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The Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) are marine people.

Our oral history confirms our existence in our territory since time immemorial. Archeological evidence corroborates that my people have continuously lived in relationship to our lands and waters for at least 14,000 years, over 700 generations.

Our relationship to and understanding of our lands and waters has been passed down from generation to generation. It has formed a rich cultural, social and spiritual relationship with our territory. Like a canoe, we are tethered to place (our home lands and waters), as we move through time.

We have a living symbiotic relationship to our ocean — the health of the ocean is reliant on a healthy Heiltsuk community, and the health of my community is reliant on a healthy ocean.

Coastal First Nations have long histories of being first responders and answering to distress calls from mariners both within and outside of their communities. Most recently, in 2006 the Gitga’at people who at the dead of night rescued survivors from the sinking of Queen of the North. In 2015, when the whale-watching boat, Leviathan II, suddenly capsized, tossing its passengers into the frigid water, the Ahousaht people rescued 21 people. In 2016, when the Nathan E. Stewart ran aground, the first people on the scene were the Heiltsuk.

Coastal First Nations continually take it upon ourselves to safeguard our waters. We have no formal role in marine response, yet we consistently take on this responsibility as owners and protectors of our waters.

Canada’s Ocean Protection Plan ( OPP ) has committed to working with First Nations to address the risk our coastal waters bear, yet the majority of the OPP funds have gone to augmenting their own federal programs — programs that have continually failed in marine response situations. Canada must now support a model from those who know the waters the best, have proven success in marine response and support Heiltsuk self-determination.

This is not a plea for different levels of government to “try to perceive and act from within an Indigenous worldview.” That’s too great a task for any government to accomplish other than our own. We have our governance systems that respect the ocean as a life-giving force, not merely as a shipping lane or resource to be controlled and exploited.

Our Heiltsuk language reflects our cherished relationship to water.

The significance of water and how it connects us as Heiltsuk can be seen in the self-identification of our tribes. The main tribes of the Heiltsuk self-identify in terms of our positions to the waters in our territories: the ‘Qvuqvaitxv, meaning people of the calm water; Wuyalitxv and Wuithitxv, meaning inside and outside water people; Xixis, meaning down river people and Yisdaitxv, meaning people of Yisda where mountains meet the sea.

These names show how inter-connected we are with the waters we call home. Our verbs also change in terms of where we are in relation to the water, which fosters an intimate relationship and amplifies the importance of water in our everyday lives.

As the rightful owners of the waters and lands, we continually find ourselves at odds with resource- management decisions made by other governments.

When Indigenous people speak of violence at the hands of the Canadian government, it is often framed in the past. Violence towards Heiltsuk people and the ocean is not a thing of the past. It continues today, and I would argue, in exacerbated forms. So-called “projects” and “industries” poison and destroy coastal ecosystems and watersheds that Heiltsuk, non-Heiltsuk people and non-humans rely on. Ducks, geese, whales, halibut, salmon, seals, wolves, bears, herring, ravens, eagles and others have as much of a right to clean water and […]

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