[Editor’s Note: Often passed, seldom visited by outsiders, British Columbia’s Central Coast is home to the continent’s longest-settled places and most enduring peoples. In 2012, a special team of Tyee Solutions Society reporters spent some time there. What they found there was a land and culture that has thrived for thousands of years. These are some of those stories. This reporting was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI). TCI neither influences nor endorses the particular content of TSS’s reporting.]
Step ashore on the dock floats at Campbell Island, make your way past the rain shelter for people awaiting the next foot ferry to Shearwater on neighboring Denny Island, mount the gangway that slants up to the wharf, walk 100 meters uphill, and you’ll come to the Koeye Café.
It’s a compact, warm and cheerful establishment that, minus a few twists, would fit comfortably anywhere along Denman or the Drive in Vancouver. An alcove grouping of mismatched chairs for conversation, fresh-baked muffins (gluten-free!), the bracing aroma and hiss of lattes being made. Wifi.
Look up from your coffee though and you might notice the shelves of neatly catalogued books: the Koeye functions as a mini-library, with an emphasis on the environment. Above the books, cards illustrate the Heiltsuk alphabet. For sale, instead of CDs of repackaged oldies, are locally made jewelry, traditional cedar headbands, and less traditional hoody logo-wear in coastal First Nation motifs.
And around the small café’s walls, right up by the ceiling, are large sheets of Bristol board emblazoned with slogans: “Fish oil, not crude oil.” “This little bear is standing up for the great bear.” “We speak for our waters.” And, “Don’t waste 10,000 years.”
Chatting, I learn that the lean, forthright woman behind the counter has returned to live full-time in Bella Bella only recently after years away. There is an invigorating new spirit in the community of 1,600, she tells me, a change from the not-so-distant past: a solidarity, confidence and energy that have attracted her home.
The Koeye Café, which doubles as an impromptu tourist information center for the cruising boaters who find their way to Campbell Island, seems as good a metaphor as any for a First Nation firmly planted in the technologies and opportunities of the 21st century -- yet determined to be guided by codes of behavior evolved through millennia of traditional experience.
The café belongs to a community-based non-profit society. The grocery and general store upstairs belongs to the community Economic Development Corporation, as do a growing number of other enterprises. Community ownership and, more importantly, community-building, are explicit parts of all their business plans.
Bella Bella hardly embodies the Fraser Institute’s dream of privatizing the rez to bring First Nations into the era of globalization. Instead, a too-brief visitor comes away with the impression of something much more interesting: a plan to put the 21st century to work for the Heiltsuk that also hews to the most important rule of Gvi’ilas—translated variously as “traditional law” or way-of-life. That is, to “ensure [that] our lands and resources can support our people now and into the future.”
It’s an assurance conspicuously lacking for most of the rest of us aboard this overused planet.
Investments and returns
Three currents—figuratively warm, rich and deep—seem to be meeting in the present moment to bear the Central Coast’s largest and most dynamic First Nation forward.
A generation of investment in education has produced a crop of impressively qualified Heiltsuk professionals: lawyers, archaeologists, biologists and anthropologists. Three decades of constitutional and judicial advances—including a Supreme Court of Canada decision specifically confirming a Heiltsuk right to the so-called ‘SOK’ fishery, for herring spawn on kelp—have put muscle on the nation’s territorial claims.
And after a decade of planning, much of it undertaken with research collaborators at museums and universities from New York to Victoria, the Heiltsuk have a strategy for the new century that could almost be called a Stewardship Economy version 2.0.
To learn more, I continued a couple of streets up hill past the Koeye Café to Brown’s Restaurant—a home-style joint where the lunch crowd buzzes with conversation—and went left a block. There, in a second-floor office in a repurposed residence across the road from Bella Bella’s high school, I found Gary Wilson.
Wilson grew up here, the son of a fisherman. But like many of his generation who did, he left Bella Bella, at first for school—he earned a commerce degree—and later for a career. He worked for a decade and a half as a banker, specializing in financial advice for First Nations. He left that for another half-decade as a consultant. Now he’s home, bringing his business chops to the Heiltsuk Economic Development Corporation (HEDC) as its general manager.
