Tongue of the Sea

Judy Williams

The Gitga’at Nation residents of Hartley Bay, BC, spent June 20, 2014 stringing a 20,000 foot crocheted “Chain of Hope” across the 11,544 foot entrance to Douglas Channel from Hawkesbury Island to their home village.

Gitga’at canoeThe Chain of Hope marks the proposed exit route for tankers carrying Alberta tar sands bitumen from Kitimat to Asia. The bitumen is to arrive on the coast from Alberta via the intended Northern Gateway Pipeline, approved by the Canadian Government against a wave of public protest.

Gitga’at elder Lynne Hill, instigator of the crocheted chain, said: “I look out my window and I can see the Douglas Channel, and those tankers will be right in front of our door step.

“We can’t stand on the water as you would if you were going to blockade the road. I just thought that many women create beautiful things in their homes out of crochet — that somehow we can use that. Even though we are very small, we have everything to lose and we’re going to do what it takes to make sure we can try to protect what we have.”

Made of various coloured yarns, by women aged 4 to 80, the chain was rolled on a huge spool and carried by traditional canoe across what were very choppy waters. Hill said they would eventually take the “Chain of Hope” out of the water and symbolically burn it, in their aboriginal tradition of using fire to send valuable possessions on to those who have died.

The simplicity and delicacy of the chain laid at the threshold of an enormous environmental threat was a reminder of the need to protect the fragile ecosystems providing a large part of this remote village’s sustenance. Hill’s acknowledgement: Even though we are very small . . . is reminiscent of the great Dance of the Animals presented by some Kwagiulth people when, at the end, the children dance out masked as Bees and sing: Even though we are the last, we still count.

Gitga’at women crochetWhile writing Clam Gardens: Aboriginal Mariculture on Canada’s Westcoast and traveling into Gitga’at territory, I became acutely aware of the effect any large vessel wake or bitumen spill might have on the delicate, interlocking coastal sea-life systems. No oil spill response protocol invented will ever be able to restore the area if there is an accident. There will be an accident. The exit from Douglas Channel is small and encumbered by islands that necessitate sharp turns in confined spaces. The super tankers, up to 334 meters long and 59 meters wide and holding bitumen up to the equivalent of the contents of 138 Olympic sized pools, must pass Hawkesbury Island and angle west between Gil Island and Princess Royal Island, home of the famous white “Spirit Bears”, and then west past Campania and Dewdney Islands to gain the open ocean.

The B.C. ferry Queen of the North, still sunk at Gil Island, is quite enough of an ongoing threat to local shellfish and rockfish habitat. When the ferry sank, in the middle of the night on March 22, 2006, the people of Hartley Bay responded. They rescued, clothed, fed and housed the 101 passengers and crew until help arrived. It was proposed that the new ferry built for that route be named the “Spirit of Hartley Bay” in acknowledgement of their generosity, but the B.C. Ferry Corporation refused.

Gitga’at women, No tankersPerhaps the public believes the recent Canadian Supreme Court decision allowing for a broader First Nations claim to their traditional territories will solve the bitumen transport threat via Aboriginal Land Claims. Are we relying on Gitga’at spirit to rescue us from our Federal Government’s ecologically threatening decision regarding Douglas Channel?

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[Judith M. Williams is the author of Two Wolves at the Dawn of Time, Dynamite Stories, High Slack: Waddington’s Gold Road and the Bute Inlet Massacre of 1864, and Clam Gardens: Aboriginal Mariculture on Canada’s West Coast. See: Judithmwilliams.com