Bella Bella, British Columbia — When is environmental damage too much? When is it acceptable? In what is being called “a relatively tiny” marine oil spill, for the Heiltsuk First Nations of the Central Coast of BC, the question is being asked in quite real terms, forcing government to answer the questions that it might have preferred to have evaded.
Since running aground in mid-October, a small boat has been leaking oil into the Pacific Ocean, and along BC’s Central Coast. Despite the fact that this spill comes in the aftermath of the Royal Visit to the region — a visit that sought to place the health of the coastline and all the life that dwells there within the global lens — there appears to be very little international interest. Making matters worse, there appears to be little interest from Canadian lawmakers on how best to reduce the potential for disasters like this.
Along the Central Coast of British Columbia, the Great Bear Rainforest is seen as “one of the most pristine wilderness environments on earth.” Stretching approximately 400 kilometers along this sparsely populated area, the Great Bear Rainforest has long represented the very idea of conservation and intrinsic preservation to Canadians and environmentalists around the world.
Along with the Kermode Bear, the area made National Geographic’s “Places of a Lifetime” list and has been called the planet’s last large expanse of coastal temperate rain forest by people like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Natural beauty, conservation projects, and provincial parks are not, however, all the region is known for.
Of all things, the Central Coast offers access to the Pacific Ocean. It also provides a more-or-less direct line for fossil fuel exportation from various LNG (liquefied natural gas) sites around the province, as well as tar sands oil from the neighbouring province of Alberta.
North of Bella Bella, the town of Kitimat serves as the proposed terminal destination of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline, a project that has seen a great deal of protest that, in many ways, echoes the issues coming to a head in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. One of the most attractive aspects of the region, insofar as fossil fuel extraction is concerned, is the access it offers to Asian markets, pitting the desires of big oil corporations against those of First Nations and environmentalists, alike.
Even with the legislative death of Northern Gateway, the region continues to be the focal point for resource extraction. October’s oil spill — which is ongoing — provides a visceral reminder of what is at stake in such discussions, pushing many local residents to demand a full tanker ban along the Central Coast.
Yet, while the Coastal Rainforest is inundated with thousands of litres of oil, the federal government seems content to remain reactive. Rather than agreeing to the suggested ban, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instead proposed a $1.5 billion (CDN) fund to help deal with oil spills after they occur.
Reactive policies like this leave the fragile ecosystems found in the Central Coast region to suffer contamination before they are dealt with, and offer no change for the way issues of sovereignty are evaluated between First Nations and the colonial Canadian government.
Since his election in 2015, PM Trudeau has taken several quick steps back from his promises to respect First Nations’ sovereignty and deal with environmental issues. Although this “relatively tiny marine oil spill” can be seen as just that, a minor environmental issue that will be cleaned up with more federal money, there is a deeper implication that can be seen — one that pits ongoing environmental degradation and cultural assimilation and genocide against neoliberal economic policy.