Simgaget, sigadimanana. These words recognize the chiefs and matriarchs, in the language of the Gitga’at people. So many chiefs and matriarchs were present, in their button blanket regalia, that they filled up three rows along the end of the gymnasium where they sat for hours, watching over the speakers and the dancers.
It was February 4 and I was in Prince Rupert at a rally organized by the Gitga’at First Nation to say no to the proposed Enbridge pipeline and tankers project that would bring supertankers and the risk of oil spills to the Great Bear Rainforest.
It was a day to be inspired, with over 1,000 people marching through the streets and upwards of 2,000 people participating in the rally throughout the day. First Nations and nonaboriginal communities from across the north came together to show their support to the Gitga’at, to say no to the Enbridge pipeline and tankers, and yes to a future where our children can grow up knowing the taste of seafood. The main road was jam packed, with chiefs in their regalia and others carrying signs and banners, singing and drumming, carrying children on their shoulders and pushing strollers, many people chatting and meeting one another as they walked along. The elderly walked side-by-side with youth dripping fake oil. Members of the Gitga’at Nation wore maroon hoodies with a No Tankers logo on the back: a First Nations drawing of a face and hands, the eyes with oil tankers in them, dripping oily tears, the hands held up to say no.
(Speakers at the rally included representatives and chiefs from First Nations across northern B.C., along with Rafe Mair, Art Sterritt from Coastal First Nations, award-winning author Andrew Nikiforuk, documentary filmmaker Damien Gillis, tar sands photographer Garth Lenz, Mike Ambach from WWF, Clayton Thomas-Mullar from the Indigenous Environmental Network, and myself. Eleven year-old Ta’Kaiya Blaney received a standing ovation from the chiefs for her words and her songs. Other singers included Bif Naked, Murray Porter, Shane Yellowbird, Beth Humchitt, Peter Breeze, and Fara Palmer.)
On the street, and throughout the long day of speeches, dancing, and music in the arena, it became apparent that something is happening here. Our opposition to Enbridge is bringing us together. We are building community, we are getting to know one another, we are building solidarity between First Nations and nonaboriginal communities. With each step we take, with each rally, with each person speaking out, the future we want to see becomes more and more possible. A future with an oil-free coast, where First Nations governance authority is recognized, where we can continue to pull our dinner from the ocean, and have the opportunity to one day see a spirit bear.
There is strength in numbers, and strength in community. In Prince Rupert we were together with purpose, with courage and determination. There is no question that opposing these tankers is no small game, we are up against the global oil industry. But we know what would be lost in an oil spill, the jobs and wildlife and cultures and communities. And what is clear is that while the oil companies may have a whole lot of money, we—who have so much at stake—have a whole lot of heart.
Nowhere was this more evident than with the Gitga’at singers and dancers. The Gitga’at people live in Hartley Bay, which lies directly along the tanker route. Supertankers more than eight times larger than the Exxon Valdez would pass right in front of their village, and an oil spill would be catastrophic to their ability to harvest traditional foods from the land and ocean.
To understand the force of the dancers at the rally, keep in mind that generally my interactions with the people in Hartley Bay are characterized by smiles and laughter. Meetings are lightened up by their constant joking, and I’m kept on my toes trying to figure out when I’m being teased. On this day, there were no smiles or laughter on the dance floor. First the men entered, stepping slowly and drumming in unison. The look on their faces can only be described as fierce, and determined. Then came the women, singing with a force I’ve not heard from them before.
They are, it occurred to me, singing for their lives.
These people, this community, would not survive an oil spill. Even just the presence of the tankers would have an impact, on the safety of people fishing in small boats and on ecotourism, when the whales leave because they can no longer communicate over the underwater noise of the tankers. And even just the threat of this project is having an impact. The fear, in coastal communities, is palpable. People are living with stress and uncertainty. Helen Clifton, a matriarch in Hartley Bay, once said to me that when she thinks about the tankers she feels a sense of impending doom, that she has to struggle to rise above it and fight with all she’s got.
These singers were giving it their all, and let me tell you, they are strong. Their people have been living in the Great Bear Rainforest, governing the land and harvesting the resources, for thousands of years. When the Gitga’at say no to tankers, they are invoking their ancestral laws and constitutionally protected rights as aboriginal peoples to make decisions about what happens on their lands and waters. Laws and decision-making authority that our governments need to recognize and respect.
It was an honour to be there in support. I am humbled, and inspired, by the leadership shown by all the First Nations who are opposing these pipelines and tankers. Because it is not just their lands and their cultures that are at risk, it is my future also.
To the Gitga’at people who risk losing everything, keep singing. Know that across the province and beyond, there are so many of us, standing with you. Together, we will keep our coast oil-free.
Caitlyn Vernon is a Great Bear Rainforest campaigner with Sierra Club B.C.