You Can’t Eat Oil

For the Gitga’at, it’s not a question of if there will be an oil spill, but when.

(PHOTO CREDITS: Kate Turner)

VANCOUVER, BC, Feb. 19, 2012/ Troy Media/ - Imagine you’re grocery shopping with your family and you get to the store only to find that it’s closed. It’s almost dinnertime, so you try another one down the street. It’s closed too. You turn on your car radio and the newscaster announces that all the grocery stores in a 700-kilometre radius are closed, permanently.

What would you do?

That’s the question the Gitga’at First Nation of Hartley Bay, British Columbia are asking themselves about the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway oil tanker and pipeline project. Their community lies at the mouth of the Douglas Channel, the narrow channel that super tankers would navigate on their way to Kitimat, to load up with oil sands crude, bound for China. An oil spill in their territory would close their grocery store – the ocean – for hundreds if not thousands of kilometres.

It’s about food, not oil

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to visit Prince Rupert and witness the two-thousand citizen march against the Enbridge pipeline organized by the Gitga’at. These weren’t latte-sipping environmentalists; the marchers were fisherman, traditional harvesters, First Nations and soccer moms. Native and non-native, they were there to defend Canada’s Pacific coastal economy, and their way of life.

While I was visiting, I ate dinner at a local seafood restaurant, and I ordered a meal that included halibut, crab, salmon, prawns, mussels and clams. The chef and waitress were both First Nations, and they explained to me the importance of seafood and cultural practices like feasts. My Visa was maxed out and so was my stomach. I wish I could eat like that every night.

For the Gitga’at, that’s not a fancy dinner, that’s food on the table. Forty per cent (or more) of Gitga’at meals are traditionally sourced from country foods like the ones I was eating, as well as seaweed, oysters, herring, sea cucumber and harbour seal, often harvested in traditional harvesting camps. That’s according to socio-cultural studies filed by the Gitga’at with the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel, currently considering the Enbridge pipeline.

Harvesting and sharing traditional food is what defines the Gitga’at people. Feasts and potlatches were age-old traditions that reinforced the community’s sense of sharing and social identity, but they were banned by the government from 1885 to 1951. Like the residential schools, the ban was a deliberate attempt to kill First Nations culture. Fortunately, the traditions were kept alive. However, an oil spill near Hartley Bay, could wipe them out for good.

Who will rescue the rescuers?

When the BC Ferry Queen of the North sank in 2006, the Gitga’at were the first on the scene, saving passengers from the sinking ship and feeding them and keeping them warm in their community hall, which was transformed into a rescue centre. For their efforts, the Gitga’at received the Governor General’s Commendation for Outstanding Service, for “initiative, selflessness and an extraordinary commitment to the well-being of others.” Like the diesel fuel that still bubbles up from the ferry wreckage and pollutes their shellfish beds, forcing families to seek other harvesting grounds, it’s a memory that’s hard to forget.

It’s one that Canadians shouldn’t forget either.

For the Gitga’at, it’s not a question of if there will be an oil spill, but when, a contention supported by Enbridge’s refusal to guarantee there won’t be a spill.

Listening to the marine radio doesn’t inspire confidence. Foreign captains make navigational mistakes and confusion is common. Sometimes the marine pilots have to ask visiting ships if there is anyone on board who speaks English. Throw in unpredictable weather and legendary storms, and it’s easy to understand why there have been multiple sinkings and even more close calls over the years.

The Gitga’at are fishing people, but they’re also business people, developing their own hydropower project, eco-tourism and bear-viewing operations, and a partnership with a local luxury fishing lodge in the Great Bear Rainforest. They have more than 17 businesses producing millions of dollars in revenue. They are also involved in conservation efforts through their Guardian Watchmen program, one of the largest on the coast, monitoring and protecting the health of their ocean environment. Life should be good, but instead it’s stressful.

If the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline were ever approved, the traditional feasts and potlatches of the Gitga’at would take place in the permanent shadow of the threat of an oil spill. The grocery stores could be closed at any time.

Protecting the cultural vitality of the Gitga’at people is far more in Canada’s national interest than piping billions of barrels of unrefined oil to China. When the Queen of the North sank, the Gitga’at protected the well-being of total strangers. Now it’s our turn as Canadians and fellow citizens, to return the favour, by saying “no” to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway oil tanker and pipeline project.

There are better ways to serve the national interest. This pipeline is not one of them.

Andrew Frank is a citizen. He is also an instructor in the Environmental Protection Technology program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, British Columbia, and a communication specialist. To find out more, visit

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