Spill to Sustenance

Six years on from the fuel spill that devastated Heiltsuk waters and clam gardens, the nation is pulling together to proactively build food sovereignty

by Jamie-Leigh Gonzales

Heiltsuk | Image: ©Kris Krüg

The central coast rainforest, with its horizons of emerald islands roamed by wolves, orcas, and bears, is a source of life and wellbeing for all peoples who live there. The Heiltsuk Nation have lived off their land since time immemorial, and their culture is deeply rooted in the land and marine ecosystems. They continue to protect their relationship with the land against extractive industry and ongoing colonial practices that seek to eradicate Indigenous land stewardship.

In 2016, the Nathan E. Stewart tug ran aground, spilling over 110,000 litres of diesel oil in Heiltsuk waters of Gale Creek Pass. The devastating impacts on marine life and the surrounding ecosystem continue today, nearly six years after the spill. A healthy clam beach has yet to return, and the site remains a danger to the marine life, such as herring, salmon, and kelp, that once thrived there.

“I think it’s almost impossible to measure the full impact on our way of life for many of our families,” says Kelly Brown, Director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department. “I try not to measure the amount. We can calculate [the cost of the damage], but it won’t really matter because a lot of our people have lost access to those resources.”

Heiltsuk people have always practiced sustainable harvesting to ensure there would be access to these resources year after year. Families would harvest clams, herring roe, and other nutrient-dense foods from Gale Creek Pass. For countless generations, Heiltsuk have relied on this location to feed their families, as well as sustain their economic growth.

Heiltsuk people should have the right to define and control their own food systems.

Despite the 2016 oil spill, the threat of the Northern Gateway Pipeline running through their territory, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on remote communities, and more recently the DFO’s decision to close the Spawn on Kelp Fishery, the Heiltsuk people continue to be leaders in the Indigenous Food Sovereignty movement.

Heiltsuk people should have the right to define and control their own food systems. Despite ongoing threats to their food security, extensive work to become more autonomous in their access to food – including revitalizing ancestral knowledge of food resources around them – has become a focus for many in the Nation.

“We’re geographically remote enough that when we start seeing supply chain issues, it makes me nervous,” says Jess Housty, former Heiltsuk Tribal Council member and Executive Director of Qqs Projects Society, a non-profit that provides programming for Heiltsuk youth and families to learn from and on the land. “There’s not a lot of resilience built into [our] food economy; we’re very dependent on freight coming from outside.”

Housty was onsite at Gale Creek in the days and weeks following the 2016 spill. She says the grief and trauma the community has from the event is still being healed. “I carried a lot of deep guilt and shame and trauma that I couldn’t protect that place better as a Heiltsuk person in general: as someone who was responsible for the Stewardship portfolio when the spill happened, as an advocate when it came to marine shipping issues, and as incident commander for Heiltsuk during the spill.”

While the results of the Nation-led Environmental Assessment have yet to be released, the community continues to lead restoration efforts at the spill site. While Kelly Brown is hopeful that “at some point these beaches can go back to normal,” he says they are still many years away from that point.

Meanwhile, Housty has found healing through learning diverse ways to harvest other foods on their territory. Through Qqs programming, the Nation has started to revitalize culture and identity through connection to the land. Learning ancestral and modern foodways has included harvesting planted gardens, as well as foraging traditional medicines from the wild.

Qqs isn’t just looking to provide food for the families in Heiltsuk community for the short term; they are creating a roadmap for a long-term plan to food sovereignty for the remote nation. In 2020, Qqs conducted a Community Food Security assessment. “We had 92 households who engaged in a comprehensive survey looking at all aspects of food security in Bella Bella,” says Housty. “We asked for feedback on how people want to be supported to make their food secure.”

The result is a document that outlines 25 community-rooted recommendations on how people want support to make changes towards food security. These include requests to grow more food locally and to produce meat from the Bella Coola Valley. It also envisions working with other coastal communities to begin streamlining freight services in an effort to make shipped food more affordable.

There is a growing interest across the Heiltsuk community to continue to make changes to support Indigenous food sovereignty. “I see it blossoming more and more in the community,” Housty says.

Looking to the future, the Nation itself is writing a plan for food security into important documents like Heiltsuk’s Climate Action Plan. Housty is optimistic about what lies ahead. “It feels like we’re coming to a really beautiful moment where grassroots organizations like ours – and community members – are seeing that hard work being recognized at a more institutional level. I’m just really hopeful that that will catalyze even more growth so the community can become food secure and resilient in its food systems.”

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales is a Portuguese and Sḵwxwú7mesh mother living on the stolen lands of the lək̓ʷəŋən and W̱SÁNEĆ People. She is a co-founder at Grounded Futures: a media production and mentorship collaborative, and a Communications Strategist at RAVEN Trust.

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