Opinion: New federal marine commitments are an important first step


Nobody knows better than First Nations the risks posed by marine shipping and the damage that accidents can wreak on communities. The sinking of the Columbia Layne barge near Kitasoo this week and the tragic diesel spill in Heiltsuk waters are stark evidence that, along most of B.C.’s central and north coasts, First Nations communities are the first to pay the price and the ones with the most to lose. This week’s federal announcement of significant new investments in shipping management and emergency response is therefore a welcomed and important first step in addressing shipping threats to B.C.’s coast.

Our support for these investments by no means implies that they pave the way for proposed new developments that would bring more ships to B.C. waters. This is not about expanding shipping traffic — it’s about taking long-overdue steps to deal with the risks and impacts of existing vessel traffic. To suggest otherwise is disrespectful to the First Nations responders and communities who deal directly with these issues on a daily basis. This is not an environmental political football — this is an opportunity to develop a better plan for managing existing commercial shipping on B.C.’s coast and to set a higher bar for emergency response.

The announcement’s emphasis on partnerships and co-management is key. For these new measures to succeed, Canada and First Nations must work in partnership to jointly plan and manage shipping activity and emergency response. We were pleased to hear this affirmed by the Prime Minister.

For more than a decade, Coastal First Nations members, and other Nations on B.C.’s coast, have been working together and with government to develop multi-use marine plans. We are also working with B.C. and Canada to develop a robust network of marine protected areas in the region. These plans are designed to protect ocean ecosystems, support diverse economic activities, and respect Aboriginal rights. We are looking forward to working with other First Nations, governments, shipping interests and other stakeholders to help align shipping activity with these values and uses.

Marine tragedies that reach the headlines make a compelling case for taking action on marine safety and better shipping management for B.C.’s north coast. The Russian cargo ship Simushir adrift off Haida Gwaii, the capsize in Ahousaht waters of the Leviathan II, and the sinking of the Queen of the North in Gitga’at territory are among the many examples. As Justin Trudeau noted in his opening remarks, First Nations are the heroic first responders for much of the coast — a role they voluntarily undertake at great personal risk and cost, and without adequate vessels, equipment or support. We look forward to working with Canada to ensure that First Nations have the resources, training and authority our communities need to put in place strong regional response plans.

Even in the absence of spills, vessel traffic has significant impacts. Chronic fuel spills and leakages threaten First Nations traditional food harvesting, cultural practices and community well-being. Ship strikes kill whales and other marine mammals, while underwater vessel noise interferes with their ability to feed, navigate and socialize. Ship hulls carry invasive species, and anchors can damage the seafloor. Large wakes scour the intertidal zone, affecting shellfish and other food harvests.

We want to see shipping done right. A regional shipping management plan will enable First Nations and shipping authorities to work together to identify routes or other measures to minimize impacts on sensitive sites and endangered species, and will support meaningful long-term investments in regional emergency response planning and response capacity. A shipping plan will also include environmental stewardship measures to examine and manage the overall impacts from shipping along B.C.’s north Pacific coast.

First Nations have used the Pacific north coast as an important trade route for millennia. Coastal First Nations and our supporters recognize that this historical route continues to be one of the country’s major trade corridors and that commercial shipping will remain an important industry for our region and for Canada.

Our vision for a regional shipping plan on the B.C. coast is one that upholds economic, cultural and community values for First Nations and coastal communities, as well as for British Columbians and Canada. Canada’s new commitments to partnerships in shipping management, marine response and environmental stewardship are an important first step. We have a lot of work ahead.

Marilyn Slett is president and Kelly Russ is board chair of the Coastal First Nations.