This past October, there was a documentary by Karin Wells on CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition about a RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) to document and showcase the coastal British Columbia rainforest. The First Nation community of Hartley Bay, near Prince Rupert, coordinated it. Hartley Bay and the other aboriginal communities of the area asked photographers from all over the world to come to the northwest coast to capture its essence for the world to see what is valuable about it.
This project was the First Nations’ response to a plan by Enbridge to build the Northern Gateway Oil Pipeline. That would send oil and gas from the tar sands of Alberta to the Pacific coast for shipping to wherever. The pipeline would end at the seaport at Kitimat.
So oil and gas would be transported through pipelines across two provinces and then loaded onto supertankers which would navigate through the waters of the northwest coast to the open Pacific. Between Kitimat and open sea there still are plenty of islands, points of land and shallows a ship must navigate safely through. Many a slip between cup and lip, or oil sands and market.
Northwest Coast Ecosystem
In the summer of 1978, I went to the BC northwest coast to work for the Haisla Tribal Council.
Spearheaded by the band council of Kitimaat Village, the Tribal Council member bands were researching their traditional use of lands because of a proposed industrial development. Yep, that development was a pipeline from northern Alberta carrying oil and gas across the north to the port of Kitimat for transportation to US markets.
At that time, the tack taken by the Tribal Council was the practical need for the land and rivers to be kept usable for traditional food and resource harvesting. The heart of this research was the nutritional value of “country foods” compared to store-bought.
The First Nations believed that basing their opposition to the pipeline on demonstrable health and economic value of their traditional way of life would be more effective than only using land rights and cultural arguments. Aboriginal land rights and the overall importance of safeguarding land as part of preserving the environment and wildlife, maintaining First Nations’ sociocultural integrity, keeping material cultures alive, protecting historical economies are all valid points. But they can sound like so much blah blah blah to industrial developers and a public wanting cheap gasoline.
Country Food Study
A thriving natural environment, they wanted to demonstrate, meant a real and measurable quality of nutrition in First Nations diet. So the key person in this project was a nutritionist who weighed, measured and calculated nutritional content and values of traditional country foods and compared those to their store-bought equivalents.
She and anthropologist John Pritchard planned the research methodology and analytic framework. I replaced Dr. Pritchard in the actual community fieldwork when he had to take time off. Five villages were in the study: Kitamaat Village, Metlakatla, Fort Simpson, Kitkatla and Hartley Bay. After the data collection, we all convened in Victoria to analyze it. We had bags of food and lists of the quantities of wild food that people had in their freezers, in canning jars, smoked and dried – salmon, oolichan, game animals and birds, berries, tubers and greens.
Interviews gave us information on how much country food each household ate in a week and how much store-bought food. We asked householders how much they spent on food bought at local stores or supermarkets in Prince Rupert. We researched prices of store-bought food and calculated the cost if they had to replace the wild food with what was usually available in the stores. Also we calculated the cost of store-bought food that had the same nutritional value as country food.
Of course, we asked people about the social and cultural value of hunting and fishing. What it meant to them to be able to live on a diet familiar to their ancestors. We asked about the ritual aspects of hunting, fishing, food gathering and preparation. As well, we asked about the material culture parts of those activities. What equipment was needed, how did they make it, when and how did they learn these parts of their livelihood?
The results confirmed what the Tribal Council had thought. The nutritional value of country foods was far superior to that of store-bought meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. The expense of buying food to replace country food in their diet would be astronomical in these isolated villages. The quality of diet could not be matched with the income available to people. And, realistically, it would be impossible to stock such fresh, high-quality food in local stores.
It was a good and important study. In the end, they didn’t need it. That particular pipeline project died at the developer’s end as oil prices dropped. But the First Nations were happy to have the study. They knew it was only a matter of time before another pipeline was planned. And there has been talk of one over the years since then. And now there’s the Enbridge plan.
I hope the photographs and videos of the Great Bear Rainforest help stop the pipeline plan. I would hope common sense would prevail and the developers would see the folly of supertankers wending their way through the complex waterways of the northwest coast. When they’re in Kitamat or Prince Rupert, perhaps, they will look at the mountains and the sea. They will realize this is a fragile beauty that is necessary to keep safe.
The map and pipeline aerial photo are from the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline website. All others are from the iLCP Collection, Great Bear Rainforest RAVE Media Gallery. Photos are by Cristina Mittermeier, Florian Schulz, Jack Dykinga and Thomas P. Peschak.