He regards his mission as only beginning with improving returns from the corporation’s 14 operating subsidiaries. These range from the community store above the Koeye Café to a freight company, forest holdings and the local cable service. Most break even or turn a small profit. The rest, Wilson tells me, are “not quite in the black, but we’re working toward that.”
“But we have to find a balance,” he adds. “How much do I sacrifice sustainability for the sake of making a profit?” The HEDC, I learn, operates not just to the triple bottom line that other progressive enterprises pursue, of economic, environmental and social objectives, but to a quadruple one that also supports Heiltsuk culture. The businesses it owns must respect gvi’ilas as well as the terms of financial accountability and good corporate governance.
In Heiltsuk economics, he tells me, “We don’t see wealth in a bank account. We see wealth in families. We see wealth in what’s out there.” He waves at the islands visible through misty rain beyond his window.
Two groups of people particularly concern Wilson. “I always think of those children across the way in the school.” Then too, he adds, “We’ve got a hemorrhage of people moving away. How do we bring those people back?” he asks. “It’s very challenging to retain people when there’s not consistent [work] activity.”
Winter unemployment reaches 80 percent in Bella Bella. Every job is precious.
The corporation’s biggest achievement to date has been reopening a fish plant that had been mostly idle for the last decade. Once dedicated solely to processing brief runs of salmon, the plant is being retooled under HEDC ownership to handle a wider range of sea products, from sea cucumbers to farmed scallops, in hope of turning it into a 12-month business.
The Heiltsuk nation operates other ventures through the Coastal First Nations Great Bear Initiative. The Vancouver-based consortium of 10 nations, including Bella Bella’s Wuikinuxv, Nuxalk and Haida neighbors, coordinates planning and economic development opportunities on their shared landscape. One of its first projects is British Columbia’s biggest forest-based carbon offset scheme. The connections between our communities, our environment, and our economy,” echoes Wilson’s.
'Take a little, leave a lot'
Gvi’ilas enjoins resource managers to harvest widely but lightly, to "take a little and leave a lot," as a Heiltsuk Tribal Council brief puts it. It's a way to make sure there is always plenty of food or other resources available to harvest—and minimize the work of finding and collecting them. In business-speak: gvi'ilas ensures a high "catch per unit effort."
The system assigns harvesting rights and stewardship responsibilities for resources ranging from birds' eggs to salmon streams dispersed across the sprawling Heiltsuk territory, to hereditary families. The practice discourages over-exploitation of a particular resource. When harvests are lean or a family is in distress, it requires "reciprocal sharing with other households," either letting them use your clan's harvesting spots or simply sharing some of what you brought home.
But "take a little" and "share with others" are messages that don't grow naturally in the hyper-competitive, me-centered soil of the 21st century mainstream's consumer culture. The Heiltsuk have taken measures.
Yet another role the Koeye Café plays is as the office and headquarters of the Qqs Project Society. 'Qqs'—pronounced 'kucks'—means "eyes" in the Heiltsuk language, a metaphor for its mandate, "to open the eyes of our young people to their responsibility as stewards of our environment and culture." Since being established in 1999, its role has expanded beyond awakening Bella Bella's next generation to its heritage.
Qqs' executive director, somewhat unexpectedly, is a 60-ish white guy. Larry Jorgensen came to Bella Bella in the 1970s, fresh out of Waterloo Lutheran University in Ontario with a master's in community development, to help a community reeling in the face of a wave of youth suicides. He never left. He's held a variety of positions in the community's social service structure, and helped set up its restorative justice program.
At some point around 1990, Jorgensen says, a realization hit some in the community that, what with fast boats zipping people across the water in no time, and sockeye dwindling in a score of streams where fishing once drew families together, Heiltsuk children were losing those opportunities to learn about the landscape and practices that define their aboriginal identity.
Jorgensen helped secure financial support from a U.S. foundation to build 10 cabins in remote locations scattered about the Heiltsuk territory. Initially meant to provide places for families to take youngsters to reconnect with the land, the cabins continue to be used for that and other purposes—sheltering people gathering traditional medicines, or as isolation sites for people serving a restorative justice sentence.
