In the waning light of November 14, 2016, the tugboat Nathan E. Stewart was finally lifted from the chilly water off British Columbia’s Athlone Island—32 days after it ran aground on its way south from Alaska.
When the tug struck the rocks on Edge Reef shortly after 1:00 a.m. on October 13, it was pushing a 10,000-tonne-capacity fuel barge. The barge was empty, but the tug still leaked about 110,000 liters of diesel and more than 2,200 liters of engine lubricants into the waters near Bella Bella, a town of 1,450 people in the traditional territory of the Heiltsuk First Nation. Strong winds and high tides pushed the fuel across Seaforth Channel and into Gale Creek, the site of an ancient Heiltsuk village, polluting critical marine habitats and harvesting sites.
“It was horrific—seeing the ocean full of diesel, and that sickening odor,” recalls Jordan Wilson, a Heiltsuk coastal guardian watchman, and one of the first on the scene. “All the hydraulic oils and engine oils—everything was just oozing out of that boat for weeks.”
With each tide, the toxins washed higher up on shorelines of surrounding islands. “That’s where I’d go to harvest food to share with my family and friends,” adds Wilson, “but not anymore.”
For many people outside the community, it was just another media story—a snapshot of a tragic event from a remote place. For locals, the spill lives on in myriad ways, with authorities still feeling the effects of a months-long drain on already strapped financial and human resources, and fishers unable to harvest manila clams and other species that may have been contaminated.
In Skidegate, British Columbia, a small village on Haida Gwaii, the Spirit Lake Trail winds its way from the island’s main highway, near the ferry terminal that connects Canada’s most westerly region to the mainland.
I follow it through the lush understory, weaving between the gnarled tops of wide tree stumps—the handiwork of loggers plying their trade sometime over the last century. From the tops of the trees, jet-black ravens scan for prey and places to land below, squawking loud objections to my presence. It’s almost as if they’re reminding me to be respectful; that this is a holy place.
Whether it’s the ancient cedar and spruce trees towering above mountainous terrain that continues to thrust ever higher above salt-water waves, or the aging totem poles that dot the many beaches, Haida Gwaii has a sacred quality that’s hard to define. But the area’s indigenous residents are hoping that sacred connection will help them gain control over land they’ve occupied for millennia.
Once called the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii is now the focal point of one of the most advanced Aboriginal rights and title cases in Canadian history, where First Nations and the Crown could create a new, sustainable model for managing the land they share. The Haida people, who have been fighting for control over their traditional territory for decades, contend that they legally own these lands and waters—and that could mean major challenges for industrial projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. The Haida are generally open to industry and development if it is sustainable and aligns with their values, but they argue this pipeline and tanker project should not go ahead, and are taking legal action to stop it.