Heiltsuk First Nation says oil spill underlines lack of federal commitment

B.C. First Nation slams response to tug sinking

VANCOUVER — The federal government’s commitment to First Nations has been criticized in a report from a British Columbia First Nation after last year’s sinking of a tug in the waters off the renowned Great Bear Rainforest.

The Heiltsuk Tribal Council report released Thursday found failures in Canada’s emergency response measures were evident within hours of the grounding of the Nathan E. Stewart on Oct. 13, 2016.

It examined the first 48 hours of the emergency, which began when the vessel pushing an empty barge missed at least one course change and hit rocks west of Bella Bella, causing a spill of more than 110,000 litres of diesel.

Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett said the tribal council encountered a lack of co-operation from the government and the owner of the tug throughout the incident, forcing the First Nation to launch its own investigation in order to answer questions from the community.

“The Heiltsuk undertook this investigation in our territory as an act of defining who we are,” she said in an interview.

“This whole process was never set up to include First Nations communities so right from the start we were not so much as an afterthought with the process that was being rolled out in our own traditional territories,” Slett said.

The report said the Transportation Safety Board and ship owner Kirby Corp. repeatedly rebuffed requests to provide details to the council about the ship’s log, black box, crew training or history.

“Although informed of Heiltsuk’s aboriginal right to self-government, these organizations failed or refused to provide the requested information and documentation.”

Spill response materials were also unavailable or ineffective, Slett said, adding there was confusion over who was in charge, which she called “disheartening” at a chaotic time when the fuel spill was impacting “every aspect of our Heiltsuk sense of well-being.”

A Department of Fisheries emergency harvesting closure remains in effect for Gale Creek, a key source of Heiltsuk food and income.

The report said the Heiltsuk harvests at least 25 food species from the affected area, and Gale Creek is the location of the nation’s manila clam commercial harvest.

No one at Transport Canada was available for an interview, but a spokeswoman said in a statement that the department is committed to building strong relationships with indigenous communities on the West Coast and will be meeting with the Heiltsuk to review what they’ve collectively learned from the incident.

The investigation process is ongoing and it would be inappropriate to comment further, the statement from Sara Johnson said.

Transportation Safety Board spokesman Chris Krepski said the agency is conducting its own investigation and that senior investigators met with officials from the Heiltsuk to explain the legislation process.

“We are interested in obtaining the perspective of the Heiltsuk First Nation first responders, as well as the views of their community, and we will review the report they released closely and any investigation they wish to share as part of the investigation.

Before the spill, the First Nation had signed an agreement with the federal government, providing for joint decision-making over land and marine resources, but Slett said they were never consulted about issues that could have averted the spill or reduced its effects.

The report said the Heiltsuk, along with other coastal First Nations, oppose oil tanker shipping through their territories and support a ban on oil tanker traffic along the north coast.

Slett said coastal communities remain at risk unless spill response is improved.

“After that (we need) a greater say in shipping management in terms of what the shipping regime will look like as these tankers and articulated tugs traverse through our territories.”

Last November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $1.5-billion Ocean Protection Plan meant to improve marine safety, protect marine environments and offer new possibilities for indigenous and coastal communities.


Beth Leighton, The Canadian Press

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