aboriginal rights (e.g., Gladstone), and an insistence that reconciliation between the Canada and Aboriginal peoples is an essential path forward. Heiltsuk people have had a distinctive and at times horrific relationship with Canada and those experiences demand reconciliation. Therefore, Canada’s approach to reconciliation ought to acknowledge and respond to this same distinctiveness. For the Heiltsuk, at least for the time being, in the context of the economy, reconciliation means: Heiltsuk economic development based in and owned/ driven by the Heiltsuk Nation and people- balancing ecological integrity with a vibrant economy, meaningful employment, development of sustainable infrastructure, capacity to create economic opportunities and benefits for the Heiltsuk Nation, and fostering and the health and well-being of all Heiltsuk peoples and territories in the economic development process.
Heiltsuk’s strong traditional governance is intrinsically intertwined with our relationship to the land and our economies.
The colonial system attempted to violently sever our deep connection to the ocean. The colonial system failed. But it continues to attempt to violently sever this deep connection. With the Nathan E. Stewart spill still polluting our waters to this day, and the Jake Shearer scare last fall, this disregard and unacceptable neglect for Indigenous jurisdiction became grossly apparent. If the government wants “Haíɫcístut,” or so- called reconciliation to be real, Canada would not accept of environmental damage from these articulated tug and barges, that are unfit to traverse our waters and inflict violence and damage onto our Heiltsuk community.
Reconciliation without restitution perpetuates a long-standing asymmetrical power dynamic between First Nations and Canada. By restitution, I mean creating the space to restore our Heiltsuk communities, our lands, our languages, systems of governance, our laws, our potlatches, our cultural practices, our knowledge systems and our waters.
Meaningful reconciliation means putting a stop to tankers and articulated tug barges, and enforcing harsher regulations for anyone traversing our waters. Meaningful reconciliation means supporting an Indigenous-led Marine Response Center (IMRC), for those closest to the ocean, those who have always been the ocean’s caretakers.
The Heiltsuk Nation is proposing a new pathway forward with Canada’s first Indigenous-led response centre. This is one act that aligns with our governance system and is a step to actualizing Heiltsuk self- determination with relationship to water. See the full report here.
When engaging with non-Indigenous people, I have noticed that some really do want change and reconciliation, but don’t know how to achieve it. Some are brave enough to have dialogue that includes relinquishing and addressing their privilege as beneficiaries of a system of dispossession, but encounter the barrier of the lack of a plan for change. The Heiltsuk have addressed this barrier with the Indigenous Marine Response Centre. Our IMRC proposal is to move forward together, with respect. It means cooperatively focusing on the health of the water that gives us all life. It is time for Canadians to heed the Heiltsuk’s vision and move forward in a good way. This is a clear path for non-Heiltsuk and non- Indigenous, especially in the era of accelerated climate change, rampant ocean pollution, and insatiable consumerism. This is a pragmatic path non-Heiltsuk people can follow that respects Heiltsuk knowledge.
Half the oxygen we breathe was created by plankton in the ocean. We are connected to ocean, land, flora, and fauna in ways that western science is only now coming to understand and articulate, yet our Nuyem (traditional stories) have always taught us. I invite you to invoke our knowledge system and ask yourself: Where does the seafood come from? Who harvested it? What is that seafood connected to? Where does the water I nourish my body with come from? Where does it go? What happens once it leaves your house? Our bodies are 60 percent water. Keeping in mind the importance of water helps build a collective consciousness of interconnectedness, sustainability, and interdependence.
It is time for Canada to heed the Heiltsuk’s leadership and seize this opportunity to breathe life into reconciliation by supporting the world’s first Indigenous Marine Response Centre.
First Nations Forward is produced in collaboration with the Real Estate Foundation of BC, I-SEA, Vancouver Foundation, McConnell Foundation, Vancity, Catherine Donnelly Foundation, Willow Grove Foundation, and the Donner Canadian Foundation. National Observer retains full and final editorial control over the reporting.
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