The near two-year road to a Joint Review Panel recommendation on the Northern Gateway pipeline project began last Tuesday at the Haisla Recreation Centre in Kitamaat Village.
And the first day was given over to the Haisla with presentations by hereditary chiefs Sammy Robinson, Rod Bolton, Ken Hall, Clifford Smith, Marylin Furlan and Henry Amos, with Haisla Nation chief councillor Ellis Ross wrapping up the session.
Ross told the panel of Sheila Leggett (chairman), Kenneth Bateman and Hans Matthews that he was there to talk about the history of the Haisla, traditional knowledge and his personal experience.
“I think it’s really important for you to hear because right now we are making history, and you are part of our history.”
He explained that one day he would recount to his grandchildren what had happened at this hearing and the results.
Therefore, “it will become traditional knowledge.”
(Editor’s note: this hearing was intended to hear oral evidence, broadly described as traditional knowledge. In other words those making presentations were to outline their personal experiences and knowledge of the area and how the project might impact on the area.)
Ross pointed out he did not have the same traditional knowledge as Robinson or Amos.
That was because they got to go out and harvest oolichan from the Kitimat River and get “hands-on teaching” on all that entailed.
“I was too young to go up the Kitimat River before the oolichan was wiped out,” he explained.
So for him “it is not about this is where you go to fish, this is where your fishing camp is, it’s about this is where it used to be, this is what we used to do.”
Ross said a run that was estimated to once have been in the hundreds of thousands of tonnes had been reduced to as few as 50 individual oolichan a year.
And he knew that last figure because the Haisla were struggling ever year to find enough fish to test for tainting by effluent.
“If that was a commercially viable product, the whole country would have been up in arms demanding some sort of report and accountability from [federal Fisheries],” he said of the collapse of the oolichan run in the Kitimat.
Instead, “we got nothing, nobody came to our aid.”
Based on that traditional knowledge, Ross said his task was to ensure it didn’t happen again.
And, ideally, bring things back to what they were.
Ross said the Haisla’s history with industry had been one of promises of employment and no environmental impacts, “basically saying whatever they could to get their project approved. Then, less than 10 years later, we find out it was all a lie.”
And it was that history of the actions of government that made the Haisla very wary of processes such as the Joint Review Panel.
Ross said the Haisla were well aware of environmental assessment processes through its dealings with the BC government. And they had learned that technical expertise was “absolutely crucial, that it was not just a case of traditional knowledge.”
And suggested that if the emphasis had been on traditional knowledge in the past, “we’d still have oolichan stock.”
Turning to the salt chuck, Ross said his personal traditional knowledge began seven miles down the Douglas Channel, where he went to harvest fish, seals, sea cucumbers and other marine resources.
In contrast, the Elders used to be able to harvest shellfish right off the beach in front of the village.
Returning to oolichan, Ross said that in the past the Haisla produced “barrels upon barrels” of oolichan oil, enough to last the year. Now they had to rely on the generosity of the Nisga’a who provided them some fish – but that was only enough to fill small jars, not barrels.
As for answering the question of how much Haisla territory would be impacted by an oil spill, Ross said, “We don’t want to see it at all. This shouldn’t be a testing ground.”
Ross said he had been asked about what Northern Gateway could mean in terms of jobs for the Haisla. But while jobs for his people was a priority, “it’s not the top priority. I’ve got to answer the environmental question fully and foremost first. I’ve got to protect what we have in Haisla territory, I owe it to generations 50, 100, 150 years down the road.
“I’ve got to do my job.”
Ross said that if there had been one consistent theme to the last 60 years, it had been the Haisla had had to fight for the protection of their environment alone.
“We’ve had to find creative ways to fight, whether it be the Kitlope fight or the pulp and paper fight. We had no political support from anybody else. But I think that’s starting to change.
“If the picture I painted was a pretty depressing, gloomy picture, it’s because you can’t really whitewash what happened to the Haisla in the last 60 years. There’s no positive spin you can put on it. Every impact affected Haisla first, it affected them deeply and still continues to affect them today. You can’t hide it.”
And in closing, Ross issued a plea to the panel: “Please, don’t regard the Haisla as just this collateral damage assuring that this product gets to Asia. Don’t just consider the economics. Take what you’ve heard here, take their pain and their emotions and apply it to your decision-making.
“Apply it like it was happening to your own family. Apply it like it’s your heritage because, frankly, it is.”