The cabin-building also served a second purpose. "As we're doing that, we're always trying to build capacity," is how Jorgensen puts it, describing the hiring of one master carpenter to work with and train a crew of young apprentices.
"In 1999," he says, "we decided to set up a society to do more than build cabins."
Today, the nonprofit Qqs operates week-long summer camps for Bella Bella youth to learn about Heiltsuk culture, traditional resources and harvesting practices; it operates a coastal marine watch program in cooperation with the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department and Coastal First Nations; and it runs the Koeye Café.
It recently began consulting to forest companies as well, saving them money by identifying in advance where their cutting plans might threaten cultural, medicinal or environmental assets that could prompt "a battle" with natives. "The forest companies say 'Fantastic,'" Jorgensen tells me. "Because they can go back [and adjust their plans] before anybody spends any money
Qqs is conspicuously good at the digital-era skill of leveraging networks. Its allies include private philanthropies like the Vancouver and Diabetes foundations; academic researchers at SFU, UVic and UNBC; the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan as well as UBC's Museum of Anthropology (where Pam Brown, a Heiltsuk, is a curator).
But like a lot else that goes on here, Qqs' goals are framed for the long haul. The society continues its focus on strengthening local skills. As a young person, "you've got to be in school to work for us," Jorgensen says. But then, "we'll help you academically as well as financially through university."
"You don't get there overnight," Jorgensen observes. But give it a decade or so, "and you can take a generation of kids and have an impact."
A generation is not a long time for a people who claim a 10,000-year past.
Rory Housty attended one of Qqs' first camps. Now 24 and with a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology and First Nations studies under his belt, Housty moved home to Bella Bella in December 2011. Last summer he appeared before a federal panel seeking views on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, to pass on some of what he learned from his Qqs instructors.
"We are taught to respect Mother Earth and what she provides for us on a daily basis." Housty testified. "To only take what you need and not any more. These are lessons that are passed on from generation to generation, and it is these types of practices that keep our culture alive and thriving."
Gary Wilson also appeared, in his personal capacity. Speaking for his family and "on behalf of my future generations, because they can't speak for themselves," he said, "I have to reiterate, I am opposed to this project."
The shipping route proposed for tankers carrying bitumen from the Northern Gateway terminal at Kitimat passes along the northern edges of Heiltsuk territory. But winds and currents would likely carry any spilled cargo onto the rocky coastline and intimate back bays that sustained both the original Heiltsuk economy and the new version the nation is trying to build in the 21st century. The same, Wilson pointed out, would be true for the oily bilge water routinely discharged by tankers of any kind, including those loading liquified natural gas, another cargo proposed for Kitimat.
"We've always overcome adversity," Wilson told his panel listeners, "and I'm afraid that we will not be able to overcome this particular adversity."
Even without that, Bella Bella and its residents face continuing challenges. Empty and fire-damaged homes speak to troubled or absent families. Winter is coming, when unemployment spikes. The spasm of suicides that brought Ed Jorgensen here four decades ago is happily in the past, but a troubled youngster last year set fire to a lodge the Qqs Projects Society used for its training program.
Still, it was a setback, not a calamity. Construction is under way on a new lodge at the estuary of the Koeye River. "It's going to be bigger and better than ever," Jorgenson beams.
Bella Bella's Stewardship 2.0 economy turns out to feature many of the same qualities that sustained its 1.0 version for most of 10 millennia on this stern but generous coast: sharing resources; making every activity serve multiple purposes; doing all of it in a way that preserves the landscape's natural security and community's social capital; putting economy at the service of family well-being, not the other way 'round; taking the long-term view; investing in knowledge.
This series of special Tyee Solutions Society reports on British Columbia's Central Coast opened in the company of scientists searching for the earliest foundations of its enduring resilience. Eric Peterson, the philanthropist whose laboratory island supports much of that research, recalled for me that this coast and its inhabitants have been through more than one kind of "apocalypse" in the span of North American society.
An overworked planet, and our fractious human nature, invite even optimists to concede that we may be courting another. We will certainly need all the resilience we can summon.
We could do worse than take notes from what has worked for the Heiltsuk since there was nothing here but a bit of bracken squeezed between ice and sea.
Read more in this series: