The way we live now

There was a full hall in Old Massett on both Tuesday and Wednesday as the Enbridge Northern Gateway Joint Review Panel held the first of its intervenors hearings on Haida Gwaii this week. It was a great gathering – Haida chiefs and matriarchs, Council of the Haida Nation, Villages of Queen Charlotte, Masset and Port Clements and 400-500 witnesses filled the Old Massett Community Hall both days.

There were rough spots: the interruptive policing of what people could say, and could not say, throughout the community  (non-CHN) portions of the hearing; who was allowed to speak and who was not; and the clear perception of the Enbridge lawyer being a back seat driver. Apparently, in the environmental Joint Review Process, the Rules are the Rules. But it sure is difficult, if not impossible, to respect them, when the application of the Rules is so interruptive, and dis-respectful. To be fair, this is may not be the particular fault of the chairperson, Sheila Leggett, but her rulings were often inconsistent and seemed arbitrary.

This whole Hearing exercise of intervenor “oral evidence” confuses me. I have some idea what “oral evidence” means in the context of court processes, but I’ve searched through the JRP web site and documents and I don’t know where the precedent and authority for “oral evidence” might lie in the whole NEB Joint Review process. My inquiries with JPR staff didn’t help much either, although they were very nice about it, but vague.

(If anyone can enlighten me, I’d appreciate a note in the comment section on the About page.)

Nevertheless, all that being said, the Hearing presentations were brave, brilliant, knowledgeable and inspiring. Despite the interruptions and the tense moments, our spokespeople were strong, dignified, and when needed, persistent.

The whole exercise of oral testimony was a revelation in listening and learning in ways that many of us may have long forgotten –if we ever knew at all– what learning through experience and story feels like.

A map may be an image on a screen, or a page in a book, but its meaning is in the voices of the people who have been out on the sea and can name all those places: Dixon Entrance from Rose Spit to Langara Island; up and down Hecate Strait off the east coast to the Rupert Edge; and the open Pacific on the west coast.  People described what they have seen: the movement of huge flocks of birds (common and rare), whales of many species, the coming of herring and the re-charging of all ocean life in the spring; seals, sea lions, otters, dolphins; and fish, all the species of salmon – spring, coho, chum, pink, and sockeye- snapper, codfish, black cod, halibut. And all the sea food of the shores: cockles, mussels, scallops, abalone, chiton, seaweed, butter clams, razor clams, crab, octopus, sea urchin; also seaweed, and k’aaw (roe on kelp).

The sea provides a staple for most peoples menus every week. For many families it’s on the table every day. The sea provides trade, transportation, jobs, and income. It’s the place of origin and realm of supernatural beings.

The descriptions of a island life were full of living colour, so illustrative in voice and words, in images, sometimes in song and legend, and all spoke to the deep and meaningful relationship between Haida Gwaii and its people.

I’ve lived with Emsley and Nyna Williams, who are my mom’s parents, and Claude and Sarah Davidson. Claude is my dad’s dad. It is from them that I learned we treat Haida Gwaii like a person, that our island is living being. We are not here to take it for granted. We are — we show our island respect, appreciation and we are grateful for everything that it offers us.
– Leslie Brown, Old Massett

Speaker after speaker brought forward out of their personal knowledge all the ways in which we are connected to the land and the sea: in everything we see, hear, eat, smell, touch, in all that we do. They spoke about all that is creative — art, music, song and dance, story, myth, legend, ritual, custom, in words, speeches, films, in names, and naming, in lineage. The way we interact with our natural world forms the foundation of our responsibility and our ethic.

There were so many voices and words . . .  and all that words can’t say, where the spaces between words are quiet and full of implication; where fleeting images shown on a screen conjure memories, ideas, hope; when a song transports everyone from one space of feeling into another.

When the knowledge of individuals is told, and the reflection is in all the listeners, the cumulative effect is overwhelming.  It’s more like dreaming, and dreaming in a great story moving along in the flow of time from past, into the present and on to the future.


I think our ancestors experienced a lot of change in their life, from smallpox epidemics, when many people died, to being put on reserves and regulations restricting our activities. But an oil spill is going to have a permanent long-term effect on the environment around Haida Gwaii. I think it would be a different kind of effect on people but similar in a lot of ways to the smallpox, because it would affect the way that we live, as well as our relationship with the natural environment around Haida Gwaii.

– Russ Jones, Skidegate


The impacts of this project are not just marine. Land and sea are linked, and depending on the scale you choose, they are one ecosystem. People have talked about this, the rivers that connect mountain tops to the sea. One accident would not only risk loss of ocean resources that we harvest every year, but they would poison streams and rivers that feed bears and eagles, the forest.

-Catherine Rigg, Tlell

What strikes me about this process is that there are people in this room that have never been involved in anything before. There are heavy-duty mechanics; there are nurses; there are aerobics teachers; there are writers; there are artists. There are people who drive a B.C. Hydro truck. There are people who work at the grocery store. They’re all in this room.

And you might get the impression that we all like each other, and I can assure you, we don’t. (Applause…)

Commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen never see eye to eye.
So what’s important and what’s really quite incredible — and this is local knowledge because you wouldn’t know that if you just saw a group of people — never before have the islands come together, I think, in this significant way. This is an incredibly unifying process, and it is unprecedented, and I hope you appreciate just how significant that is to the islands.

-Catherine Rigg, Tlell

Transcripts can be found for Day One here and for Day Two here.


About blue sea sky

By Cynthia Jones Davies, writer researcher who lives on Haida Gwaii.
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