My pledge to protect the Gitga’at culture

Guest blog by Michael Uehara, president of King Pacific Lodge in Gitga’at territory

Two ravens crested the longhouse and caused me to look into the cold rain. They cawed almost mournfully as they alighted on the roof of the church. Hours before, three black fish had appeared out of a foggy mist to cross the bow of the boat. We had also seen bald eagles pause from eulachon hunting earlier on the Skeena River, to watch us steam by on our way to Hartley Bay. The arrival of the ravens had completed an homage to an honored triumvirate.

The appearance of the three reflected the clans of the Gitga’at nation – blackfish, eagle and raven.  This was appropriate for the occasion. A great Tsimshian Chief had left us.  It was March 2004.

Smoogit Wahmoodmx, Johnny Clifton, Blackfish Chief of the Gitga’at – my chief – died only hours after seeing Joe Morita (the owner of King Pacific Lodge) and me.  Johnny had taken time to show me the traditional Gitga’at territory that surrounds King Pacific Lodge.  From the ancient fish trap in Cameron Bay to some of the stands of medicinal trees in secret valleys on Princess Royal Island, Johnny unearthed the stories of the land for me and made it live.  What we think of as “wilderness” is often a product of careful, long-term stewardship of the land and its resources.

He had asked me to help in any way I could to protect the land and the culture of Gitga’at Nation.  I had no idea what a tall order that would be.  It was easy to keep such a promise in the heady days right after the establishment of the Great Bear Rainforest, a time when so many disparate parties came together in a moment of clarity to establish what the World Wildlife Fund would later award its Gift to the Earth prize to.

It the last few years, protecting Wahmoodmx’s world has become far more fraught with uncertainty.  The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker project seeks to ship 525,000 barrels a day of heavy crude oil on more than 200 supertankers.  These ships are twice the size of the Exxon Valdez and they will attempt to ply waters half as narrow as Prince William Sound.  Even in the interval before a catastrophic oil spill, the land and sea of the Great Bear will change.  Commercial and subsistence fishing may be stopped all together. Tourism would be finished.  I cannot envision the juxtaposition of remote wilderness tourism and oil tankers.  And though I will battle to keep my business viable, I recognize that in the greater scheme of things, this loss would pale in comparison to the destruction of Gitga’at culture.

The enduring lesson Wahmoodmx left me with is that we are all part of that stewardship.  Under his guidance, King Pacific Lodge signed the first-ever protocol between a First Nation and a tourism operator in British Columbia.  In this unique agreement, King Pacific has pledged to act as a good steward of the land.  We have also become members of the Hartley Bay community and take our role as individual and corporate citizens very seriously.

From this perspective, it is clear we must change the calculus. The current metrics invariably cast culture, environment and nature as boxes that can be checked off as impediments which are dealt with as so-called public reviews move inexorably to the approval of corporate plans.  We seem entranced by a wayward pedagogy that informs the zeitgeist with foolish choices like progress over environment, market forces over ancient cultures and, perhaps the most insidious false equation, profits over balance, over respect, over history, over happiness, over  humanity itself.

Our blithe acceptance of these “truths” forces a cruel portrait of our times. Here intact First Nations’ cultures must justify their existence somewhere in the language of the corporate balance sheet.  And along with them, we are all asked to calculate how many trees, streams, fish, bears, whales and cultures are we willing to sacrifice to accommodate a private economic plan.

Put simply:  this cannot be right.

What if the equation was flipped?  What if the question was: given that we will honor ancient cultures and the legacy of Wahmoodmx and protect the nature and environment of his territory, what are the possible activities allowed to enrich our material well-being?  What then would our answer be?

All small ways of bringing attention to the plight of the Great Bear are important.  Protecting the area will be about many of us establishing our own ties to it.  Cooking for a Cause on May 11 at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery in Richmond is a celebration of Gitga’at Culture and the Great Bear Rainforest, an area called the “Wildest Place in North America” by National Geographic Magazine.

The reception will feature an intimate evening of entertainment, including a solo acoustic performance by Matthew Good, and a culinary adventure of wine and cuisine, featuring ingredients from the Great Bear Rainforest and prepared by renowned chefs. Our hope is that by introducing you to this part of the world and the people that call it home, you too will understand why it is so important that we do everything possible to protect it.

I would like to give special thanks to the Gitga’at Nation for all that they have done and continue to do. In an area the world wishes to call the Great Bear, we know there has always been – and always will be – an even greater people. Our hope is that attendees will leave Cooking for a Cause on Friday night with a deeper understanding of what is really at stake and a desire to join the fight to protect our coasts – Wahmoodmx’s coast – and everything that means.

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