Staff and students from Bella Bella Community School are going hungry as part of a protest against Enbridge’s disputed Northern Gateway pipeline from the oil sands to the Northern BC coast.
The small island village of Bella Bella—home to the Heiltsuk First Nation—is taking part in a 48-hour hunger strike starting Sunday afternoon, drawing attention to the risks that oil pipelines and oil tankers pose to their precious food sources and traditional way of life.
“The thing about this community is that it relies so much on the food that’s gathered from the water. I mean, the list of food is endless,” said Rachel Horst, a teacher at the school and one of the event’s organizers.
“So a hunger strike makes perfect sense, because it’s the food that’s being jeopardized. Really, if there were to be a spill there would be, in a sense, a hunger strike because people wouldn’t be able to eat. There’s a huge reliance on what’s brought out of the water. People don’t realize how much.”
Kylie Gladstone, a grade 11 student taking part in the strike, said she is passionate about this issue because she understands how severely a potential oil spill would impact her family and friends.
“My family wouldn’t be able to harvest the resources that we harvest to eat, like fishing or seaweed picking,” said Gladstone.
Though this won’t be her first experience fasting, Gladstone said she’s still a bit anxious—and eager to find out what comes out of their protest.
“I hope that they realize how much of a big problem that this is going to cause on the coast, for all the First Nations communities and the non-First Nations communities, too,” she said.
The Joint Review Panel heads to Bella Bella
The actions coordinated by staff and students at the school were timed to coincide with the Joint Review Panel hearings scheduled to begin in Bella Bella on Monday. In addition to the 48-hour fast, members of the community have planned a rally for Sunday, lining the streets to confront panel members and Enbridge representatives visiting the small town.
According to the group’s Facebook page, almost 400 people from British Columbia and beyond have signed on to participate, with even more expected to join both in action and in spirit. The community of Xwisten near Lillooet, BC have announced plans to gather in solidarity with Bella Bella, as have individuals from Berkeley, California to London, England, and even Cairo.
“It’s beyond what we were hoping for,” said Horst.
“It’s really pretty exciting. The video we made as a school got 2,500 hits, and people from all over the world have been commenting and showing their support, emailing me and asking what they can do.”
“It was supposed to just be a small hunger strike, and then it travelled throughout Canada," added Bella Bella student Korin Humchitt.
“It feels like we achieved something…and it hasn’t even started yet.”
Humchitt is set to present an essay to the Joint Review Panel once the community hearings begin. Like many others from the school presenting oral statements, he says he hopes the panel will really listen to what the residents have to say.
Oil tankers will "ruin our land"
“When [the tankers] do come here, they’re going to ruin our land. And that’s all that we have, practically, to support ourselves. It’s what our ancestors lived off of,” Humchitt explained, emphasizing his fear of losing his Aboriginal culture, or missing out on the chance to teach his kids about the ocean.
“Everything’s in jeopardy right now,” said Courtney Reid, another student in the school’s Grade 12 First Nations Studies class.
“All our food and all our activities, we have on the water. All the memories I have could just become only memories, and my brother might not be able to experience what I have if a spill happens,” she said.
Violet Lindberg, a teacher from Whitehorse who moved to Bella Bella over a decade ago, explained that people in the community have a very intimate connection with their sacred waters.
“Besides working in the school, I take kids out on the boat all the time, as much as I possibly can…and I eat seven meals a week, if not twice a day, from this ocean. That’s what I survive on, this ocean. And when there’s an oil spill, what are we going to do?” asked Lindberg.
No support for Enbridge oil sands pipeline
She said that in Bella Bella, the entire community seems to have reached a consensus on what they think of the Enbridge proposal—so far, she doesn't know of anybody who's come out in favour of the pipeline.
During the hunger strike, Lindberg and Horst plan to stay with the students at the school, doing public speaking practice for the hearings and engaging in educational activities to beef up their knowledge on the issue. On Tuesday when the fasting ends, there will be a feast made up of local fish and other foods community members have gathered from the ocean.
“The students, when they speak to the panel, will invite the panel members to our feast,” said Lindberg.
“As Heiltsuk people we are welcoming to people within our community, and we want to make sure they feel welcome. But also, we want to show them the food that we do eat daily...I don’t know if they’ll actually come, but they will be invited.”