The Indigenous nation exposing the lie of Canada’s “world class” oil spill response

Photo: Tavish Campbell

A different kind of sentencing hearing took place today on B.C.’s central coast, in an area known as the Great Bear Rainforest.

Three years after the Nathan E. Stewart sank, spilling 110,000 litres of diesel, effluent, and engine oil into Heiltsuk fishing grounds, the Indigenous nation is still waiting for justice. Canada charged Kirby – the Texas-based corporation that owns the ship – with nine criminal violations, including violating the Fisheries Act, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, and the Pilotage Act, for not having a pilot on board the ship.

The company pled guilty to three of those nine counts, and was sentenced today – though the penalties, $2.9 million, will do little to disrupt business as usual for Kirby, a multi-billion dollar company and one of the world’s largest marine shipping companies.

“Today we’re witnessing the sentencing of Kirby. No matter what the ruling is, this is us, showing who we are, and starting our healing process.”

But business as usual looks very different when an Indigenous community is at the helm. According to Heiltsuk law, justice begins when offenders sit together with all of the parties impacted by the offence; a talking stick is passed so everyone has an opportunity to speak and to be heard.

This morning, in the Bella Bella Community School gym, Kirby representatives sat together with first responders, fishers, and community members. They heard testimony from victims of the spill, and were invited to witness first-hand how the community is struggling to recover from an accident that – far from Houston, where the company is based – may have seemed like a minor hiccup in Kirby’s global operations.

April Bencze

The community has suffered devastating losses – including the closure of fisheries that once supported many families in the remote coastal village. Surrounded by drummers, and dressed in her family’s regalia, Heiltsuk councillor Megan Humchitt fought back tears as she spoke. “Today we’re witnessing the sentencing of Kirby. No matter what the ruling is, this is us, showing who we are, and starting our healing process.” MORE