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B.C. First Nation shares concerns over oil spills with UN

‘Right now the only losses compensated are economic’: Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett

First Nations leaders from B.C.’s Central Coast were in London, England in March to air concerns about oil spills.

The leaders were in London to meet with United Nations delegates of the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

“We raised issues of having shipping legislation be aligned with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP),” said Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) Chief Marilyn Slett. “Right now the only losses compensated are economic, not Indigenous cultural losses.”

The Heiltsuk have relied on the ocean for food and ceremonial purposes for 14,000 years.

After the Nathan E. Stewart tugboat ran aground and sunk in the Seaforth Channel near Bella Bella on Oct. 12, 2016 spilling approximately 110,000 litres of diesel and another 2,000 litres of lubricants into the ocean, the Heiltsuk were not compensated for the cultural losses endured, she said during a phone interview from London Thursday.

“We felt it was important to bring that issue here. We recognize these types of conversations need to start happening before changes will be made. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere.”

Joining Slett in London are Hereditary Chief Harvey Humchitt Sr., Heiltsuk Councillor Maria Martin, traditional leader Rory Housty and Humchitt’s wife Brenda Humchitt.

They participated in a panel discussion on Monday, March 18 and hosted a side presentation Wednesday, March 20, with the Inuit Circumpolar Council the same day, which they were told was one of the most well-attended side events ever at the IMO.

Heiltsuk Nation was invited by the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) to be part of its delegation.

The ICC is the only Indigenous non-governmental organization with provisional consultative status at the IMO, which means it can send delegates.

“It has been amazing to collaborate with the ICC,” Slett said, noting it was her first time in England and the first time there had been a joint delegation to the IMO.

Recalling the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart, she remembers receiving multiple phone calls that morning.

“There was a lot of emotion. We had several responders going out, including Harvey Humchitt Sr. who is with us here.”

There were feelings of helplessness once they heard of the boat’s grounding and the spilled diesel washing up onto Gale Creek.

It is an event the community will never forget, she added.

“At the onset there did not seem to be any coordination or plans around the response so that was something that was the catalyst for a lot of the work we have done first to have our own members trained in emergency response to build that capacity.”

Slett said there are 170 nation members at the conference and after their presentation they were approached by people from Fiji, Chile, Italy and the Marshall Islands thanking them for drawing attention to the aspect of cultural losses, not just economic.

“We travelled all this way and felt we’ve had a successful trip with people receiving our message,” Slett said.

Humchitt in a news release said the spill has caused a sense of disconnection and loss that can be compared to mourning the death of a loved one.

“It is unjust that Heiltsuk is still fighting to address our cultural losses from the spill, with no support from Canada or international laws.”

Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada president Lisa Koperqualuk said the ICC was pleased the Heiltsuk sent such a strong delegation to engage with international decision makers on shared concerns, such as inclusion of Indigenous cultural heritage in all aspects of the IMO’s work and regulations.

“We share these concerns with the Heiltsuk Nation and we will speak as one voice at the IMO.”

READ MORE: Mate asleep while on watch in B.C. tug incident, TSB report says

READ MORE: Poorly-managed fatigue led to Nathan E. Stewart fuel spill: transportation board

Monica Lamb-Yorski

About the Author: Monica Lamb-Yorski

A B.C. gal, I was born in Alert Bay, raised in Nelson, graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and wrote my first-ever article for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
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