Everybody loves a good storyteller and I’m no exception.

Last week, I listened to some of the live streaming of the Enbridge hearings from Kitimaat, the First Nations village a few clicks outside the company town of Kitimat in northwest B.C.

It was the tail end of the first day and the Haisla’s Chief Councillor, Ellis Ross, was telling how Kitimaat was founded and the stories of betrayal over the years.

Now I’ve been to nearby Kitimat, and my memories are of a blue-collar town dominated by the blazing hot furnaces inside Alcan (now Rio Tinto Alcan);  the Eurocan Pulp and Paper mill spewing God knows what (now closed); and touring around Methanex  (also closed).  To be honest, I never even saw the native Indian village, on the east side of the Douglas Channel.

I’ve always known Kitimat and nearby Prince Rupert as shippers of the “dangerous and the dirty”.  If Enbridge has its way, shipping bitumen and condensate through the long fiords embracing the Northwest Coast will continue that tradition, managing to combine the  worst of both worlds: the dangerous (for the environment) and the dirty (heavy oil).

But Chief Ellis Ross and other members of the Haisla Nation took us back eloquently to the time before the “dangerous and the dirty”, before pollution wiped out the eulachon runs and when whales chased herring all the way up the Douglas Channel.

Here are three short stories from the testimony of Chief Ellis Ross, from the past, the recent past, and a possible future. His dad’s hereditary title was Haanatlenok, the founder of Kitamaat and it was a place no one wanted to live in at first, in the old days, he told the hearing.

Everybody else is terrified to come to this territory. “Why? Because there’s a monster living at the head of the Kitimat River. Everybody knows it so everybody clears away from here, steers away.

“Well, Waa-mis and his hunting party are the only ones brave enough to come here and check it out and they find out it’s not a monster.

“It’s thousands upon thousands of seagulls all rising in unison every time an eulachon run goes up the river and then landing again to feed on the eulachon. That’s what everybody thought was a monster.

“I can’t imagine that. If there’s thousands upon thousands of seagulls doing that at a distance of maybe greater than seven miles viewing it, imagine how much eulachon was in the river that those seagulls are feeding on.

Eulachons, or oolichans, are small fish with a really  high oil content that are an important part of the First Nations diet and heritage.

Here’s one of his Chief Ellis’s less happy stories, that came from when he was working for a marine company out of Kitimat trying to clean up a small oilspill.

A tugboat down at one of the docks sank, dumping all its diesel into the water,” he recalled.

“Well, we were called in, because we were the representative for Burrard Spill (a spill response company) for our region. Optimal conditions; the water’s calm, you’re working off the dock, you got every gear that you can think of, you can pack it down.

“We still couldn’t pick that diesel up. In fact, most of it got under the dock and it took a year for it to all leech out, but we spent a couple days down there trying to do what we could, basically mopping it up.

“When we were done with the absorbent pads and booms, the first thing we found out is that, actually, nobody wanted to deal with that product.

“Our company had an agreement with the pulp and paper mill to burn the product in their furnace, natural gas furnace, so the higher-ups agreed to it, but when we got to the door, their workers refused us.

“So we were stuck outside the pulp and paper mill with these bags and bags of booms and absorbent pads. So they came down with a condition. You guys can burn it in our furnace, but you guys have got to pack it up there yourselves.

“So covered in diesel, soaking wet, stink, and nobody wanted to come near us, we had to do it ourselves. Nobody would touch that.

The Eurocan pulp and paper mill closed down in 2010 and since then, the herring and the whales have started to come back to Douglas Channel. Here’s Chief Ellis’s third story, from just last year:

Last summer around midnight during the summer I could hear a whale. Now, I spent a better part of 10 years getting close to whales on my charter boat job, so I understood how to get close to humpbacks and great whales and killer whales.

“Well, midnight I hear this whale and it’s right outside the soccer field.  So my wife’s house is right down the soccer field, it’s waterfront, but I can hear this whale, and I can’t understand why it’s so close. Something’s got to be wrong.

“So I walk down there with my daughter, my youngest daughter, and I try to flash a light down there, and quickly figured out it’s not in trouble, it’s sleeping. It’s resting right outside our soccer field.

“You can’t imagine what that means to a First Nation’s that’s watched his territory get destroyed over 60 years. You can’t imagine the feeling. Then to see a herring run return.

“And not based on anything we’d done. There’s nothing that the federal government did that brought that back. There’s nothing that we did as a First Nations that brought that back. It was just a simple exercise of closing an effluent mill that was dumping a product that shouldn’t have been dumped in the first place.

“And how did they get there? Well they promised that there’d be lots of jobs. Well that didn’t work out too well. They promised there’d be no negative impact on the environment. That worked out worse than the jobs promise did.

“It’s a cliché to make promises and then break it to First Nations, but in our territory it happened over and over and over again.

He concluded his testimony against Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Project this way:

At the very least, the very least, in assessing this project, please, just don’t regard Haisla as just this collateral damage ensuring that this product gets to Asia. Don’t just consider the economics.

Take what you’ve heard here. Take their pain and their emotions and apply that to your decision-making. Apply it like it was happening to your own family. Apply it like it’s your heritage because, quite frankly, it is.

See my earlier posts:

* Enbridge releases tanker plans for Kitimat

* What if a tanker heading for Kitimat hit another vessel

* What if a containership ran aground on Nootka Island

* Tug escort rules vary in B.C.

(Posted by Alison Bate on January 21, 2012)

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