SpruceRoots Magazine - December 2001


hearing impaired

Oil and Gas Leases and Lease Holders - the shaded area at the southern end of Haida Gwaii is the proposed Gwaii Haanas Marine Protected Area. Here for facts & figures.

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The government finally showed up to hear what people on Haida Gwaii think about lifting the moratorium on offshore oil and gas exploration on November 28th, and what a pathetic excuse for government it was.

Six backbench-riding MLA's, all of them men, five of them so green they are still measuring their experience as provincial politicians in months. No microphones, no minute-takers, no cabinet members. No one with any real authority, and the only one at all familiar with the issue, our own MLA Bill Belsey, has already very firmly and publicly declared himself to be in favour of lifting the ban on offshore drilling.

The Task Force is touring coastal and northern com-munities to find out where residents stand on the issue of the moratorium. What they hear, along with written submissions received before Dec. 11, will be compiled in a report they will submit to the Minister of Energy and Mines in January. The minister will also receive a scientific report examining the issue authored by professors from three BC universities. After considering the findings from both reports, the minister and the Liberal government will make an announcement concerning their intentions.

And while the province's position on the issue may still be open to debate, the people of Haida Gwaii were very clear about where they stand. So clear, in fact, that even the most unseasoned politician could not mistake how islanders feel about this issue.

"The Charlottes are split right down the middle on the issue of the moratorium," one unnamed MLA remarked after the meetings. "Those that are opposed lifting it, and those that that are really, really, opposed to lifting it."

Fifty presenters rose before the Offshore Oil and Gas Task Force in Masset and Skidegate and gave the rookies what-for. Of them, only one resident of Haida Gwaii completely endorsed lifting the moratorium: embattled Port Clements mayor Joan Ann Allen, who was in Ottawa lobbying the feds to lift the ban earlier this year, and was roundly booed by a boisterous anti-oil crowd in Masset.

Outside on the deck of the Skidegate community hall, most of the MLAs were gulping down cigarette smoke like drowning men rescued from the chuck after a four-hour session where not one of the thirty speakers supported inviting an oil rush to BC's coast.

"The report will say what we heard," Task Force chair Blair Lekstrom said, "and what we heard today is very clear."

It was clear from the beginning when Kevin Borserio said, "every cell in my body and my spirit speaks against lifting the moratorium," to the end when Gary Russ read a joint press release issued by the Tsimshian and Haida nations proclaiming they "continue to support the moratorium on offshore oil and gas exploration."

Liam Davis pointed to the unsettled aboriginal title question and declared, "to try and sneak something like this through now would be very dishonourable, and it would make me ashamed to be a Canadian," to loud applause from the audience which at its peak numbered eighty strong.

But the loudest and most heartfelt applause of the evening came after a joint presentation by Diane Brown and Jenny Cross who received a sustained standing ovation. Like many presenters, Brown expressed deep misgivings over the threat offshore drilling poses to fish and marine life which are integral elements in Haida history, culture and diet. She lamented the fact that time and again she was forced to appear before government panels like the Task Force and defend the right of Haida people to the way of life their ancestors enjoyed.

"Our relationship to Haida Gwaii is not just that we own her, but that we have a spiritual connection to the land. We are alive and well in our culture because of our connection to the land. It's very necessary to our well-being for the oceans to stay pure," she said. "You can't be digging around out there; you can't put what's left of us at risk. I'd rather share it with the whales than with Chevron."

When she was finished speaking Cross entered the hall with two cedar platters laden with food gathered from Haida Gwaii and the sea she said she wanted to offer to her ancestors. There was roe-on-kelp, red snapper, mussels, clams, salmon, oolichan, and several species of berry. The politicians perked up at the sight of the food but Cross had no intention of offering it to them. While Brown said a prayer in Haida, a rapt and silent audience watched while Cross produced a quart of motor oil she obviously meant to pour over the bounty the islands had provided.

Aghast, every stare in the old hall was transfixed upon Cross when at the last moment she stilled her hand and said, "I can't do this, my heart is telling me it's wrong." She said with oil all over the food she would not be able to bury it, she didn't know what she could do with it. Cross then capped the oil and placed it on the table before Lekstrom, the chair of the Task Force, and carried the unspoiled food out of the hall leaving a thundering ovation in her wake. There were tears in eyes of many onlookers, and even the panel seemed moved by the compelling performance the two women delivered.

Before and after the chorus continued. Chief Watson Price, Chief Dempsey Collinson, Al Cowan, Robert Dud-oward, Jim Sofra, Lynn Lee, Tracy Morton, Gary Wunsch, Don Plumb, Gilbert Parnell, Chief John Williams, Colin Richardson, Patrick Lemaire, Leslie Foster, Peter Hamel, and many others rose and spoke eloquently, passionately, and convincingly in a veritable parade of opposition to any attempt at lifting the moratorium.

Guujaaw, speaking on his own behalf, summed up the proceedings when he said, "what you hear today are people satisfied with their lives and who don't want changes. It shouldn't be a surprise that people who live around crabs, whales, salmon, and shellfish care about them."

But there are problems with the process. Leslie Johnson wanted to know why the public would not get the chance to address the findings of the scientific panel and suggested to hear the public out now was putting the cart before the horse. Lekstrom conceded the point but offered no solution.

After the meeting Lekstrom said the government had not committed to any action on the moratorium, that the Task Force is only charged with reporting the views of the people, and that those views will ultimately decide what the government chooses to do.

"It's not a done deal in my mind," he said. "If all the science in the world said it was completely safe and the people still don't want it, then we would have a real issue."

So far, with one exception, what the people are saying is that they don't want to see oil on BC's coast. Haida Gwaii was the second stop on the Task Force tour. At the first, in Port Hardy, only a dozen people showed up and one lone voice spoke against lifting the moratorium. There were, however, a number of Sointula residents who were denied an opportunity to present when the meeting degenerated into an acrimonious shouting match and was cut short by an hour and fifteen minutes.

This was not an isolated incident. It seems wherever the Task Force encounters opposition to exploration (except for Haida Gwaii), it's in a hurry to shut the meetings down and deny the public a chance to record their dissent.

From Haida Gwaii the panel headed to Bella Bella on Nov. 29th where a meeting was scheduled from 10am until 2pm. The presenters were largely opposed to lifting the moratorium and the panel shut down the event two hours early, canceling the open mike portion. In Bella Coola, matters were worse.

Here the meetings were only advertised a few days prior to the event, without revealing the location. The Nuxalt Band Council and hereditary chiefs were not informed of the meeting, neither was the local reporter. Nevertheless, thirty people tracked down the panel, and most wanted the moratorium to remain in place. Once again the meeting was called off two hours early while presenters were still arriving. The curtailed opportunity to speak, the lack of advertising, and the undisclosed location prompted many in the community to comment that it seemed like the Task Force did not want the public to know the meeting was taking place.

The Task Force is back in Victoria for a spell before it heads north once more for meetings in Kitimat, Terrace, Kitkatla, and finally Prince Rupert on Dec. 11.

There is still time to for you to add your voice to those against lifting the moratorium either by signing a petition circulating around local communities, or sending a written submission to the Task Force at:

Attention: Blair Lekstrom
Chair, Offshore Oil and Gas Taskforce
East Annex
Parliament Buildings
Victoria, BC
V8V 1X4

or email <oilandgastaskforce@leg.bc.ca

If you choose to send a written submission please take the time to forward a copy to the Living Oceans Society. Living Oceans is concerned that in light of the Task Force's posture towards those in favour of maintaining the moratorium that their views will not be properly represented in the final report. You can send copies of your submissions either by e-mail to:

< oonagh@livingoceans.org >

Or by mail to:
Living Oceans Society
Box 166
Sointula, BC
V0N 3E0

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Map - Gowgaia Mapping Program

SpruceRoots Magazine - December 2001